When one thinks of the most effective means of transmitting Jewish knowledge through the generations, what are the first places the mind goes to for spiritual enlightenment? Perhaps a stroll through the foundational narratives of Genesis, or perhaps a jaunt through the poetic power of Psalms? Maybe one finds clarity through a rousing dialectical discourse with a tractate or two of Talmud? Or, if that proves too daunting, maybe exploring the myriad commentaries and insights courtesy of Rashi, Maimonides, the Ba’al Shem Tov or one of the many brilliant religious thinkers who have appeared throughout Jewish history? Or, perhaps, when all of these options don’t sound quite right, what about a film?
At Valley Beit Midrash (VBM), we have begun to branch out of our regularly scheduled selection of panels, classes and lectures to begin showing films as a staple part of our ever-expanding learning season. Our mission has always been to appeal to the widest audience of community members. Films not only broaden our horizon as an organization dedicated to renewing the zest of Jewish learning throughout the Greater Phoenix area, but they also allow community members another option to engage with us to discuss vital issues of our turbulent times.
Consider a film like “Hiding and Seeking,” which we showed before an audience at Temple Chai back in August. The film, about an Orthodox father who takes his two skeptical adult sons to Poland to display that there are righteous gentiles in the world (even during the Holocaust), is a thought-provoking and critically relevant film that intersects with traditional Jewish identity and modernity. Who wouldn’t be moved by such a setup, as well as be inspired to ask deep inner questions?
At our screenings, we don’t merely watch films and leave. We include learning elements that are critical to the success of our film series. We include opportunities to learn before the film (to gauge preconceived notions of the film’s topic), as well as a lengthy and spirited conversation after the film. We ask: “How have our opinions changed?” “Have they changed at all?” “What can we walk away with from this film that we didn’t consider before?” At VBM, we believe film can be powerful like other forms of “Jewish text” to not only analyze, but also to be transformed.
Films, as any other piece of pedagogical material, are formative to our growth. And, when most effective, they inspire growth. Films challenge us. Films, when presented in the correct context, make us better people. They make us laugh and cry. They lead us to wonder and ponder, to rethink our situations in life.
Most films, of course, are simply entertainment and not meant to stimulate the existential folds of our minds. And that’s all right. Yet, when the popcorn is prepped and the refreshments are set on the table, the ability of people from all backgrounds, levels of learning and stations in life are set aside. The audience is prepared to experience a wondrous experience together, to ask others the big questions about the meaning of life, explore history that changed the world and bring a better awareness to the human condition.
As Valley Beit Midrash strengthens our film offerings, we hope you’ll join us in these celluloid examinations of Jewish growth and understanding. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 11 books on Jewish ethics.