Letter & Spirit: Jewish Forefathers on Film
In this week’s edition of Letter & Spirit, we present a letter of the Rebbe in which he responds to a filmmaker regarding the depiction of biblical figures in film and other media. The letter was written through the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel, and was made available by his son-in-law Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro.
The Rebbe explains how it is very difficult, if not impossible, for films etc. to portray a true or even a remotely accurate image of our holy personages, and how attempts at this have proven to be not only of no benefit but detrimental.
This new weekly feature is made possible by a collaboration between CrownHeights.info and Nissan Mindel Publications. Once a week we will be publishing unique letters of the Rebbe that were written originally in the English language, as dictated by the Rebbe to Rabbi Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
L.A. Cal. 90064
Blessing and Greeting:
This is to confirm receipt of your letter, with the enclosures, which reached me with some delay.
May G-d grant the fulfillment of your hearts desires for good, as He knows what is the true good, which – insofar as a Jew is concerned – includes both the material and spiritual, with the preponderance of the spiritual over the material.
The following is written after some hesitation, but in the hope that it will be accepted in the proper spirit, especially since you asked for my opinion.
Needless to say, everyone should fully utilize one’s G-d given capacities and talents. However, as in everything concerning human life, and in view of human frailties and uncertainties, the Creator has provided guidelines and instructions for human behavior, especially in every detail of the Jew’s everyday life. These are clearly spelled out In the Torah, called Torah Or; the Torah is Light because it illuminates the individual’s personal life to the minutest detail.
The Torah also requires a Jew to reach out to any and every fellow Jew to bring them closer to the eternal values of the Torah and the Torah-way of life, using every good opportunity to influence them in this direction. Of course, just as in the case of individuals an individual approach is required so in the case of groups and nationalities. What may be the proper approach to one ethnic group, for example, may not be the right approach to a different ethnic group.
All of the above is by way of a foreword to the subject matter at hand, namely, the idea of portraying the seven women prophetesses of the Torah through the medium of film.
When it is desired to present an image of a bygone era, particularly one from the distant past, one must bear in mind that a certain well-defined image has already been formed in people’s minds In regard to their historic pest, according to time-honored concepts and traditions. Hence special caution is required to ensure that the presentation will uphold that image, and certainly will in no way denigrate it, however unwittingly. This would be true also in a literary presentation; how much more so, when portraying it in a visible form, particularly in the form of a motion picture, for T. V. and the like, in terms of living persons and events, as a “docu-dram” or similar film presentation.
Certainly, when the idea is to recapture, in an audio-visual, true-to-life film presentation, an era or personage that has to do with a religious theme, with the sublime and holy, and similar highly sensitive nuances, one must be extremely cautious not to offend the sensibilities of the viewers.
In light of the above, I do not see how it is altogether possible to present a religious personage, such as a prophet/ess, in a portrayal that would be in keeping with the said aim. Even to present a factual, authentic documentary, without any in-depth study, would be most difficult to do for anyone who is not on the same spiritual level, is permeated with the same convictions, and has shared the same experiences as the subject portrayed.
As a matter of well-known fact, all such movie productions on Biblical themes end personages, however impressive from the artistic viewpoint and in other respects, have not succeeded in the essential aspect of projecting a true, or even remotely true image, as the producers themselves will readily admit, or have admitted, since, in any case, this has not been their primary concern.
And since the said objective is essentially unattainable, I do not believe that one has a moral right to attempt it in view of the far-reaching impact on the feelings of the numerous viewers.
I am aware of the argument that the production is intended to attract the distant and uninitiated, and in their case there can be no offended feelings, while even a partial benefit would ha a gain. In truth, however, the argument is not Justifiable on two counts. First, it is impossible to limit the viewing audience to the uninitiated; second, even those who will be favorably, impressed and will be attracted to learn more about Yiddishkeit, will very likely be inhibited in their advancement by the impressions they will have gained from the film.
Needless to say, I appreciate the strong motivation and desire to portray, on the highest possible level of holiness, an exemplary and inspiring figure from the ancient past, especially when one feels capable of doing it. But this should also provide the strength to resist the temptation.
I have not touched upon the other problems that complicate such a production, as, for example, duplicating the garments worn in the period, which also calls for caution as well as expertise. But even if all other problems can be dealt with reasonable satisfaction, the main objection, as outlined above, remains.
I reiterate my hope that you will accept the above in the spirit it has been written, since it is a matter of public concern. And may you utilize your talents in a way that is fully consistent with the eternal Torah principles, for the benefit of the many.
The above letter is from the archives of Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, a personal secretary to the Previous Rebbe and The Rebbe, whose responsibilities included the Rebbe’s correspondence in English.
Many of the letters are now being published in The Letter and the Sprit, a series of volumes by Nissan Mindel Publications.
We thank Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro, director of Nissan Mindel Publications and the one entrusted by Rabbi Mindel, his father-in-law, with his archives, for making these letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.