SKIN DEEP
Seasons of the Moon Six fifteen a.m. Avenue of the Stars, Hollywood, California. fifteen years since I drove this road. A long fifteen years. In the quiet light, I see two concrete monoliths hidden away from the road, looming above the trees. hours ago these concrete monsters, giant Hollywood sound stages, had already risen from their slumber. In the dawn glow, they seem more formidable than I remember them. "This is where the dreams are made," I think to myself. "This is the dream factory."

Hollywood is a Jewish town. The business of dreams is a Jewish business. Prior to the dream factory, commerce in the united States of America was an east Coast affair dominated by WASPs. They weren't particularly fond of the Jews. After all, the Mayflower had arrived a couple of hundred years before those eastern european steamboats disgorged their poor, their tired, their hungry onto the shores of ellis island. Apart from any more overtly anti-Semitic feelings, white Anglo-Saxon America was certainly intent on maintaining its fiscal hegemony. The movies changed all that. Overnight. however, like many overnight changes, it took a while for the enormity of the change to sink in.

When the moving pictures came along, no one really foresaw that a new art form had been born. Motion pictures were a curiosity, a marvel of technical wizardry - but an art form capable of expressing ideas and feelings? That, no one had foreseen. Movie-making was a new business and it was as wide open as the West. With no WASP cartel to exclude them, the owners of the first movie theaters were, almost exclusively, Jews. The movie houses were hungry beasts, requiring a large and varied diet. It became clear to the owners of those movie theaters that they themselves would have to start producing movies, and to produce them economically they were going to need somewhere with a lot of space and low rents.

They were also going to need a lot of sun. In the early days, photographic film was insensitive, demanding a lot of light. That meant expensive electricity or reliable sunshine. They looked around for a place with year-round sunshine and cheap rents and labor and found some sleepy orange groves a few miles outside the city of los Angeles. The place had a rather bland name. It was called Hollywood.

From a few oranges, a legend was born.

If a lot was new about Hollywood, a lot was not. Hollywood was the latest chapter of a 2,500- year dialogue - a dialogue about how you get beneath the surface of things. About how you get to the Truth.

The dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens.

You might have thought that the story of Chanuka was about how a small group of Torah-loyal Jews trounced the armies of the Greek empire. In fact, it's the story of how the Torah beat out Hollywood - or its second-century BCe equivalent. More of a threat to the Jewish people than the Greeks themselves were those hellenized Jews who wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks. The hellenists adopted Greek names. They patronized the theater (which the Greeks conceived of as religious worship). To compete in athletic competitions, they removed the evidence of brit mila, the mark of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. Why did these Jews abandon their faith? Was it just a ticket into society - as was conversion to Christianity for nineteenth-century european Jews? Or was there something more philosophical about their apostasy?

Look up into a cloudy sky. All you can see are the clouds. The sky itself is beyond sight. "By his breath the heavens are spread [shifra]" (Iyov 26:13). God spreads aside the curtain of cloud to reveal that which is beyond. he disperses the clouds that conceal so we can see past the obstruction, past the surface. The word for "spread," shifra, has the same root as shapir, which means "beautify." In Jewish thought, beauty is seeing past the surface to the essence. That which is beautiful, by definition, is that which takes us beneath the surface, beyond the clouds, to reveal the endless blue heavens - to reveal the truth. To a Jew, Beauty can never be skin deep.

Similarly, the word for "ugly" and "opaque" in hebrew are the same - achur. By definition, something that conceals essence is ugly.

"Art for Art's sake" is not a Jewish concept. If the definition of beauty is that which reveals, something that reveals nothing but itself can never be beautiful. If anyone "invented" art - it was the Greeks; if anyone celebrated the cause of Art for Art's sake - it was Athens.

It would be too easy, however, to dismiss the Greeks, Art, and all who followed after them as merely interested in the surface of things. The Greeks and their ideological heirs believed - and continue to believe - that Art has a power to take you beyond, to connect to that which is Above; that through Art and artifice, you can get to the Truth.

Coleridge wrote that poetry should bear "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure...that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." This "willing suspension of disbelief " is at the heart of all theater and film. We all know that the person who just died so messily all over the stage will be doing exactly the same thing at the 3:15 matinée tomorrow. We all know that the dinosaurs tearing the luckless villain limb from limb are no more than a few billion pixels generated by a computer whiz in an airconditioned Hollywood special-effects factory. On a more elevated level, fine art also creates its own emotions. We are moved, genuinely moved, by the arrangement of blobs of oil paint on a canvas, by the chiaroscuro of a fine photograph. They are illusions, but they create real emotions.

The heart of the debate between Athens and Jerusalem is that the Greek believes that celebrating the surface can take you beneath the surface, that from illusion can come reality, that a lie can teach you the Truth.

The Jew says that there is only Truth or illusion - and illusion only takes you to greater illusion. It never leads to the Truth. If you take the first letter of the alef-bet, alef, its middle letter mem, and its final letter tav, it spells emet, "truth."

The Torah, which is written with that alef-bet, is called "Torat Emet," a Torah of Truth. It is Truth from the beginning to the end - and at every stage in the middle. It never uses artifice in the service of reality.

In those Hollywood dream factories work many talented Jews who can't resist the challenge to light up the world. neither could Chagall, Rothko, Modigliani, Pollock, Mahler, Kafka, Mendelssohn, Marx, Trotsky, freud, or einstein. Some 15 percent of all nobel prize nominees have been Jewish. The Jewish desire to light up the world, and their success in doing so, is very disproportionate to their numbers. Without Torah, however, a Jew will find that there are many blind alleys and dark crevices, places of unredeemed illusion and selfishness that come from his "light."

When a Jew lights up the world with Torah, he finds no dark places, no self-indulgence, no immorality, no freakishness, no blind alleys that lead to nothing more than his own ego. he has chosen to light up the world with a light that is True - from alef to tav.



More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.