Film critic and author Rabbi Herbert Cohen, who co-hosts a “Siskel and Ebert” type of film review show from Israel called “Kosher Movies,” discusses his favorite films and their connections to values of the Jewish Tradition.
Watch interview here.
By Daniel Renna
This year marks the centenary of the release of D.W. Griffith’s monumental Birth of a Nation, a film that—despite the controversy that continues to surround it because of its rampant racism—set the motion picture on its way to being the dominant and most influential medium of visual arts in the twentieth century. As the first successful feature-length film, Birth of a Nation revolutionized movie storytelling through its epic sweep, its cast of hundreds and its nearly three-hour length. The hullabaloo that it engendered testified to its enormous cultural influence at the time and the effect that it had on catapulting a fledgling movie industry into the center of American cultural expression. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
A combination of movie summaries and Divrei Torah (words of Torah), this book is a lot of fun for anyone who enjoys movies and relates to Jewish principles. Connecting movies with Torah elements, Rabbi Herbert Cohen, PhD, presents a unique blend of a lifetime of movie going with Jewish learning. Cohen’s own academic background is eclectic and rich and this aides him in linking the world of movies to the world of Torah. There is a lovely anecdote in the early part of the book about the first time Rabbi Cohen heard Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at YU, which helps the reader to understand his life and influences. The book is divided into topic areas, which include parenting, improving yourself, growing older, adversity, relationships, sports, decisions, second chances, time, and ethics. The movies referenced include a wonderful blend of old classics and new bolder titles (e.g., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Rocky, 127 hours, the Hurt Locker, and Inception, to name a few). An index of movie titles is provided in the back of the book.
This book is well done, and each entry is fairly short making for a quick read. The book can be used in many ways by different groups of people. While Herbert Cohen is an Orthodox rabbi, readers will find his entries quite universal and palatable.
This review appeared in the AJL Reviews September/October 2015 issue.
Join me in welcoming back an old friend! Rabbi Herbert J. Cohen, Ph.D., hasn’t come here in person, but his newest book is an appropriate and worthy stand-in.
Kosher Movies has recently been published by Urim in English, and is already available here in the United States through Amazon and other booksellers.
You might remember Rabbi Herb as an educator in Dallas, working with the Community Kollel and teaching at Yavneh Academy. He arrived here in 2006, then left in 2010 when he and wife Meryl made aliyah. Now he teaches English language and literature at two schools in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
The book’s subtitle explains much: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.
In addition to his prime vocation, Rabbi Herb’s been a regular movie reviewer for a Canadian newspaper and a contributor to the religion section of the Huffington Post.
The big question now is, What makes a movie kosher? The author answers, “To me, a ‘kosher movie’ is a film that has something meaningful to say about life.” He’s found such meanings in some 120 movies reviewed in his new book. Read the rest of this entry »
Every day I pray that I will have a sense that God is always in front of me, that He is always in the room. It helps me control my thoughts, my actions, and my speech. When things irritate me, I think long and hard as to whether I want to respond to a provocation or to an unkind word. In general, I do not regret being silent, but I do regret a hurtful word that I may have uttered to someone, even when my intentions were noble.
I was reminded of the power of words as I watched the gripping political thriller All the President’s Men, which portrays in detail the intense investigative newspaper work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they painstakingly researched the Watergate burglary, eventually leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Woodward and Bernstein seem like two Talmud study partners who continually probe each other to ascertain the truth. Each questions the other and is unafraid of challenging or criticizing his friend. Their frank criticism is not personal, but rather a sign that each one trusts the other to be honest and not to advance any personal agenda. Their shared mission, to discover what the Watergate burglary was all about, makes their egos subservient to the greater purpose of their work. It is this understanding of their common goal which is at the heart of their friendship and their search for truth. Read the rest of this entry »