Films that offer profound philosophical lessons are a rarity. I remember watching The Matrix several years ago, noting that the movie was really a sci-fi version of Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave,” which posits that most people are living in a false reality of shadows. More recently, Inception explored the similar epistemological concept of solipsism, that we’re really all just dreaming and physical reality is only a construct of the mind. Such films, which tickle one’s philosophical funny-bone, are slim pickings among a feast of mind-numbing cinematic banalities.
Even rarer are those films which tackle theological dilemmas, like the age-old apparent contradiction of free will vs. determinism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world. What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? Did I truly decide of my own free will to marry my wife, or did God orchestrate a complex set of circumstances which forced my hand and caused me to fall in love with this wonderful woman in order to fulfill His unknowable Divine plan?
This is precisely the theme of the new film, The Adjustment Bureau (Grace Films Media, now playing), and so when I received an invitation for a clergy-only screening of the film, I felt it was a worthwhile way to spend an evening with my son. One of the reasons I found it so exhilarating to watch was because this is the kind of film that can make a very important contribution to our society. Instead of movies that provide very little value to the world of ideas, The Adjustment Bureau provokes us to address this thorny theological issue with a new set of glasses. At the very least, it gets us thinking that maybe there is a God out there who has a larger plan for all of us.
Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and featuring a fast-paced script and lots of action, The Adjustment Bureau was smartly made for a general audience. The producers and directors clearly understood that in order for a movie to be successful, it can’t just appeal to rabbis and philosophers. There are plenty of chase scenes for the guys and a love story for the ladies. But the basic premise of the story is hardcore theology. It proposes that the leading man (Damon) has to be prevented from meeting his love interest (Blunt) so that these two highly motivated and gifted individuals can reach their respective professional goals (he, a senator, she, a dancer) independently of one another. An angel is put in charge of preventing the meeting, since if they fall in love, all of their passion will be funneled into their relationship instead of their careers, and as a result neither will realize his or her potential. When the angel botches the job and the two end up falling for each other, an entire corps of angels, comprising this “Adjustment Bureau,” has to clean up the mess to separate the couple. Of course, this is where the chase scenes come in, since Damon and Blunt have to flee the angels (depicted as dapper men in hats) who are trying to destroy their relationship.
In a very clever obfuscation of organized religion (which seems to be public enemy #1 in Hollywood) God is never mentioned by name. Instead, the angels work for “the Chairman,” who oversees the adjustment process.
The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”
The great Jewish medievalists, together with their Christian and Islamic counterparts, undertook the issue of free will with vigor. Yeshiva students are familiar with the dispute between 12th-century Maimonides and his often fiery opponent, Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud. Maimonides felt that the contradiction between free will and Divine foreknowledge was so difficult that the human mind could not fathom it properly, and thus one simply had to have faith that while for man there appears to be a contradiction, for God there is none. Ibn Daud felt that there was a coherent reconciliation, but his explanation is vague and continues to be debated to this day. More recently, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, the great Ishbitzer Rebbe, taught in the 19th century that indeed, free will is but an illusion; even when we think we’re doing something that is contra God’s will, it is we who are mistaken.
I won’t reveal how the film ends, but suffice it to say that the final message of the film lends itself to a number of different interpretations. One leaves the film never really knowing what the beliefs of the writer and director, George Nolfi, are about free will. This is one more victory for the film; it seeks not to preach religion but rather to provoke thought and conversation about life’s big issues.
This is a great movie for a synagogue group; see it and have a discussion over coffee afterwards. Your rabbi will be able to discuss with you the Jewish position on the free will vs. determinism issue, and your knowledge of Judaism will be all the better for it.
We live in the best of times and the worst of times. We have every luxury imaginable to modern man, but because of all the dizzying distractions of modern life we lack the ability to properly take stock of who we are and what our purpose is. As stand-up comedian Louis CK puts it, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” Back in the Middle Ages, religious philosophers like Boethius, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were able to grab a thinker’s attention because they weren’t competing with loud music, fast cars, high-speed Internet and text messaging. In our world, where deep, meditative thought about the meaning of life is so hard to achieve, a movie like The Adjustment Bureau is a welcome break from the distractions. It will leave you exercising brain muscles you’d forgotten you had.
In addition to his rabbinic duties at Yavneh in Hancock Park, Rabbi Korobkin is a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, where he studies medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy.