The Hanukkah That Might Have Been: Epilogue - Part 1
Hollywood and the Rabbis
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Hanukkah commemorates the clash between Judaism and Hellenism. Are these two cultures completely incompatible? Or is there a place for Hellenistic values in Judaism? In the video The Hanukkah That Might Have Been, Rabbi Fohrman suggests that beauty and aesthetics can add great meaning to our lives when they are approached as a means for deepening our relationship with God.
In this special epilogue, Rabbi Fohrman puts this theory into practice, by sharing some of his favorite TV and movie scenes and the deeper lessons he's learned from them. Grab some popcorn, get comfortable, and join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu for: Hollywood and the Rabbis.
Female Speaker 1: Hanukkah is all about the clash between Judaism and Hellenism. But are those two cultures completely incompatible? Is there a place for beauty and aesthetics in Judaism? In "The Hanukkah That Might Have Been," Rabbi Fohrman suggests that there is. Beauty, aesthetics, the arts, these things can actually add to our lives in amazing ways and deepen our relationship with God, when they're approached from a place of looking for meaning.
In this special epilogue, Rabbi Fohrman puts this theory into practice by sharing some of his favorite TV and movie scenes, and the deeper lessons he's learned from them. So grab some popcorn, get comfortable, and join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu for Hollywood and the Rabbis.
Imu: Hello, and welcome to this special edition silver screen recording. I am Imu Shalev, your host, and I am joined by Rabbi David Fohrman. Hi, Rabbi Fohrman.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hi, Imu. How are you?
Imu: I am well. Today we're going to do a really exciting thing for our special donors, people who have contributed generously to the great work of Aleph Beta. The work of Aleph Beta is providing wonderful Torah resources for your enjoyment and meaning. Today we're going to do none of that. No Torah. Instead, we are going to take a look at TV shows and talk about them a little bit. Right, Rabbi Fohrman?
Rabbi Fohrman: What could be better than that, Imu? This is your idea. Why don't you spin it for everyone here.
Imu: It is my idea, and that's because I get to hang out with Rabbi Fohrman often. Rabbi Fohrman has wonderful -- in addition to his amazing and deep, encyclopedic knowledge of Torah, Rabbi Fohrman is a cultural man, someone who has deep scientific knowledge. You'll often note, in many videos, he'll quote all kind of physicists that none of us can check him on it. We just believe that this is how the universe works and gravity and Einstein and yada-yada-yada.
In addition to his scientific erudition, he is also, as I said, a cultural man and has deep expertise in the world of film and television. Rabbi Fohrman often quotes many, many different scenes to me. He gets really angry, he's like wait, you haven't seen this scene from Apollo -- what is it, Apollo 21? Apollo 1? I probably sound really young right now.
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, the real truth is, so if I could just back up here. I don't know if I have deep knowledge of science or film, but I have some knowledge of science and some knowledge of film. Imu, the funny kind of thing is that when I get angry at you, it's not because I have this encyclopedic knowledge of every Siskel and Ebert kind of thing that's ever gone down. But whenever I want to illustrate something from film to you, the age gap between us bursts out into the open. You're familiar with everything, sort of, from 2010 on. My sweet spot is somewhere in the mid-1990s, I suppose, with a little bit in the 1970s.
So we don't often overlap much, which maybe gives you the impression that I know a lot more film than you do. But I think I don't, that much. But be that as it may, we each have, in our repertoire of non-Torah texts and pieces of art, various different books and novels, historical pieces, films, documentaries, and fiction films, these kind of iconic scenes that play in our head and sometimes resonate with ideas that we come across in the Torah world.
Now and then we've sort of put together some of those in Aleph Beta videos, and in our recent Tisha B'Av video we referenced some scenes from the movie Arrival, which actually was post-2010 so it was amazing that I knew anything about it.
So today, what we thought we were going to do is kind of go back to some of those film clips and talk about them. Imu, this reminds me of something I did way back when, when my kids were young. I ran a little feature for neighborhood kids in our neighborhood in Baltimore, which I called "Hollywood and the Rabbis". What we did in "Hollywood and the Rabbis" is we would screen a film or part of a film, and we'd stop to talk about it, kind of the way you might do with an Aleph Beta clip. I would try to offer some sort of perspective from the world of Torah on what it is that the kids were viewing.
So that's kind of what we have planned today, Imu. At least, that's my understanding of what we have planned. What about you?
Imu: Yeah. I just wanted to say one other word about why I'm really into this, like why is it that people who run a Torah organization should spend any time on a "Hollywood and the Rabbis" format. I'll say that before I met you, I think that my experience of Judaism was very deep and meaningful, but kind of closed off from the rest of the world. What I mean by that is there's something appealing to me about your forays into science and art and culture, that when Torah interacts with it, it's not a different discipline interacting with another discipline. There's sort of some integration. There's some reflection of Torah values and its expression in the world apart, in the world of emotion, in poetry, in science even.
It makes me feel like the things I'm learning in Torah are more whole. They're more resonant. They matter in my life more deeply. That's, I think, instead of seeing this as sort of like a silly, let's look at Hollywood and imagine if a rabbi was in Hollywood and reacting, I see this more in the vein of really just enjoying art and seeing its resonance in Torah, and kind of appreciating their integration in a more whole sort of way, if that makes any sense.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. You know, along those lines, we can certainly include or we can do it another time, another thing I'd like to do with you is -- actually two things along those lines, which maybe we can line up in future episodes of this. One of them is actually photography. There's a fascinating book which I came across in the museum which is a collection of every Pulitzer Prize winning photograph. I actually have that book laying around somewhere. If not, maybe we can get another copy. I'd love to actually go through some Pulitzer Prize winning photos with you and just kind of analyze them, why they're meaningful and what they evoke and things like that. I found that really quite fascinating and in some cases, terrifying, but really fascinating and illuminating. So that would be cool.
Then moving to the world of poetry, I'm not that big of a poet guy, but one of the poets I really enjoy is Emily Dickinson. If you had to ask me who, in the last 300 years, if you had a chance to meet and spend an hour-and-a-half with, or two hours with, in addition to the Torah luminaries that might come up who I would want to interact with, one of the people would actually be Emily Dickinson who is, from all accounts, a bit of a mystery herself. Her poetry is really, I find, very resonant and powerful. I know I've actually referenced a couple of her poems in various Aleph Beta films. We can certainly devote a whole segment to that.
Today we're talking about some clips from the world of TV and film, which I'll say I don't know that much about, but I do have some favorites and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you.
Imu: Let's do it. High-brow culture, what is the first of our scenes that you're going to take us to?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, so it's some very high-brow Ingrid Bergman film from the late 1950s. No, it's actually a clip from West Wing. I want to take you back to a scene from the second season of West Wing, written and directed by -- actually, I don't know who it's written and directed by. It was conceived by Aaron Sorkin. It's one of my favorites. This is one of my favorite scenes from it.
Imu, this scene was kind of rattling around my head when we did a course a little while ago that I really liked on Rosh Hashanah. It was really a beautiful piece that tried to tie together Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot, these three sections of the Mussaf Amidah having to do with Kingship, having to do with Memory, and having to do with Shofar. Like, the last thing you'd think about when you're thinking about Rosh Hashanah, I suppose, is The West Wing. But somehow, in my head, it served a kind of real-life example of a very hard-to-pin-down idea that we were struggling with.
Do you remember when we were talking about this a few years back?
Imu: I do. I do remember this idea. I believe you're talking about specifically Zichronot, the idea of God as our memory keeper, and a way in which we were understanding that as the storyteller or kind of the author, the author of our lives. There was this really interesting distinction between us as the author of our own lives, but God as the master editor weaving all of our stories into His book. It was a really profound idea.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. There was this notion, also, of -- we talked about (inaudible 00:09:30), if I'm not mistaken. What we said about Shofar is that it's this sort of (inaudible 00:09:35) cry, this nonverbal cry that says, I understand that your story is bigger than mine. I don't know how to tell you to insert my story into yours, but I want that very badly and I have to have that. I need to be part of your story, and here I am. Weave my world into your world.
Somehow, that resonated for me with this scene. I think I remember showing you that scene. We didn't talk about it over the course of that video, but I'd love it if we kind of screened that scene right over here and talk about why we found that so compelling.
Imu: Great. Let's play the clip.
Rabbi Fohrman: Spoiler alert. If you haven't seen West Wing and want to, you should turn this off now. But the President has been shot in an attempted assassination. As the surgeons are doing their best to fix him up, various members of his staff are reminiscing, in their own minds, about how they got involved with them, how they got involved with the campaign, and what their own stories were
That was that notion of the small story with the large story. The large story was the chance to be part of an administration, the President of the United States, something that's so much larger than probably any of these characters thought that their lives would amount to. I'm a lawyer here, I'm in college over there. I never thought I'd have the chance to make a difference on the world stage in that grand kind of way. And yet, each of these people had their stories, and they're compelling stories.
Then there was that question of how those two stories interacted, the small story and the big story. So here is the flashback, as it were, of a woman in the series known as Donna. I forget the actress who plays her. So this is a scene of how Donna, what her story is, how she comes to become involved in the campaign. Donna is assistant to Josh Lyman, who is, I believe, Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bartlet.
Male Speaker: Once you get to know him.
Josh: How many people get that far?
Male Speaker: Not that many.
Donna: Josh Lyman. No, he's not available right now. Uh, this afternoon he's got a media session and then 4 o'clock with finance. If you leave your name, I can give Josh the message when he gets back. Thank you very much.
Josh: Who are you?
Donna: I'm Donna Moss. Who are you?
Josh: I'm Josh Lyman.
Donna: I'm your new assistant.
Josh: Did I have an old assistant?
Donna: Maybe not.
Josh: Who are you?
Donna: I'm Donna Moss. I came in to volunteer, and the woman assigned me to you.
Josh: Which woman?
Josh: You mean Margaret?
Josh: Who are you?
Donna: I'm Donna Moss. I'll be working as your assistant.
Josh: I need to talk to Margaret.
Donna: Actually, Josh --
Donna: -- when I said I was assigned to you --
Donna: -- I may have been overstating it a little.
Josh: Who are you?
Donna: I'm Donna Moss. I (inaudible 00:12:29) from Madison, Wisconsin.
Josh: When did your boyfriend break up with you?
Donna: What makes you think my boyfriend broke up with me?
Josh: Well, you're too old for your parents to have kicked you out of the house.
Donna: I'm here because I want to work for Bartlet. I'm a college graduate with a degree in Political Science and Government.
Josh: Where did you graduate?
Josh: Where did you graduate?
Donna: Okay. When I said I graduated --
Donna: -- I may have been overstating a little.
Josh: Look --
Donna: I was a couple of credits short.
Josh: From where?
Donna: University of Wisconsin.
Josh: And you majored in Political Science and Government?
Donna: And Sociology and Psychology.
Donna: And Biology for a while, with a minor in French.
Donna: And, uh, drama.
Josh: You had five majors and two minors in four years?
Donna: Two years.
Josh: Listen --
Donna: I had to drop out. I had to drop out.
Josh: Your boyfriend was older than you?
Donna: I think that question's of a personal nature.
Josh: Donna, you were just at my desk, reading my calendar, answering my phone, and hoping I wouldn't notice that I never hired you. Your boyfriend was older?
Josh: Law student?
Donna: Medical student.
Josh: And the idea was you'd drop out and pay the bills until he's done with his residency.
Josh: And did you?
Josh: And why did Dr. Free Ride break up with you?
Donna: What makes you think he broke up with me?
Josh: Donna, this is a campaign for the presidency, and there's nothing I take more seriously than that. This can't be a place for people to come to find their confidence and start over.
Donna: Why not?
Josh: I'm sorry?
Donna: Why can't it be those things?
Josh: Because --
Donna: Is it going to interfere with my typing?
Josh: Donna, we're picking up today and going to South Carolina. If you want to stay in the Manchester office --
Donna: I want to come to Charleston.
Josh: I can't carry it, Donna. I've got a lot of guys out there not making the trip.
Donna: I'll pay my own way.
Josh: With what?
Donna: I'll sleep on the floor. I'll sell my car. Eventually, you're going to put me on salary.
Josh: Donna --
Donna: Look, I think I can be good at this. I think you might find me valuable.
Josh: Go ahead.
Donna: Bartlet for America, Josh Lyman's office. Uh, yes. I think I'm going to have somebody from the press office get back to you if it relates to -- yes. Uh, yes. Yes. Yeah.
Rabbi Fohrman: So that's how Donna got her job.
Imu: I think I'm tearing up a little bit. I did not expect to be that emotional watching that scene.
Rabbi Fohrman: So let me ask you, so why was that scene so powerful? For me, too. I can't get that scene out of my head. Why was that scene so powerful?
Imu: You know, I watched The West Wing during college, and I've now been in a position, in a leadership position, and I have the benefit of experience. When you have the benefit of experience, you can actually see how your own story unfolds. When you're in college, or when you're trying that new thing in the beginning, you don't know where your story's going to go. That's what I think is brilliant to this scene. This scene isn't in Season 1, where you first meet Donna. You already know who Donna is. You already know she's Josh Lyman's really capable assistant. You didn't know this was the origin story. You're seeing the origin story, and in that moment, if Josh had called security or if he would have freaked out and just not given Donna a chance, then everything you knew to be the capable, powerful story that you get in Season 1 about Donna and Josh's relationship, or just Donna's professional accomplishments, all that could disappear in an instant.
The fact that Josh takes a moment to see this person and say, I'm going to elevate you, make you a part of what is only now a campaign for presidency, not yet being in the White House and actually making a huge difference in the country. He takes this necklace off of him with the security badge and puts it on Donna while she's answering the phone, sort of saying, you know, we're going to take you in and we're going to let you be a part of this. I don't know, it just hits me, like, how grave that moment is, how much faith you need to have in someone to actually say, yes, I'll let you be a part of this, but also just how willing and noble Donna seems to be in her struggle to put herself out there. Maybe even she's aware she's not worthy, but it doesn't matter. My worthiness be damned, I want to be part of this. So it makes me really emotional.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. And that, I think, was why it resonated to me so much when we were doing that Rosh Hashanah film. It was that, that's our argument, too. We're saying to God, like, I know this is Judgment Day. I know that You're looking at me and the question on Your mind, God, is probably how worthy am I? I've changed all my plans, and I've done this and I thought I was doing that, and to be perfectly frank, I went to college and I was kind of in drama also, and I was also in French, and I had a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
I realized, when I put my resume together, it might not be what you're looking for in this grand story. But one thing I can give you is this desire, with all of my flaws, to be part of your story. I think you will find me valuable. I'm really willing to camp out, I'm really willing to sell my car, I'm willing to be part of this story, whatever that takes.
That argument means something. It wasn't just how she answered the phone. It was the confluence of that backstory and that desire to really be a part of it, together with that moment where Josh could see it. To me, that got to a lot of the emotion behind, at least for me, what the shofar's cry really is, that feeling of, take me to South Carolina.
Imu: If I can state it myself, I think that that's a microcosm of the emotional experience of prayer on Rosh Hashanah, right, and that's sort of the relationship between Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. You talked about Malchuyot (Kingship) as, God is so big. You're facing the President, or you're facing the Master of the World, recognizing His Kingship, and it provokes a crisis in you, as you said in the video. That crisis is, He's so big, I'm so small, I'm not worthy. Nevertheless, weave me into Your story. Nevertheless, make me a part of this larger thing.
Recognizing that that's the duty of Rosh Hashanah, instead of Judgment Day being, will I avoid punishment or will I not avoid punishment, is a different kind of judgment when you face the editor of the great story of the world. You're the writer of your own story, right, you have free will, you can exercise that. But it doesn't mean that the editor has to include you in His story. You can be a side character, you can be a nothing.
But to see it play out in art, where you can just recognize, like, the stories in the high-energy moments of our lives usually don't take place in the pews. Or quarantined at home or in your backyard minyan or whatever it is. Those high-charged moments take place in the hastily organized back offices of a presidential campaign, or in your own offices, or in your own home. You never know what those important stories are. So it just was so powerful to see that scene, but to actually see it in real life helps you translate that Torah idea that you might get at the podium, and say, this is how it could work in your life.
Rabbi Fohrman: Again, I think that's the power of art with these things, which is that they sometimes give us an emotional vocabulary for ideas. That really is the power of art. I mean, I'm an ideas guy and ideas are great. There's lots of algebra and mental gymnastics, and all of that is wonderful. Learning Torah is an idea-based thing. But then you've got to say, what does that actually mean in my life? But the problem is that, you know, each of our lives only has a limited amount of experience.
One of the ways that we turn to art, specifically fiction and film, is to enlarge the vocabulary of our experience and to be able to get some emotional, concrete grounding on what some of these things look like. I can vicariously experience Donna's quest without being Donna, and it helps me sharpen my own moments of my life that resonate with her quest, and understand those moments better. I think that's why film and fiction can really be valuable for us.
Let me take you on to another scene, if we can. Yeah, this is kind of fun. Here's the scene that again, dates me, I suppose. It's something which I saw back in the 1990s. The reason why this scene is special to me is because it resonated with the methodology itself. One of the amazing things, I think, about the way the Torah is written is that it allows for depth in a shocking, unusual kind of way.
First of all, there's an economy of language in the Torah which is interesting. The Torah is a minimalist document, in many ways. And yet, strangely, despite the economy of words that the Torah uses almost universally, we make the argument that the Torah is full of depth and has almost infinite depth. Those two things seem to be contradictory. If I'm writing a really deep document, so wouldn't it have to be volumes and volumes and volumes long? How could you write this document with such short stories that have such incredible depth in them?
And yet, I can imagine Joe on the plane-style skeptics stopping me and saying, Fohrman, that just sounds like a lot of religious drivel. You've obviously drunk the Kool-Aid. One of the arguments I've made to that, and I think the methodology that I've kind of stumbled upon over the years exhibits, is that the Torah had to have some way of encoding depth. Here you have this being from another world and another dimension, God, who's talking to us. He's giving us this message and if it does have real meaning, real depth in it, there has to be some way of unzipping it, some sort of code, some sort of algorithm.
And yet, the question is, how would you do that? How would you create those layers of depth in the Torah? One of the things which we've found is the device which we call intertextuality. It's basically, if you've been around the block here at Aleph Beta, you've come across it a number of times. Basically, it's this notion that the Torah, at some level, is kind of like the original internet. It's an interconnected weave of information.
The way intertextuality basically works is that the Torah basically says, I am my own commentator. Long before Rashi, long before the Ramban, the Torah acts as its own kind of commentary. It does so with hyperlinks. When you come across words, phrases, ideas in certain story A that remind you consistently of a certain story B, 15 phrases, 18 phrases, 20 phrases, the Torah is telling you that these stories are deeply connected with one another, and that story B overlays on story A and creates this kind of commentary upon it.
So this notion of this interconnected kind of web of information is fascinating. Also what's fascinating is about the primer for understanding the meaning of any given text isn't anywhere else. It's not in some external commentator. It's not in the Ramban, it's not in Rashi, it's not in the Sforno. It's actually in the text itself. The notion of the text acting as its own commentary in telling you within it, almost creating its own index of where to look for through this intertextual scheme was just kind of wild.
So in film, I found this kind of remarkable analogy for this. It's really the movie Contact, a film from the 1990s starring Jodie Foster. A film that was conceived based upon a work of fiction by Carl Sagan in which Carl Sagan, and astronomer at the time, a popular astronomer, sort of creates a fable around what he imagines first contact between intelligent life in the universe might actually be like. After Carl Sagan's death, that was turned into this film, Contact.
Contact is a wonderful analogy to many aspects of methodology in Aleph Beta. For those of you out there who are wondering what the secret sauce is, you can watch Contact. In a number of moments in that film you can really see resonances of what it is we're doing. I want to show you one of those moments over here.
So in this extraterrestrial movie. The reason I like it, by the way, is because it works as a kind of metaphor. I mean, face it. We're a religion that believes in extraterrestrial contact. It's just that the extraterrestrial is God. I mean, all extraterrestrial means is outside of earth. So it means that you're an intelligence here that's dealing with another intelligence from beyond.
So the question of how an intelligence from beyond might communicate with us isn't just an idle question of philosophical or science fiction speculation. It's what we believe happened. So it's interesting, as we kind of conceptualize what extraterrestrial contact might look like, you actually begin to see some resonances with what the Torah actually does.
So the first question that you might ask in extraterrestrial contact is, who says I can understand what this other being is telling me? I mean, this is a being presumably of greater intelligence than ours, possibly far greater intelligence than ours. Who says we can even talk the same language? Who says I can understand him? Like Imu, you have much greater intelligence than a bird. If you wanted to communicate with a bird, how would you do it? It wouldn't be so simple, right? Like, how would you set up a shared vocabulary between you and bird?
And yet, we do have this way. So the first question is, what's the shared vocabulary? How do we even get a shared vocabulary? Imu, you know, you and I have talked about this before, something which I think we've talked about but never really done a video about, that the human senses -- there's this moment in Deuteronomy, in Va'etchanan, where there's this question, really, of how God communicates to us. He communicates to us at Sinai, but how does He communicate at Sinai?
Imu, if I asked you, here you are, Mr. Imu. You're about to witness a Sinai revelation. You could witness it with any one of your senses. With the sense of smell, with the sense of taste, with the sense of sight, with the sense of sound, but only one sense you can use for revelation. Pick a sense, any sense, which sense would you like to experience revelation with?
Rabbi Fohrman: Right, I want to see. That's how we see -- if God's around, show me! I want to see God. I want to see Him come down. I want to see the fire and light show. Here you get to Sinai and as the text says, "choshech anan va'arafel," it's dark and it's foggy outside. It's like all these guys who go out on a cruise to see the eclipse and it's foggy. You want your money back because there's no fire and light show.
So why did God make it foggy and dark the moment that He was revealing Himself? In Deuteronomy, God says the reason is because I didn't want you to believe that you could see Me. The revelation wasn't really happening through sight; it was happening through sound. The sound, which initially is the sound of the shofar, which then coalesces to become the sound of the dibrot, the sound of these words, is how God relates to us.
So it's remarkable even that -- right, because if you think about your senses, you have five senses. What is the point of your senses? If you had to say, Imu, what's the point of your sense of smell, taste, touch, sight, sound? What do you do with those things? What do you do with those things?
Imu: You touch, you taste, you smell.
Rabbi Fohrman: Which are all ways of?
Imu: Encountering things?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes, encountering things. Encountering what kinds of things?
Imu: Other terrestrial things?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes, other terrestrial things. Your senses are optimized for encountering terrestrial things. That's a good thing, because you live on the earth, on terra firma. So therefore, you have five senses that are optimized for encountering the earth. They're not optimized for encountering anything beyond the earth. So the first-grade question is, who says you can use your five senses to encounter something from beyond? Like, who says that's even possible?
Along comes the Torah and says, there happens to be one sense you can use. It's not going to be the sense you think it's going to be. You're going to want to use all your other senses. You've got to shut those down and only use that one sense, use the sense of sound.
So in Contact, what happens? It's the same question, how do you communicate? So in Contact, the earlier scenes in the movie establish that this universal things is prime numbers. There are these sounds that are coming from space, and the sounds that are coming from space are these bursts of prime numbers. If I can, I'll just begin to show you that one scene, where the primes begin to become evident. Let me see if I can take you to that piece of the film.
Ellie: Talk to me, guys.
Willie: Partially polarized set of moving pulses, amplitude modulated.
Fisher: We're locked. Systems check out. Signal across the board. What's the frequency?
Ellie: 4.4623 gigahertz. Hydrogen times pi. Told you.
Willie: Strong sucker, too.
Fisher: I got it! I got it, I got it! I'm patched in!
Ellie: All right, let me hear it.
(Eerie, pulsing metallic sound)
Ellie: Hear that? Make me a liar, Fisher.
Willie: It could be AWACS out of Kirtland jamming us, but I'm doubting it.
Ellie: All right. Let's see if FUD's (ph) reading it, too. Willie, patch it back and give me the off access. Are we recording?
Willie: Never stopped.
Ellie: Thank you, Elmer.
Willie: AWACS status is negative.
Ellie: What about (inaudible 00:31:25)?
Willie: On this frequency? No.
Ellie: I'm going to punch up the darks. How's the spying tonight, guys? Come on. All right.
Willie: NORAD's not tracking any snoops in this vector. Shuttle Endeavor's in sleep mode.
Fisher: Okay, point source confirmed. Whatever it is, it ain't local.
Fisher: I checked interferometry. Someone in Lyra, I think.
Willie: Can't be. It's only 26 lightyears away.
Ellie: Hey, what's the peak intensity?
Fisher: Coming up.
Ellie: Vega. Vega, apparently. We scanned it a bunch of times, we didn't receive. It was negative results always.
Willie: Got it. Reading over a hundred janskys.
Fisher: Jesus. I can pick it up on my --
(Sudden static silence)
(Extended static silence)
Ellie: Oh, come on.
(Intermittent metallic pulses)
Ellie: All right, it's restarting. Wait a minute, wait a minute. Those are numbers. That was a three. The one before it was a two. Um, base 10 numbers, just start counting now, see how far we can get.
Willie: It's a five.
Ellie: One --
(Intermittent metallic pulses)
(Intermittent metallic pulses)
Ellie: It's primes. Two, three, five, seven. Those are all prime numbers. And there's no way that's a natural phenomenon. Let's just calm down and pull up the star file on Vega.
Kent: It doesn't make any sense. The system is took young. So it can't have a planetary system, let alone life, let alone --
(Multiple people speaking at once)
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. So this is the kind of first discovery of this signal here. What's fascinating is that they begin to discover that it's not just that there are these sounds with prime numbers, but interlaced in there, there's information. The first level of information is that they realize that there is a video feed which is interlaced in the sound patterns. They're able to take out the video pattern and as they begin to clean it up, they begin to see something shocking. This scene that they see in video is not some far-off world, but they see an image of Hitler opening up the 1933 Olympics in Munich -- I think it's the 1933 Olympics. Maybe it's 1939; I forgot which year it was. I think it was '33.
That sounds like the craziest thing in the world, what is this message from the stars happening there? But what happened was the first really strong television transmission from Earth that made it into space actually was the 1933 transmission of the Olympics. So it takes 26 years for that to get out 26 lightyears away, for beings 26 lightyears away to get it, and they don't know what they're seeing. So they flip it back to you, which arrives a total of 52 years later, right. It's just a way of saying, we heard you and this is what we got and here's your sound, amplified back.
It seems like that's the whole message, but then they begin to see that there's another message encoded in the video, overlaid in the video. That message is actually data, pages and pages of data. But the problem is, there's no way to decode the data. What does the data mean? It's not like aliens know English. So there's all these symbols and signs and you just don't know what it is, and reams and reams of it.
So there's linguists working on this around the clock, you know, over months, but no one's making any headway until finally, somebody figures it out. The patron of the Jodie Foster character in the film, a guy by the name of Hadden, stumbles upon what he thinks is the answer. This is the moment when he shows it to her, which kind of resonated for me with this kind of methodology that we're working with. Here's that scene.
Hadden: -- make a small contribution, a final gesture of goodwill to the people of this little planet that have given -- from whom I have taken so much.
Ellie: You found the primer.
Hadden: Clever girl. Lights. Pages and pages of data. Over 63,000 in all, and on the perimeter of each --
Ellie: Line symbols, a registration mark. But they don't line up.
Hadden: They do, if you think like a Vegan. An alien intelligence is going to be more advanced, and that means efficiency functioning on multiple levels and in multiple dimensions.
Ellie: Yes, of course! Where's the primer?
Hadden: You'll see. Every three-dimensional page contains a piece of the primer. There it was all the time, staring you in the face. Buried within the message itself is the key to decoding it.
Ellie: Within the layering of the matrix, we have these basic equations. So with this very elementary foundation, they have given us a kind of general scientific vocabulary. We now have the symbols for true and false.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, so that's pretty much the scene right there. I'm as curious, like as you kind of watch that, you don't know the details of what she's saying, but the notion that the document is not a two-dimensional document, it's actually a three-dimensional document. The document is written in two dimensions, but it's not just ink on paper like its look. It's meant to be read in three dimensions, and that's when its meaning jumps out at you. The document itself is telling you how to assemble the three-dimensional arrays. That's the way an advanced intelligence would communicate almost infinite data to you.
To me, that's like, wow. Like, I wonder if that's not science fiction. I wonder if that's real. Because that's what we see over and over again, that the Torah is not a two-dimensional document. It's a three-dimensional document. The Torah itself shows you how to construct the three-dimensional overlays. So to me, that's why that scene was powerful. I'm wondering your reactions in seeing it -- you never saw the movie. Go ahead.
Imu: I'll be honest with you, that scene didn't move me at all. But what did move me was watching you watch it, because Rabbi Fohrman's kind of -- you can't see him, he's kind of bouncing in his chair like a kid just having discovered the coolest of toys. I can see kind of how moving it would be to just have this metaphor for an idea that you experience.
Again, I just reflect back on my experience of Torah before having met you, and the way in which I was taught, you know, at some of the really high-quality yeshivot that I attended, is really external ciphers or external -- what do they call it? A primer, projected onto a text. The way I learned Torah is, study these commentators who have already done the work of processing this text. They will tell you what the text means.
Sometimes almost, you know, the exact opposite of what a word means, a gloss will say, oh, it means the opposite, and you just trust that. What I found to be liberating and compelling about, you know, your methodology, which I often tell you is not your methodology, is that it's not your methodology. It's the text's methodology. I think there's something so brilliant about that and elegant about that, that all Rabbi Fohrman has really done is discovered the primer within the text itself.
Right, Rabbi Fohrman's not saying, here's intertextuality, I've invented it and I see how it applies in the text. He just read the text closely and noticed repeating words in multiple stories, and realized the text is trying to ask you, to tell you how it's meant to be read. That can really bowl you over and just realize that, what an elegant, brilliant document that can withstand ages and ages of human history. Despite the fact that people may pile commentary on top of commentary, you can put that all aside and approach the text, if you are going to be a humble and faithful reader or good listener, you'll discover how this text itself is meant to be read.
That's crazy, and only an elegant mind like yours, I think, would have been able to see that. I would never have seen that in my lifetime, and I'm grateful to have experienced that with you, and to appreciate the scene through your eyes, to see what this means to you.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. At my age, I'm happy to occasionally have my moments of being the little eight-year-old child dancing around in their chair, really happy with this scene and sharing it with someone, and they have this delight that everyone else kind of patronizes. So that's fine, that's fine. I'll be that guy.
But yes, I guess I have a penchant for films that resonate with my work. I remember even back in the early days, when I first began to see some of this stuff, I was thinking, oh my gosh. It just reminds me of that moment in Contact. So those are my thoughts.
Well, it's been fun sharing these. I look forward to sharing a couple others. We'll pick up again and continue the discussion.