Kosher Movies: The Island

I live in a city in Israel with a very diverse population, both religious and non-religious. Even within the religious community, there are divisions. All factions believe there is a God in the world, that He gave us in the Bible instructions for living, and that there is accountability for what we do and do not do, if not in this world, then in the next.

In spite of these commonalities, the groups differ in how they express these deeply held beliefs. One group maintains its beliefs but engages in the world, feeling that the outside world has much to offer but that we have to discriminate between the wheat and chaff of secular culture. The other group believes that interaction with the outside world can be fatal. It can contaminate our faith and leave us bereft of holiness. The consequences of separation from the outside world is the subject of The Island, a science-fiction adventure in which a population is kept in isolation for a nefarious purpose and where conformity to the existing order is valued above all. When people are trained to dress alike and think alike and perform similar tasks, there is less likelihood of a challenge to the status quo, leaving those in authority with free reign to do as they will.

It is the year 2019. Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta live in an isolated district, governed by rigid protocols. The community is trained to believe that the outside world is contaminated with the exception of one island. Periodically, a lottery is held in which one resident is selected to leave the isolated district and live on the island, where they will have an ideal life.

Lincoln discovers serendipitously that the earth is not really contaminated. Further investigation reveals that the lottery is a ruse to remove residents from the compound in order to kill them and harvest their organs on behalf of wealthy donors, who have invested large sums of money to manufacture clones of themselves so that they can live longer. Dr. Merrick, the scientist in charge of the project, suspects Lincoln of subverting his plans and launches a full-scale effort to destroy him and Jordan Two Delta, who has partnered with Lincoln in a bold escape from the compound. For Merrick, any attempt to undermine the conformity of life at the compound is a threat to his power.

Conformity alone is not a Jewish ideal. Jewish tradition encourages conformity when conformity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In an insightful essay on religious conformity, Rabbi Marc Angel writes: “Rabbinic teaching has it that the Sodomites placed visitors in a bed. If the person was too short, he was stretched until he fit the bed. If he was too tall, his legs were cut off so that he fit the bed. This parable is not, I think, merely referring to the desire for physical uniformity; the people of Sodom wanted everyone to fit the same pattern, to think alike, to conform to the mores of the Sodomites. They fostered and enforced conformity in an extreme way.” This is akin to the extreme sameness fostered in Merrick’s compound, a conformity imposed by authority that is used solely to take advantage and exploit people.

This is not the Jewish way. The Island reminds us that to develop as human beings, as reflections of the Divine, expressing our individuality is essential. Loyalty to the eternal and commonly-held values that have kept us together for millennia does not preclude thinking for oneself. Indeed, thinking for oneself is an affirmation of the divinity within us.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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