Movies and Midrash

Popular Film and Jewish Religious Conversation

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Wendy I. Zierler
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     2017.
     328 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438466156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Wendy Zierler’s Movies and Midrash explores the intersection of film and theological moral philosophy. Zierler follows the mode of Christian theologians Harvey Cox and Christopher Deacy in crafting a “secular theology” by finding theological truths in secular, popular (albeit intentionally artistic or “serious”) movies and entertainment. Unlike any predecessor, however, her work is decidedly oriented around Jewish theological and textual themes. Zierler’s book, adapted from her teaching (specifically from a seminar, “Reel Theology,” taught over several years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with Eugene Borowitz, who writes the book’s foreword), is an examination of eleven films (The Truman Show, Magnolia, The Descendants, Memento, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Forrest Gump, The King’s Speech, Stranger than Fiction, A Serious Man, Exam, Hunger Games, and Moonrise Kingdom) using Jewish religious and theological themes ( “Truth, Memory, Sin, God’s word, Simplicity verses Cleverness in Faith, the spiritual value of texts, and the Jewish notion of being created in the image of God” [15]).

Zierler identifies her method as “inverted midrash” (15). Traditional rabbinic midrash begins with an omission, anomaly, or concern discovered in the reading of Torah. The rabbis begin “a parable (mashal): to what can this be compared?” and present a parallel story that elucidates the text. Zierler’s method is to invert this process by beginning with parable (the film) and then work backward into text. She is overt: her method is prompted by a struggle to reach a modern Jewry often ignorant of its own texts and traditions. Her method is an interesting Jewish parallel to Larry Krietzer’s “reversing the hermeneutical flow” (on display, for example, in his Pauline Images in Fiction and Film, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999) and is immediately resonant with Peter Ochs’s work in “scriptural reasoning.” Zierler is aware of film-theory laden scholarship on religion and film à la Melanie Wright, S. Brent Plate, Roy Anker, and Steve Nolan, and is also informed by their concerns that religion scholars regard film as film and not an alternative text. Zierler affirms, however, her intent to remain focused upon filmic narratives (10-11). Her film critique is, throughout, complex and quite capable of sophisticated visual and filmic analysis (normally formalist, occasionally viewer response). Her book provides additional, interesting pedagogic content with two appendices arising from its curricular origin. The first is a record of email exchanges between Zierler and Borowitz tracing the development of their course. The second is a list of additional film resources for further study or course development. 

In terms of her actual analysis, I found most engaging Zierler’s contrast of The Truman Show with Jonah and its rabbinic and liturgical contexts to discuss truth and general semiotic representation (chapter 1); her really remarkable reading of The King’s Speech alongside Torah traditions of Moses’s speech (chapter 7); and a very strong reading of The Hunger Games alongside Noah traditions (chapter 11). Also worthy of note is her use of A Serious Man to reflect upon the tradition of Jewish parable/mashal (chapter 9).

In candor, seeing that Zierler intended to eschew significant engagement with film theory, limit her attention to films of “artistic merit,” and to develop a Jewish theology via “secular film,” I was disinclined toward the balance of the book, reading on largely for the sake of this review. That was a poor first reaction. In what follows, Zierler writes winningly and convincingly—and very, very smartly—about her films and about Jewish text and scriptures. The book is very much a review of film aimed at the Jewish seminary classroom and reader. There is significant strength in this work and it is a very worthwhile and serious review of Jewish doctrinal and spiritual thinking. But there is also still much here for colleagues teaching on religion and film (and a welcome, serious Jewish augment to those who are writing/thinking/teaching more generally about spirituality in/and modern American secular culture).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Paul Seesengood is Associate Dean of First-Year Studies and General Education and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wendy I. Zierler is Sigmund Falk professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women’s Writing.

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