The Mishnah (Oral Torah), edited around 220 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (Judah the Prince), offers wisdom from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah: Im ein kemach, ein Torah / Im ein Torah, ein kemach (Avot 3:17). Without bread (literally flour) there is no Torah and without Torah, there is no bread.
Hungry people trying to survive lack the energy and time to study. But without studying the Law or in the broadest terms without cultivating a sense of the moral, ethical and spiritual, we compromise our ability to survive physically. Many of the decisions we make—like rushing to war—harm both others and ourselves.
But do we really need Torah—or its equivalent in the culture of your choice—to produce food and life’s necessities? Hollywood has delivered the answer yet again, although I find its latest statement highly paradoxical.
On Christmas Day, my family and I had dim sum for lunch and saw the movie, Tron: Legacy that evening. Tron: Legacy leads me to offer a principle related to that of R. Elazar on which the movie both touches and abandons: Without Torah there is no meaningful technology.
I like Tron: Legacy’s premise that “users”—human beings—are more important than “programs,” the technology itself. Conflict develops on the Grid (within the computer environment) when programs oppress users who find their way in. The programs—technology—have sought to create perfection but fallen short. They’re angry and violent. Humans understand that perfection is impossible. The Mishnah cites Rabbi Tarphon: “You are not required to complete the work [repairing the world], but you are not free to abandon it” (Avot 2:16). The tension can be overwhelming.
Of course, Tron: Legacy is not the first film to examine the impact of technology on humanity. But Tron: Legacy’s Imax/3D version seemed to undermine anything human about the film. The computer-generated images represent a complex, sophisticated technological achievement. Yet they only distract from a weak, cliché-riddled script. A great many reviewers agree.
While technology can augment a good film, it makes a poor substitute for human vision beautifully and meaningfully expressed. Technology for its own sake exploits audiences while pretending to enlighten them. It brings to mind the old saying about software development: Garbage in, garbage out.
Not that Tron: Legacy won’t be profitable. But Hollywood’s love of blockbusters dependent on technology denies many filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories on a smaller scale that touch both mind and heart. The King’s Speech, relying on a great script and wonderful acting, represents such a film.
Technology is a means not an end. We can use it to bake and distribute more bread or create empty illusions that leave us hungry. Technology—in Hollywood or in our homes—will better serve us with a little more attention to Torah.