Rabbi Goldwag- I listen to many of your podcasts and find them insightful. I have a hashkafa question that i was wondering if you can answer for me. I know that watching movies that are inappropriate is bad – espescially for the neshama. But what about movies that are not inappropriate… I know that there are people who stay away from movies altogether and I was wondering why that is…? I’m not sure what’s wrong with watching movies if it’s just something that will give you a good laugh. It’s a level I would like to strive for but I won’t be able to get there if I don’t understand what the problem is with it.
I appreciate your thoughtful question. I want to preface my thoughts by saying that it is extremely hard for me to give a good personal answer because the answer really should be tailored to the person asking, and I don’t know you. Despite that, I will try to give you something to think about, and you can apply the ideas on your own, at your pace.
The power of movies and media is extremely strong, as a person is a combination of spiritual and physical forces. The most active force in our lives is our deep subconscious self, though most people are not consciously aware of this. When we say something like, “I wish I could get myself to do that,” we are really acknowledging that although consciously we understand it is something we should do, our deep subconscious, which is the root of our actions, is not interested in doing it. Part of the reason that stories and music are so powerful is because they both speak very deeply to our subconscious awareness. That is why reading a book like “One small word: Amen” is extremely powerful. The message underlying all the stories is the importance of Amen. As we read the stories, that message is repeated over and over, and enters deep into our minds. The fact that the message is being conveyed in a story also means that our guard is down – our subconscious has very limited resistance to instruction that is indirect. This is why reading a book like that is so powerful. I remember hearing of a certain young woman who was extremely modern, but nevertheless was exceedingly careful about saying her brachos out loud, most likely as a result of reading a book like this, or having imbibed the importance of brachos from some other powerful source.
A movie has the same power over our subconscious. Our guard is down and we are extremely impressionable. There are many subtle messages that are conveyed in a movie, even if it is ‘kosher,’ that are far from the hashkafa of the Torah. It is natural for us to think that we will not be adversely affected by watching a show that contains interactions and jokes that are antithetical to the Torah, because we honestly believe that we are greater than that. The truth is that on the conscious level, we are indeed greater than that. However, the subtlety of the message and the fact that our guard is down means that we will unconsciously begin to see the world through the prism of the story we are watching. Human beings learn the most through mimicry. Children as young as one year old learn the arts of human interaction completely through imitation. People of every age are no different. What we see is what we become. This is why our chachamim have told us that we should surround ourselves with people who are moral and sensitive to the Torah, and to live in a place where Torah is the guiding light of life. If you have ever seen the contrast between religious communities in Israel as opposed to their counterparts in America, you can see the subconscious effects of the surrounding culture, despite its conscious rejection.
The bottom line is that the things that we see, the stories we experience, the things we laugh at, and the people we surround ourselves with have a powerful impact on the deepest levels of our consciousness. These levels of consciousness are the very parts of ourselves that we were placed on this Earth to rectify. If we fill our lives with Torah experiences and Torah surroundings, we can raise our lowest selves to the highest heights. If we plant seeds of decadence in our mind by filling it with stories and art forms that are antithetical to Torah, we will dull our spiritual sensitivities, drawing ourselves in a downward direction, instead of drawing ourselves up. We need to daven for Hashem to help us and guide us to see and hear things that are productive and aid us in spiritual growth. We need to be consciously aware of what has a positive effect on this deep level and what does not.
If one honestly seeks the truth, as I see you do, Hashem will help find it.
All the best,