Reviewed by Daniel Renna
What emerges is an extraordinary story of someone truly committed to the essential elements of the Modern Orthodox ethos, tapping into the inherent tension between Torah culture and that of the surrounding world to tease out unique insights into God’s creation. Tying these carefully selected anecdotes to the motion pictures he reviews, Rabbi Cohen accomplishes the improbable: eliciting divrei Torah from what otherwise might be considered frivolous entertainment. Moreover, through his love of both Torah and film, Rabbi Cohen brings to the fore the comforting attributes that both religion and popular culture share in their inherent relatability.
Kosher Movies succeeds in promoting some ideals that in many quarters have been considered passי, namely the effective synergy of the devotion to Torah and the careful application of general, in this case, popular culture. Coming of age at Yeshiva University in the 1960s, arguably the zenith of these ideas, Rabbi Cohen rejects the contemporary notion that the Modern Orthodox approach is intrinsically flawed and does not work. On the contrary, he states that “We learn about God not only through His words but also His works.
My task as a teacher of . . . film is to give students the tools to discriminate between the wheat and chaff of secular culture.” Rabbi Cohen’s unapologetic love of both Torah and movies is evident throughout. Though the book contains the necessary caveat that one should consult movie parental advisories to determine the propriety of films in family and school settings, Kosher Movies remains a strong advocate for watching films through a specific lens of Torah.
Western society, both Jewish and secular, has taken many turns since the first feature film and the heyday of Modern Orthodox thought. In an age of abject permissiveness in secular culture and the meaningless hollowness of the trend of “Social Orthodoxy,” Kosher Movies reminds us that there are spiritual and inspirational nuggets of gold to be discovered and harnessed from the world around us as depicted in popular culture that truly complement a Torah lifestyle.
This review originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Action.