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Films like Henry Bean's The Believer (2001) can make the orthodox Jewish community nervous – and rightly so. I'm sure this is why that despite the film's as-close-to-athoritative-as-you're-gonna-get-in-mainstream-cinema depiction of Jewish custom and philosophy, it was upon its release and still remains ignored by observant Judaism. What if I were to tell you that the film features Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Half Nelson) in a truly mesmerizing performance – one where he makes arguments directly out of Chullin, explains the calligraphy on klaf, and sings Aveinu Malkeinu as the Ba'al Tefilah on Kol Nidre night. Sound like a movie that would be shown in Camp Toras Chaim on a rainy day. What if I were also to tell you that in the very same film, Gosling's Danny Balint, beats a yeshiva kid mercilessly, wears a swastika t-shirt, and plants a bomb in a shul.
The Believer, though based on true events is a fantasy. If an audience were to take it as gospel, the value would be lost. It is purposely a "what if" tale that could potentially rock the foundation of every Jew (but moreso the orthodox, and even moreso the orthodox male Yeshiva product).
The underlying premise of The Believer is simple and understandable to any one of us who have grown indifferent to many of the teachings we accepted with such naiveté, such open hopeful hearts throughout our early education. Although those outside of orthodoxy would sell the film as "What if an orthodox Jew became a neo-Nazi?", as the more sophisticated and aware, we would make the pitch, "What if a Yeshiva student in seventh grade had the intelligence, the cynicism, the analytical prowess, the critical nature, and the crisis of belief that all good orthodox Jews experience at some point during their adulthood?" What if you had all that muted rage, sense of betrayal, confusion, and helplessness pounding in your twelve year old mind? What if you had all these feelings before you established roots in the community, were married and had your kids in Yeshiva, and essentially unconsciously entrenched yourself in Ba'alabatish society. Well, you probably wouldn't become a neo-Nazi skinhead, but the argument behind the premise remains provocative and mostly sound. How much religious ideology and rhetoric could one take, where legitimate question after legitimate question is met in seemingly preposterous fashion before one snaps? What if at twelve you weren't capable of coming to peace with the faith element of Judaism that is beyond daunting and surely mandatory.
In The Believer, Danny is shown through flashback sequences in a Yeshiva classroom (pretty well done but a bit too Neil Simon for my taste) arguing with his Rabbi about his interpretation of the akeidah. Arguing drash over pshat. We see that he is troubled by the lesson, the concept, and now we can relate (though at the time we lapped it up and made the art projects). Although our fluctuating disappointment with mesorah may result in waves of frustration and despondency, Danny, at some point unfortunately not depicted, takes a very different route. He translates the blind commitment of orthodoxy into Jewish weakness and a vehement self-hatred, which he then converts into a fanatical and aggressive form of anti-Semitism. Yes, it is a stretch, but one worth exploring no less.
The film takes itself very seriously and for orthodox Jews watching there will be some eye-roll worthy moments because no matter how much research you do, you just can't get everything right. One authenticity breaker is that although the Jewish characters are clearly from orthodox backgrounds, they all daven together in the same evidently conservative shul. That is not to say that Bean misses the boat. His cast, particularly Gosling, for a non-Jewish actor, does an impeccable job with his Hebrew and Torah knowledge. Bean's consultants were top notch. There is even a scene where Danny sings out "V'zos HaTorah" while extending out his arm and pinky mimicking the Hitler salute.
Although The Believer has its narrative issues and certainly much implausibility (as it appears to
be a rushed, overly excited work), the value lies in the message (and the Gosling performance). The message, I think, is the reason the film hasn't broken the walls of orthodoxy (besides of course the profanities and nudity) – the message may well promote anti-Semitism more than anything else. Judaism is a religion founded in belief and sustained by repetition of traditions. It does not stand up well to rational arguments – and it shouldn't have to. Sure, Danny is a Jew and in the end he kind of comes around and somewhat embraces whom he can't escape being, but Bean gives him his most impassioned moments while orally and physically pummeling Jews.
The film is comparable to a trial where we sit as the jury listening to witness after witness testify about how horrible the defendant is, and then just before we are asked to hand down a verdict, the judge instructs us to disregard all the testimony. Not that all Danny's hate speech is persuasive (like his take on Jews and oral sex) but it will add fuel to the fire for either anti-Semites, or, more importantly those Jews and non-Jews on the fence. Instead of supplying a character as intelligent as Danny to battle his deranged outlook, the filmmakers rely on the old standby to combat anti-Semites. In a most absurd scenario, the skin-heads are ordered by a judge to sit down with survivors and listen to their gruesome memories. Not only does this sentence seem highly unlikely, but it makes a sad argument occasionally still made which suggests that a valid reason not to hate and want to kill Jews is because somebody else really bad hated and wanted to kill Jews. The film does, whether purposely or not, whether true or not, make orthodox Jews appear weak. As for Israelis, Danny dismisses that phenomen by saying, "those aren't Jews."
The Believer is not required to defend orthodoxy. Its responsibility is to tell a story with maturity and insight, and it struggles there as well. The plot becomes convoluted as the assassination of a prominent Jew takes center stage and (Holy Seeyatah D'Shmaya Batman!) the DA assigned to the case is a frum girl and former Yeshiva-mate of Danny's (and she offers to look the other way because of their past!).
The reason this film unsettles the orthodox, as mentioned earlier, is because it delivers no counter punch for Judaism. It gives no explanation for Danny's motives when he at one moment allows his skinhead gang into a shul to trash it and the next moment he is lovingly cradling a torah scroll that his cronies tore and spit on. Danny's inner storm is relatable but not the extreme manifestation of it.
Bean's script is also troubling because it raises resonant arguments against the American Yeshiva system. We can handle the classic anti-Semite venom regarding owning banks and the media, but when one of our own throws our insecurity, ghetto mindset, and contradictory textual interpretations in our face…well…that becomes a problem (cherem anyone?). If Danny teaches us anything to be perceived as positive it is that we need to have more pride, but not only that, we need to make our religion something we are proud of, something we can competently explain (at the very least to ourselves). Halachic Judaism needs to be something we are confident with, not a source of half a smile and hands thrown up in the air when a co-worker asks a question about a certain practice or custom. Faith will only get the individual so far. In the end, a viable religious system needs an element of sense and formalised rationailty. We do need to be more critical of what we are taught (and as we advance, what our children are taught), and analyze the reasoning behind the Halachah and decide for ourselves the proper application. Maybe instead of bobbing our heads and saying "shkoyach" after every d'var torah, no matter the content, we should occasionally raise our hand and say what many of us must be thinking: What the hell are you talking about sir?! If we choose to conform to tradition (as orthodoxy demands) so be it, but at least we are aware that we have conformed and can then process intellectually the choice we have made
Danny is a Jew. He represents a problem. There is a disease spreading in Yeshivas and The Believer merely reflects a single symptom. What we really need to ask ourselves is: If I were sitting across from a kid like Danny, a kid at twelve with all the right questions…what would I have to say?