Kosher Movies: Margin Call

Kosher Movies: Margin Call


Rabbi Herbert Cohen
Rabbi Herbert Cohen

During my years in Jewish education, there were stressful moments, times when I felt the need to take counsel with someone older and wiser than me. Fortunately, experienced lay leaders in the community often provided me with a fresh perspective on an issue as I navigated through a challenging time.

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One lay leader in particular was skilled at shifting the paradigm, allowing me to arrive at sound decisions. He would always begin the conversation with the phrase, “conventional wisdom says…” but then launch into his own analysis of the situation. Talking with him was helpful because his valuable insights helped me see beyond the obvious.

I was reminded of his invaluable advice while watching a mesmerizing scene in “Margin Call,” a profanity-laced story of a Wall Street meltdown with moral ambiguities at its center. Although it is a negative example applied to the world of finance, it demonstrates how more experienced person sees things differently from a less experienced person.

Seth Bregman, an engineering Ph.D. from MIT who now works as a risk management analyst, discovers that his firm is on the verge of a total financial meltdown. He shares the information with his superior, who in turn shares the information with his superior. Consequently, a middle-of-the-night meeting of all the senior executives is called to determine how the company will deal with this impending crisis.

One of those present suggests selling off a toxic stock before the market can react to news of its worthlessness. Another feels that this approach will forever ruin the company because people will never trust the company again. The issue is debated for hours until the moment of reckoning, when the market opens and we witness the consequences of decisions made in an environment of moral compromise.

During this sequence, it is fascinating to observe the way the firm’s CEO John Tuld approaches the problem. He does not ask for the minutia but rather wants to understand the big picture. When Seth attempts to explain the crisis, Tuld tells him:

“Speak as you might to a young child, or to a golden retriever, and tell me the nature of the problem.”

He informs the group that he gets paid the “big bucks” because he can predict the future of the company, not because of his everyday scrutiny of details. The details are best left to the analysts like Seth, who can understand the numbers in sophisticated ways.

What emerges from this scene is an understanding of the radically different approaches of the young and old to the same problem. Both kinds of wisdom are useful – the young man knows facts and figures, while the old man sees beyond the detail and into the heart of the matter.

Relating this to the Jewish side of things, the Ethics of the Fathers expresses much the same sentiment, but there is a cautionary note:

“Learning from the young is like eating unripe grapes, whereas learning from the old is like eating ripe grapes or drinking aged wine.”

The Sages suggest that one should favor the wisdom of the older man who speaks from experience as well as from knowledge. Moreover, the Talmud tells us that as man ages, he becomes fit for attaining deeper levels of wisdom – for example, at five years of age, he may know scripture, but it is not until age 40 that he really begins to understand it.

Similarly, “Margin Call” reminds us that considering things from a senior’s point of view, even if we disagree with him, may enhance our own understanding of a problem.

Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.


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