BY RABBI HERBERT COHEN / AJT //
When I was in college in the 1960s, it was acceptable, even fashionable, to be a liberal arts major. I had friends who majored in philosophy, history, music, art and English.
Studying the liberal arts was “cool” because it meant you were a Renaissance man prepared for everything life had to offer. Liberal arts majors understood the past and were better able to navigate the future because of their well-rounded education.
I remember hearing a lecture by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a master of philosophy as well as Torah, in which he said that some of the most important decisions that one makes in life are not based on calculations, but on emotional leaps of faith. He cited the decision to get married to a particular person as one example.
All this ran through my mind as I watched “Equilibrium,” a violent science fiction thriller which posits that human emotion is the root cause of war and that the way to guarantee a peaceful future is to suppress all emotions.
The film is set after a third World War, as a totalitarian state emerges from the ashes with a philosophy that human feelings are the primary cause of conflict in society. Therefore, this regime asserts, the way to prevent war in the future is to ban all emotion – to make sensitivity a crime punishable by death.
In this society, “sense offenders” are persecuted, and all emotionally stimulating material, most of which is under the rubric of the liberal arts, is forbidden. To control people, everyone is required to take daily doses of Prozium, which suppresses all emotion.
John Preston, a high-ranking officer and enforcer in this new government, notices that his partner has taken a book of poems from a sense offender rather than incinerate it. For the offense, Preston kills him. Before dying, his partner confesses that the feelings he experienced through reading the poetry were worth the cost of dying for it. Then, when Preston accidently breaks his daily vial of Prozium, he too begins to feel, and his first emotion is remorse over executing his partner.
As time goes on, he deliberately skips his daily dose and becomes a more sensitive and emotional man. But a crisis occurs when Preston arrests Mary O’Brien for sense offense. In a searing conversation, she asks him why is he alive, to which he responds: “to safeguard the continuity of this great society.”
She reminds him of the circular nature of his response: “You exist to continue your existence. What’s the point?”
Stymied, Preston asks: “What’s the point of your existence?”
To which she answers: “To feel…it’s as vital as breath. And without it – without love, without anger, without sorrow – breath is just a clock ticking.”
Preston’s epiphany is now complete, and he allies himself with the Underground Resistance forces to overthrow the government. The man of cold intellect is now the man of feeling.
When I first started learning Talmud, I was impressed with the braininess of the sages who debated and analyzed the intricate text. It seemed to me that the Jewish people had created an aristocracy of intellect in which the wise man’s opinion was the one that counted.
As I matured in my studies, however, I realized that the sages were not robots who simply knew all the answers. Rather, they were masters of human psychology who comprehended not only text but understood in a deep way the thoughts and emotions of man.
This is perhaps why one of my instructors told me that he would ask his teachers for advice not only because they were knowledgeable men, but because they understood him as a person as well. They understood his heart as well as his head, and that makes for true wisdom.
Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.