2016-06-30
In a budding Beliefnet tradition, we're celebrating Oscar season by talking with five religious leaders and thinkers (listed at right) about each of this year's Best Picture nominees.

Rabbi Laura Geller
Photo by Raffi Alexander,
Spiderbox Photography
The interviews will appear all this week, beginning today with Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi of Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation and one the country's largest synagogues. When she was ordained in 1976, Geller was only the third female rabbi in the United States. She was the first woman to be selected as the head rabbi of a major metropolitan synagogue. Last week, she discussed "A Beautiful Mind" with Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips.

"A Beautiful Mind" depicts the life of John Nash, a talented mathematician whose paranoid schizophrenia threatens his academic career, his friendships and his marriage. The movie chronicles his struggle with his illness from graduate school days at Princeton to his triumph in 1994, when he won a Nobel Prize.


There's been some controversy about how "A Beautiful Mind" portrays John Nash, the scientist, who is a real-life professor at Princeton. If it's not a strict biography, what is the movie about?
It seems to me the movie teaches about the redemptive power of love. Whatever the true story is, in the movie, his wife stayed and supported him. She seemed to be very much a part of why he was able to conquer these very real demons that were part of his life. At the end of the movie, there's a wonderful moment of acknowledgment that made that very clear.

I think that it's through relationships like this husband and wife had that people begin to see divinity in other people, and that's a very Jewish notion. A modern Jewish philosopher like Martin Buber teaches that in a real relationship somehow you manage to experience another human being as a "thou"--not as a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. It's in those relationships that one really discovers divinity. In some ways, at least in the movie, the wife somehow manages to do that, against predictions.

At times Nash's character is pretty hard to deal with. Is everyone deserving of that kind of redemptive love?
I don't think it's a matter of being deserving. The main point in the movie is that all human beings are created in the image of God. That doesn't mean we're created in a physical image of God. God has no physical image. The issue isn't that we're perfect. But there's something about every human being that is a reflection of divinity, even with all of our differences.

Judaism has a tradition of saying blessings. The rabbis tell us we're supposed to say 100 blessings a day. There's a blessing that you say when you see someone who is very different-looking. One might say this blessing when you see someone who is very ugly, or very different-looking, or very extraordinary in a way that one might understand as negative. The blessing is, "Blessed are you God, over time and space, who varies creation."

It's a very interesting blessing because it says that every part of the universe, every human being, is an aspect of God's creation. The idea of variety, even if we might experience it individually as a bad thing, is in fact part of something much grander than we are.

So what does it mean to be created in the image of God? It means that every human being is unique. It means that we're all entitled to be treated equally, even if we're very different. We are all of absolute value, deserving to be treated as ends in ourselves.

And finally I think that we're always in the process of becoming. Because God can never be fixed. That's what idol worship is--when you say that God can be fixed. So to be created in God's image means that we are all always becoming. What we are at any moment is not necessarily the end of the story. I think the movie was really a terrific example of that.

What part of Nash was created in God's image?
In a world in which everybody has to be the same, he wasn't. He could have been put away and never been able to make a difference in the world and do the scientific work that led to the Nobel Prize or that later on led him to be a model to students.

You said that we learn about the divinity of God through our relationships with others. But it was exactly those relationships that Nash had such difficulty with. How do you think he learned to prosper in these relationships?
In the movie, the description of what he won the Nobel Prize for seemed to be a kind of game theory that suggested that the world is not a zero-sum game. I think that's an important teaching, that your winning doesn't mean my losing. So however difficult his interpersonal relationships were, however much he started from the perspective of needing to win, the movie suggests that that is not where he ended up intellectually.

One of the redemptive moments of love was when his old colleague let him come back to Princeton, and said, "You're going to need an office." So it wasn't just the wife, although it was primarily her. But these other colleagues were able to see beyond what must have been unbearably difficult for them interpersonally and see the human being that was behind the illness.

It seemed like he was excluded from that community for a long time because of his illness, so maybe it was redemptive for them as well, to have learned from him and to be able to welcome him back.
Right, that's a good point. That's another thing I thought was interesting from a Jewish perspective. Clearly the schizophrenia in the movie is real, and I'm not suggesting that it is metaphorical. But there is a notion in Jewish tradition that every person has two inclinations, the inclination to do good and the inclination to do bad. The task of the human being is to channel the inclination to do bad into productive ends. But also to recognize that the self can control dimensions within us that might be pulling us to do bad. The is related in the movie by the clarity of [Nash's] internal struggle. His demons didn't go away; he never was free of his illness. But he somehow managed to continue to fight for self-control, to acknowledge his demons, to acknowledge the yetzer ha-ra [the evil inclination], and to try his best not to be controlled by it.

Again, I don't mean to suggest that schizophrenia isn't a real illness--it is, and the movie powerfully describes it. But we can learn from it that all of us struggle with parts of ourselves that we need to learn to acknowledge but not be controlled by.

At one point, a character exclaims, "Jesus Christ," and Nash responds, "My savior complex takes on an entirely different form." He seemed to imply that religious belief is as delusional as schizophrenia.
Some people respond to religious beliefs as pure delusion, but I think a lot more people are respectful of religious beliefs. The issue is what one does with those beliefs, not what one believes.

I took that moment as an example of his sense of humor about his illness. His self-awareness was a significant dimension of his health. Whatever is happening to us, it helps to be self-aware and even have a sense of humor about it.

Again toward the end of the movie, a man from the Nobel committee comes and Nash turns to the student and asks if the man is real. He was making fun of himself and putting everybody at ease. You get the feeling that, although that internal struggle continues for his whole life, he reached a time when he accepted who he was. And it was an honest acceptance, not like at the beginning, when the most important thing was to win. This acknowledgement that we're all part of this tapestry of creation, that we're all, somehow or other, part of divinity.

So this movie is about all of us, as much as it is about John Nash.
As difficult as it is to deal with people who have serious illnesses, or who are different in all kinds of ways, I think the world is a richer place if everybody can learn to recognize diversity as a dimension of the variety of creation, and if we can find ways to create structures in society that make that possible.

It's not easy. If a schizophrenic chooses not to take his medication, it is genuinely difficult for the family members and friends and community members that he's connected to. We're lucky we live in a world where we more and more understand an illness like schizophrenia. There are ways to make people more able to function in society, so that the gifts they have to offer can be experienced by others. So partly it's about an individual's own strength, but it's also about a community's willingness to make room within it for diversity.

It's not easy, but I do think it's a religious imperative, to create that kind of world. And if we really could do it, the movie suggests, look at the benefits that would come to all of us.



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