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Finding God on the silver screen

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Regardless of our personal tastes in movies, most of us agree that the medium offers the possibility of more than just entertainment and escape. Its ability to create and present imaginary lives and bring us into other people’s homes and worlds makes it a powerful vehicle for social and political commentary.

Movies expose us to the lives of people we’ve never met. The feeling of intimacy between the viewer and the characters creates a space for empathy that’s often not apparent in real life. And the insights we gather as we watch films can carry over into the way we see others, and ourselves.

We’ve come to respect film as a medium that can stretch our understanding of local and global cultures, of human relations, of politics and of social ills. But what about film as a medium that prods us to contemplate God? What about cinema as theology?

Looking to pass the long hours on a recent flight to Israel, I scrolled through the available movies and landed on Rama Burshtein’s most recent film, The Wedding Plan. The 2016 movie had been recommended to me as a moving story of a young woman’s quest to find a husband – just the kind of light fare that lends itself to watching in the wee hours of the night, 35,000 feet above the ocean. I enjoyed it.

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But unlike most rom-coms, this one kept creeping into my thoughts for weeks. So on a series of subsequent transatlantic flights, I watched the film again. And again. And again. I continue to be fascinated by it, because I think that Burshtein has accomplished something beyond the telling of a sweet tale. She has adapted the medium of film to talk theology – the mystical nature of God and our relationship to the divine.

Burshtein is an Israeli film director and a ba’alat tshuvah – a secular Jew who, in her adult life, and after studying film at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, became haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. For secular viewers, her movies open an unusual window into haredi life. But it struck me that her movies are more than romances, or sociological explorations.

The protagonist of The Wedding Plan is Michal, a ba’alat tshuvah who has had it with an endless succession of shidduch dates that lead nowhere. So she throws out a challenge to herself and to God. She plans a wedding, down to the last detail – the venue, catering menu, invitations, gown and guests. Only the bridegroom remains to be found.

As Burshtein makes clear, Michal is a Bratzlever Chassid – a follower of Rav Nachman of Bratslav. Rav Nachman was a charismatic rebbe who moved to Bratslav in the early 1800s, and then to Uman, in contemporary Ukraine, shortly before his death in 1810, when he was in his late 30s. He was known for his focus on seeking intimacy with God through ordinary activities in daily life, and for his struggles with maintaining faith through despair and doubt.

One astonishing aspect of Rav Nachman’s legacy is his use of storytelling as a theological vehicle. Of course, many rebbes were storytellers. But the stories attributed to Rav Nachman are unusual – for their intricacy and for their subject matter, which was often far removed from the realm of simple Jews and their rebbes. In their complexity, density and enigmatic tone, they are more like literary fiction than homiletic tales. And, as literature does, they contain layers of meaning and use language to point to things that language cannot quite describe.

It is no small thing to say that Burshtein uses the medium of film as Rav Nachman used the short story. Burshtein crafted a film that not only addresses such things as faith and doubt as subject matter, but also broaches the way that mysticism understands the world – as a place that’s saturated with meaning at every turn. n

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