Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors: A Jewish Response by Dr. Sanford Drob
Volume 3 , Issue 3 (Jan, 1990 | Kislev, 5750)
Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is a serious and philosophically challenging as well as a chilling movie. In spite of Mr. Allen's continued insistence upon stereotyping, and in many ways, mocking, the life‑styles and world‑views of Jews, particularly religious Jews, it is the first of his cinematic efforts to genuinely warrant a Jewish response. In this film he seems not only to be struggling with issues of general theological import, but with his personal (and consequently his audience's) relationship to the Jewish tradition as well. While Mr. Allen's lack of familiarity with the intricacies of Judaism and its response to the world's apparent absurdity and evil leads him to create a caricature of the Jewish approach to important philosophical/theological questions, he nonetheless manages to raise the issue of life's meaning and value as it is experienced by a generation of prosperous, educated, and assimilated Jews who have rejected or become estranged from their traditional Jewish roots.
The philosophical or theological issue which Crimes and Misdemeanors? raises explicitly can be summarized in the oft‑asked question ?Why do the wicked prosper?? and, more technically, in the question of whether values have any reality apart from the attitudes and feelings of individuals, and the conventions, based on these attitudes, adopted by a society in its moral rules and laws. Judah Rosenthal (played by Martin Landau), a wealthy opthamologist and ?philanthropist,? and the main villain in Mr. Allen's film, arranges for the murder of his neurotic ex‑lover, Delores Paley (played by Angelica Huston) who, after their two year love affair, now threatens to reveal all to Rosenthal's wife and, further, to expose his (presumably serious) business improprieties unless he agrees to make good on the ?promises? he has made to her. Rosenthal, who has consciously rejected the Jewish piety of his father's home, yet who remains haunted by the childhood image of an ever‑vigilant, all‑knowing, G‑d, experiences a psychological, or, better, an existential, crisis over his own options in the face of his lover's threats: a crisis worthy of a Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Sartre. He seeks out the advice of one of his patients (a clean‑shaven, bareheaded ?rabbi? who is going blind from an unspecified eye ailment) as well as from his hardnosed, tough talking, apparently criminal brother. The rabbi presents Rosenthal with a homily to the effect that he should make a full confession to his wife and hope that they and their love will grow as a result of the experience. The brother suggests that Rosenthal put up a large sum of cash to have the lover eliminated.
Initially aghast at the thought that he is contemplating murder, Rosenthal finds himself ?incapable? of confessing the adultery to his wife, and in a moment of crisis calls his brother and gives him the signal to proceed with the contract killing. When his brother later calls to confirm that the deed has been done, Rosenthal turns white and hurriedly leaves a dinner party at his own home to drive to the victim's apartment where he sees his ex‑lover's lifeless body and vacant stare. After experiencing a series of chilling flash backs of their most tender moments together Rosenthal then proceeds to remove her pictures and diary, the evidence that he was involved in any way in her life.
In the days after the murder, Rosenthal experiences enormous guilt, heightened by continued flashbacks of his relationship with Delores and memories of his religious father and the shul they had both attended when Rosenthal was a child. He visits his boyhood home, where he imagines the participants at a family seder some forty years earlier (shortly after the defeat of Hitler) addressing each other and himself, both as a child and as an adult, on the very existential question which he is currently facing. His father, taking the point of view of traditional piety, argues that G‑d is always watching and the wicked will be punished. He must, he tells his seder guests, affirm at all costs, (even at the cost of truth), that there is, indeed, a moral order to the universe. A free‑thinking aunt at the opposite end of the seder table takes another point of view. As far as she's concerned, if a man commits murder and gets away with it, and he chooses or manages to prevent it from bothering him, he will neither be punished nor called to task in any other way; as values are totally subjective, he will be able to continue to live his life just as before. This, she insists, is reality, and it is foolish for anyone to think otherwise. Rosenthal, who had hitherto been on the verge of confessing his crime to the authorities, now does an about face, his existential crisis de‑escalates, and the movie ends with him philosophizing about a ?might makes right? reality, dancing with his wife at the wedding of the daughter of the (now totally blind) rabbi and promising to throw an even more lavish affair for his own daughter.
The ?crime? of Crimes and Misdemeanors is echoed by a delightful subplot in which a middle‑aged film producer (played by Mia Farrow) chooses to ignore her own aesthetic, critical, moral and intellectual values in passing over the amorous advances of Clifford Stern, a sensitive, politically aware, and ?real? failure (played by Mr. Allen) in favor of marrying an incredibly rich, famous, insensitive, phony and obnoxious television director (played by Alan Alda). She does this, quite obviously, in order to further her own career. In a sudden and radical transformation of values, she turns to Clifford Stern near the end of the film and tells him that her fiance is sensitive, romantic, genuine, and caring. Her act is a ?misdemeanor? in comparison to Rosenthal's ?crime,? but her story adds an everyday weight to the thesis those who are able to manipulate ?right and wrong? within the spheres of their own consciences are the true realists and the only winners. Those of us, like the rabbi and (implicitly) Clifford Stern, who believe in a moral order to the universe, are fools.
Mr. Allen's Doubts
But alas, there is a gnawing doubt; one doubt that opens the way for another interpretation, and, perhaps, which beckons us to take a second look at the ?moral law.? Throughout the movie, Clifford Stern is obsessed with the prospect of doing a film documentary on the thought of one Louis Levi, a philosophy professor who articulates the no moral order thesis in its most optimistic form. Life, he tells us, in the weighty European accent of one whose family had been destroyed in the Holocaust, is beautiful as long as one can continually infuse it with subjective meaning and value. All values are projections of the human spirit, and G‑d Himself is nothing but the creation of man. Indeed, according to Levi, it was a limitation in man's ability to infuse the world with value that led to the biblical image of a jealous, vengeful G‑d, for man had not yet been able to conceive of a purely loving deity. Stern regards Levi's message as profound, optimistic, and upbeat, and it comes as a severe shock to him when he receives a message that Levi has committed suicide, leaving only the bare‑bones of reality note ?I went out the window.? Stern comments that in a world in which all value is subjective, a man can infuse reality with meaning everyday for a lifetime and then wake up one morning, have a bad hour, and jump out of a window. In a world without a moral order, a world without a G‑d, Levi's virtue is as subjective and ephemeral as Rosenthal's evil.
So who, we might ask, are the fools? Rosenthal's father and the rabbi who ?blindly? affirm the validity of a ?moral order?? Clifford Stern, committed to ?authenticity? in political and personal action? Or Levi and Rosenthal who, in the end, assert through their actions that there is really nothing at all to be affirmed? How are we, committed to the faith and covenant of Abraham, to respond to the lives and philosophies portrayed in Mr. Allen's film?
Vanity and Frustration
?Judaism is hardly unaware of the challenges to faith raised by Crimes and Misdemeanors. As we learn from Ecclesiastes (8: 13‑14):
Sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according the conduct of the upright.
And this, according to the biblical author, is evidence for his assertion that all is vanity and frustration. Furthermore, the midrash Ruth Rabbah, Ch.6, sec.4) relates the story of Elisha ben Avuyah who broke with Judaism upon seeing one man rewarded for a transgression supposedly punishable by death, and a second man killed after performing a mitzvah for which the Torah promises long life. While Jewish tradition (at least on one level) does affirm the doctrine that the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished, both in this life and the next, it is far too realistic, sophisticated and complex to be adequately represented either by Mr. Allen's blind rabbi or through the images and memories of a man (Judah Rosenthal) who has hardly given a thought to the Jewish tradition since childhood. The Torah speaks to the question of the ?wicked who prosper? in many ways and on many levels, and it will be worth our while to examine some of these here, if only to provide the beginnings of an answer to the challenge of Mr. Allen's disturbing film.
That the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will suffer is a well established biblical theme. It is avowed in the Jew's twice daily repetition of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13‑21); it is the subject of various biblical injunctions (Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 28 and Exodus? 20:12); and is reaffirmed in Psalms where it is written:? ?When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish, it is that they shall be destroyed forever...? Psalms 92:8 The righteous, according to the prophet Ezekiel, shall ?live,? while ?the person who sins, he alone shall die.? (Ezekiel 18). The question, however, which is raised in the Talmud, is what is meant by ?live? and ?die.? Since it is obvious that many wicked individuals prosper and live while many of the righteous suffer and go to an early grave, we must seek a deeper interpretation of the prophets' words. And, indeed, we learn from the Talmud (Berakhot, 18a‑18b) that ?the righteous are called living in their death,? while the wicked are ?already counted as dead? while they are yet alive. One meaning that can be given to these words is that the unrepentant evil deeds of a person, whether he acknowledges these himself or not, have a way of destroying an individual's soul even while his physical self continues to live. Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, the individual is revealed in his essence when he is divested of all material advantage, and distraction. The ?person? is thus nothing but the sum total of his deeds and intentions; and to the extent to which an individual's deeds are wicked, and he is without guilt or repentance, he is, the Talmud here intimates, devoid of true life. The English language has expressions for such an individual: he is inhuman; without conscience; deranged; without a heart; or suffering from a sickness or deadness of the soul. Where even the possibility of repentance has been eliminated, we might be tempted to say, as in the case of Judah Rosenthal (who commissioned a murder in order to maintain the status quo of his empty marriage and corrupt philanthropy), that he himself is ?already counted as dead.?
Simeon ben Azza said:
Be quick in carrying out a minor commandment as a major one, and flee from transgression, for one good deed leads to another good deed and one transgression leads to another transgression. For the reward of one good deed is another good deed and the reward for a transgression is another transgression.
Here we not only have the germ of the theory that virtue is its own reward, and evil its own punishment, but also the social and psychological truth that one good or wicked deed begets another in like kind. Judah Rosenthal's transgressions certainly compound one another with a high rate of interest, and he is ?rewarded? for his marital infidelity with ?murder.? True, he is capable of denying or rationalizing the import of it all (and this is what makes him so repugnant in the end), but only at the expense of being estranged from a true existential accounting of his life. In Sartrian terms, he exists in a perpetual condition of ?bad faith.? In theological terms, he is estranged from G‑d. Further, unless we are willing to totally subjectify truth, Rosenthal, who committed the murder at the urging of his ?realist? brother is totally estranged from truth and reality, as well. His renewed peaceful, suburban existence is evidence that he is suffering from a dissociation from reality in which his deeds, or at the very least their significance, have been totally denied.
A person's evil deeds, (unless he does teshuvah ‑ repentance) are, according to Jewish tradition, forever written unto the fabric of the universe. Indeed, according to the kabbalah, when a man sins, he automatically creates an evil spiritual entity which clings to his soul for all eternity. Time cannot erase a wicked, or for that matter a righteous deed, because ?time? itself is ultimately an illusion. A man's acts are as real a thousand years into the future as they are the second after they occur. To deny this view of ?reality? would be tantamount to denying the ?reality? of anything, for nothing occurs in an instant, all real events reside, so to speak, in the past. Our deeds are written into the great book of the cosmos in much the same way that Judah Rosenthal's murder is enshrined on film. Indeed the great irony of Crimes and Misdemeanors is that the supposedly mythical idea of the watchful eye of G‑d is vindicated by the watchful eye of the camera. We, the viewers, are Rosenthal's ?G‑d?; it is we who see all and pass judgment on his deeds.
What We Take to the Grave
But this is reality! Rosenthal himself protests within the movie that life is not a film; there is no ?justice,? only what a man can get away with! But what, indeed, does a man really ?get away with?? What, we might ask, does he take to the grave? I am reminded of the story of one of Victor Frankl's elderly patients, a woman who was dying of cancer and overwhelmed with depression, anxiety and despair at the thought of her own demise. Frankl asks her a series of questions that are as remarkable for their simplicity as they are for their therapeutic effect. He asks her if all the wonderful things of her life, the happiness she has experienced, the goodness she has met, what she has achieved and accomplished, what she has bravely and honestly suffered, etc. can ever be annihilated or invalidated. In her acknowledgement that no one or nothing can ever ?blot them out,? she is able to both take satisfaction in her life and make peace with her death. For Judaism, death is a man's ultimate moment. It is said that when the chasidic Rabbi Simkhah Burem of Przysucha lay dying, his wife burst into tears. He said, ?What are you crying for? My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.? What, we might ask, will Judah Rosenthal ?get away with? when he faces the grave?
Even the existentialists, (of whom Mr. Allen probably now qualifies as a representative), were ultimately lost without some values beyond the subjective judgments of the self. We need only recall that Sartre, himself, left existentialism behind for a brand of Marxism, and how Heidegger, affirmed the ?ideals? of National Socialism to understand, (at least in Heidegger's case), how the human spirit will clutch at almost anything to fulfill its need for such transcendent values. Many who are otherwise non‑believers, (as Irvin Yalom points out in Existential Psychotherapy), arrive at an affirmation of moral causes, personal altruism, and self‑transcendence, values which themselves begin to take on the look of objectivity if only because of their usefulness, indeed their necessity, as an antidote to existential pain and anxiety. It is, perhaps, an indirect, but nonetheless encouraging affirmation of the ?moral order,? that we find in psychiatry: for it is precisely those individuals who suffer from disorders of narcissism (and its variants psychopathy and sociopathy), who act in ways which ignore the feelings of others, (and who, as Heinz Kohut has pointed out, live in a world without structured values), who are unable to overcome chronic feelings of existential emptiness, dissolution and annihilation. ?Hell,? far from being (in Sartre's well worn phrase) ?other people,? is, rather, most often the isolation from others and the estrangement from values which defines Judah Rosenthal's ?narcissistic solution.?
Any Jewish response to Rosenthal's dilemma must, as even Mr. Allen's rabbi recognized, begin with an understanding that for Judaism, teshuvah, or repentance, is perhaps the very highest of values; it is the value which is sanctified on the holiest of days, (one can only imagine the thoughts of Judah Rosenthal as he makes his annual visit to synagogue on Yom Kippur), and it is the value which the Talmud exalts when it declares: ?In the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.?
In Jewish terms, Judah Rosenthal is a man who cannot accept defeat in himself, who can neither humble himself nor acknowledge his own imperfections and accept the consequences of his imperfect acts. And this is precisely what makes him a tragic and, ultimately, evil figure. His own ?success,? whatever that means to him, is more valuable than another's life, and, as such, one might well ask whether a man such as Rosenthal is truly able to affirm the value of human life (even of his own). Judah Rosenthal is a man whose very humanity is in need of a supreme catharsis. Teshuvah, Rav Soloveitchik, tells us, is the only true catharsis, for only through repentance can we relate to ourselves, our fellow man and G‑d in a manner that is not burdened by our need to escape from or deny the realities of our own lives.
The Wrong Philosopher
One gets the distinct impression that Clifford Stern was interviewing the wrong philosopher. Professor Louis Levi, while well‑intentioned, suffered the burden of affirming himself and his world in each and every moment of his existence. He could not, despite his belief in the power of human ?love,? find comfort or solace in anything beyond himself, and ultimately ended his life. One wonders what Clifford Stern (or by extension, Mr. Allen) would have learned had he interviewed a Victor Frankl or Rav Soloveitchik, men who retained their faith in a transcendent moral order even in the face of great personal despair, and who affirmed, each in his own way, that when all is said and done, when all philosophy comes to an end, the only response to the challenge of the apparent victory of evil is to reaffirm, through one's actions, the inherent value, reality and power of the ?good.?
We must not fool ourselves. No philosophy, no matter how persuasive, can remove the possibility that there are, indeed, some individuals who commit heinous crimes and yet within the context of their own perverse values (or non‑values), manage to enjoy the fruits of their crimes until death. It is only, however, when we ourselves adopt such ?non‑values? as our own, and fail as Jews to live by the values of our Jewish tradition, that we are deeply disturbed by this possibility. The problem of the prosperity of the wicked ultimately leaves us as Jews with a choice, to deny or affirm the values upon which our great tradition has been established. If Crimes and Misdemeanors leads at least some of its viewers to reach such an affirmation, or simply brings its Jewish viewers to look a bit more closely at the traditions which its chief villain rejects, it will be one of those rare films which is not only a financial and aesthetic success, but of moral value as well.