Lessons of the Soul: Learning from Television and Movies
Think about what happens when a television or movie character is affected by a mind- or body-altering experience or takes on the heart or brain of another character. In “Beauty and the Beast,” it happens as punishment; in “Frankenstein,” it’s the result of a scientist obsessed with the nature of the soul; and in HBO’s “Westworld,” it happens when the programming of androids goes exceedingly awry.
In Jewish tradition, too, examples of man-made life exist. The earliest – in the late 16th century – is the Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who used God’s name incorporated in the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague from their enemies. When the Golem started to threaten innocent lives, Rabbi Loew destroyed the Golem by removing God’s name. The other example is Superman, born Kal-El (“Voice of God” in Hebrew) on the planet Krypton and rocketed to Earth by his father Jor-El moments before Krypton was destroyed. Superman (a.k.a. Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter…) uses his immense powers to save humanity. Created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in a 1930s world threatened by fascist and nationalist dictatorships, Superman became the hero, the alien with the heart of gold, the next generation of the Jewish Golem.
These man-made characters prompt me to ask numerous questions: Are they “real?” Are they “alive?” What’s the definition of life? Do they have souls and memories in their mechanical physiques? If they do, is it ethical to use the characters as cannon fodder?
Similarly, in the human realm, I’m fascinated by the nature of who we are and how our minds and souls are created, nourished, and nurtured as we move from birth to death. Are our souls and minds eternal? Do our natures change as we mature or as we experience various circumstances? Is it true, as we read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 12:7, that “…the dust (our body) returns to the ground/As it was,/and the lifebreath (our soul) returns to God/Who bestowed it?”
Get Out, the 2017 critically acclaimed award-winning movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, offers us an opportunity to examine some of these questions through a Jewish theological lens, but beware the spoiler alert.
Get Out is the story of Chris, a black man, whose girlfriend, Rose, a white woman, takes him to her upper middle class suburban home to meet her parents. Viewers are immediately aware that although her parents seemingly are unfazed by Chris and Rose’s interracial relationship, there is something unsettling in their much-too-ultra-liberal Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner reaction to Chris. As the movie unfolds, viewers learn that the creepy parents, their very white friends, Rose, and even the servants (all of whom are black) are not at all as they seem. The Stepford Wives meet the mad scientist in a bizarre social and cultural engineering experiment, leaving viewers in a terrifying nightmare.
Indeed, the idyllic suburban setting hides a horrifying truth: the white friends are bidding on black men and women in the hopes that they will win the right to have their brains implanted into the physically strong and frequently uniquely talented black bodies. Our hero Chris is a photographer, and the blind white artist (yes, that’s a thing) wants Chris’ eyes.
All the servants have already received white people’s brains, causing them to exist in a kind of robotic trance – except remnants of their original souls, their original humanity, remain within them, reawakened by a flash of light. Although Rose, her parents, and their wealthy neighbors believe they can buy immortality by destroying their own bodies, their souls are as dead as their bodies, and not even their minds can protect them.
Their fate – and that of the servants – makes me wonder if that flash of light that reawakens the long-dormant souls of their victim-hosts comes from the same God who gave them the original breath of life. Although the victim-hosts’ bodies and brains are altered and they are meant to live out their lives in a deep coma-like state, there remains a semblance of the divine in each of them. Having their hidden souls awakened – by a flash of camera light or, perhaps, by God – reminds me of the closing line of our tradition’s hymn, Adon Olam.
B'yado afkid ruchi,
b'eit ishan v'a-irah.
V'im ruchi g’viyati,
Adonai li v'lo ira.
Into Your hands I entrust my soul; when I sleep and when I wake,
and with my soul my body also; Adonai is with me and I shall not fear.
Our souls and theirs – the essence of what makes us human – are eternal. They may be buried under the weight of our own or others’ manipulation, but the soul created by God is indeed forever.