Kosher Movies: The Truman Show

I remember hearing a lecture by the great sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a master of Torah studies as well as Philosophy, who observed that some of man’s most important decisions are based on instinct and emotion rather than deliberate forethought. As an example, he cited his decision to marry his wife. At the end of the day, it was emotion, not logic, that moved him.

When I was a young college student immersed in both general and Judaic studies, it was a revelation to hear this. I naively assumed that the great Torah scholars always made important life decisions based only on careful calculation, not by stirrings of the heart. Here I heard that, while reason is important, there are times in life when emotion trumps reason and understandably so.

I thought of this as I watched The Truman Show, a fantasy about Truman Burbank, the star of a reality television program which has been filming Truman’s entire life since birth with thousands of hidden cameras 24 hours a day. Actors play Truman’s family and friends and Truman is unaware that his life is being manipulated by others. Indeed, everything in Truman’s life is planned by others. Who he meets, who he befriends, even who he marries is determined for him. Cristof, the mastermind behind the TV program, creates an alternate reality in which Truman will be fearful of any deviation from the norm. He wants Truman to lose any desire to explore new places and have new experiences, so that The Truman Show can go on forever mesmerizing its viewer audience.

But trouble looms when, during the 30th year of the show, Truman begins to question some of the givens of his idyllic existence. He notices that he meets the same people every morning in exactly the same sequence, he has exactly the same conversations with them, and he wonders why his wife unexpectedly starts touting the benefits of a supermarket product in the middle of a serious conversation.

When Truman seeks to escape his mundane but perfect world, he encounters many obstacles. He cannot arrange for airline flights, the bus for which he buys a ticket to travel to a distant city breaks down before it even leaves the terminal, and when he drives, police stop and warn him of an impending forest fire up ahead. His skepticism about the authenticity of his life is acutely felt when a police officer he has never met calls him by his first name.

Desperate and emotionally isolated, Truman on one night decides to elude the many cameras that are observing his every move and he slips out of his house. This sparks a national crisis and, for the first time, the Truman Show has to suspend broadcasting.

Cristof launches a citywide search until Truman is spotted sailing away from the pristine town of Seahaven in a small sailboat. To frighten Truman into staying, he creates a torrential storm that nearly kills Truman, but Truman persists in his quest for autonomy. Rather than follow the script preordained for him, Truman wants to live the unscripted life and discover life’s truths on his own without filters of any kind.

Judaism is a religion with lots of prescriptions for living. The Sages list not ten but 613 commandments. Side by side with these rules, however, is the notion that the commandments should not be observed mechanically, without feeling. The letter of the law is important but so is the spirit. For example, traditional Jews are required to pray three times a day, but the quality of those prayers is measured in terms of the personal intensity with which those prayers are invested. We cannot simply do; we must think and feel. The Sages state clearly that the emotional dimension of prayer is critical to efficacious communication between man and God. Mere recital of the words is not enough.

So too is it with life. The Truman Show reminds us that to fully experience the joy of life, we must not just pass through the world like automatons going through the motions. Rather, we will become more complete human beings, more whole in body and mind, when we experience life with all its unadulterated agonies and ecstasies, with all its painful and joyous contradictions.

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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