The morality tales behind this year's Oscar nominees

By Rabbi Marvin Hier, February 23, 2012
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As a young boy growing up on New York's Lower East Side, my life was confined to a very small area. It consisted of the yeshivah I attended on Henry Street and the shul on Columbia Street where I prayed with my father. Just a few blocks away, there was another world, the New Delancey and Palestine theatres. There, on Saturday nights, I would be transported to a new world, presided over by the likes of Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy and Gene Autry. Films became my telescope to a wider world, one that I could never hope to see.

Since 1982, when I was privileged to receive my first Oscar, as co-producer of the Holocaust documentary Genocide, I've been a member of the Academy that votes for the winners and have had the opportunity to see hundreds of films. Naturally, as a rabbi, I'm always curious about a film's moral message for our time. This year's nominees are rich in such themes.

The Artist tells of a man at the pinnacle of success, who is forced to face the reality that the age of silent films is over and he is about to become irrelevant. Desperately, he tries to hang on, but only the young lady he once helped is there to help him face his demons and slowly transition him from superstar to dancer. All human beings have to confront such a moment when we are defeated by a changing world and the stage lights go off. Are we ready for it? Is there another role that we can accept or are we just going to stop the clock and live in the past? In Genesis, the Torah says of Abraham, "…Abraham was old, but he came with the days," meaning that age does not matter if you remain relevant.

Sir Ben Kingsley in Hugo finds a solution to the problem that the world has passed him by. He becomes a toy maker; no one knows he was once a great director, because his films were destroyed. But although he repositions himself, his life remains unfulfilling. As King David says, "the days of our lives are 70 years or by reason of strength, 80 years," meaning that even if your genetic makeup is programmed for you to live to 70, it is possible to extend it to 80 by injecting passion and purpose.

Clooney forgets the treasure in his backyard

Then there is the young couple on the verge of marriage in Midnight In Paris, who discover that a home cannot be built on physical attraction alone - soulmates must share some basic values. While it is true that opposites attract, it is equally true that total opposites repel. While the film's prospective groom spends his time rendezvousing with the past, his future wife is attracted only to tomorrow's fashions. In Judaism, a marriage must have room for a reverence for the past. As Maimonides teaches about the Passover Seder, "Every person is obligated to experience personally the exodus from Egypt as if he himself had been there…"

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows a young boy coping with the loss of his father on 9/11. How should people cope with such unthinkable horror? The great 20th century thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, said: "Evil is an undeniable fact…evil exists…as long as man's grasp of the world is limited and distorted, he should not ask why it happened, but only what must a sufferer do that he may live on through his suffering." The boy's mother does exactly that, providing clues to help him shift from the "why" to the "what". Perhaps that is why Holocaust survivors find meaning by redirecting their lives away from the "why" into the "what", by retelling their stories.

The Descendants highlights the crisis of modern-day family life. George Clooney is hard at work zealously protecting his ancestral heritage, but is too busy to notice that his wife has strayed and that his daughter has become a juvenile delinquent. This is a reminder of the Talmudic teaching that while mortal man is off searching for distant treasure, he often forgets that the ultimate treasure is in his own backyard.

Finally, The Help reminds us that bigotry thrived in the US not so long ago. Black maids could raise white children, could feed them and heal them, yet they were forbidden to use their bathrooms. While Skeeter's mother was right that courage sometimes skips a generation, we need to remember that equality and human dignity must never skip a generation. It is the very heart and soul of our belief.

Films are a reflection of the human condition. Our names do not appear on the credits, but there is a little bit of all of us in every character.

Rabbi Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012