The Theory of Everything

Can a man with a debilitating illness still accomplish great things in life after being told he has only two years to live? And knowing in advance that his illness will keep progressing to the point where he can no longer even feed himself of take care of his own personal hygiene? And can no longer even speak?

Should a woman marry a man like that? Should she be discouraged from doing so? And if she is a God fearing women and he is an avowed atheist – should that discouragement be doubly so? Can such a marriage work? Is it even right to support it – should it happen?

Should we assume that any person that would choose to marry a man with such a debilitation illness is not fully aware of what they are getting into? … not realizing the kind of care she will ultimately have to provide… the kind of sacrifice she will have to increasingly make if she stays married to him?

Can a religious man and a married woman (to another man) work closely together on a long term humanitarian project; enjoy each other’s company without developing an attraction? If they are people of strong faith and modest in their behavior and manner of dress will that prevent feelings from developing? And if they do, is it possible for either of them to refrain from acting upon those feelings?

These questions and more are dealt with in an extraordinary movie called The Theory of Everything. It is the story of Professor Stephen Hawking, who at age 72 is perhaps the most brilliant physicist alive today. Actually it is more about his disease, ALS better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. An illness with which he was diagnosed while a graduate student at Cambridge. And even more it is a movie about the triumph of the human spirit.

I saw this movie Sunday night and I highly recommend it to everyone. It is one of the most poignant portrayals of human achievement, human kindness, and altruism, one could imagine. Not only is there no nudity, I would say the manner of modesty in dress by the women in this picture is pretty much the Orthodox standard. There is not the slightest bit of profanity at all in this movie.

There are some people who might object to a movie that makes an atheist look heroic. And there is the fact that Professor Hawking recently boycotted a scientific gathering in Israel citing its treatment of Palestinians. Normally that would upset me enough to boycott the movie. But I knew that this movie was not about that. It is about as apolitical as a movie can get.  Just because I have a profound disagreement with his atheism and with his views on the Israeli Palestinian issue – that does not mean I can’t have tremendous compassion and even admiration for the man and what he has achieved under the most adverse of life’s struggles.

His political views are irrelevant to the message of this movie.  In any case I highly doubt that he has spent any real time studying Middle Eastern concerns. Certainly he has not spent even a  small fraction of the amount of time on that as he has on studying the physical universe. I do not for a moment believe that he is in any way anti-Semitic… or even anti Israel.  I believe that he is just badly informed.

Oddly enough there is a somewhat parallel case like this in the Torah world. The son of a famous Rosh HaYeshiva was engaged to the daughter of brilliant well known Talmid Chacham. During their engagement, her fiancé was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given two years to live. She refused to break it off and insisted on marrying him. She was discouraged from doing so – even by her fiance’s parents. They warned her of the road ahead. But she persisted. They got married. They had a child. Six months later her husband passed away.
Back to the subject at hand. It is impossible to overstate how devastating ALS is. It is incurable and its progression impossible to stop.

I know of two Orthodox Jews with ALS. One is a Rosh Yeshiva in the Mir, R’ Refoel Shumlevitz, (son of R’ Chaim). The other is someone I know personally. She is the matriarch of her family… a family that defines the word altruistic. They are unconditional givers – willing to sacrifice their own welfare for that of others. If any family can handle the tragic illness of a loved one, it is them.

And yet, instead of being rewarded for their greatness it always seems like it is the truly great people that suffer the most. Theodicy. Tzadik v’Ra Lo. How many people were as great as our forefather Yaakov? And yet the Torah tells us about a life filled with sorrow and pain. If there was anyone that did not deserve to suffer such a fate it is people like that.

I don’t often recommend movies. But I do recommend this one. It will inspire you. And it will make you think.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.