Thursday, March 10, 2011

Angels in America

I probably shouldn’t admit this at all, and least of all in print, but I’ve always been a fan of “angel” television shows and, slightly less embarrassingly, of at least some of the more popular “angel” movies of recent years as well. I didn’t even live in the United States for the five years that Michael Landon starred in Highway to Heaven, but it aired in Israel and Canada on “real” TV and was available in Germany on U.S. Armed Forces television network, and I don’t think we ever missed an episode. (We didn’t have anything to do with the army during our years in Germany, but we lived close enough to one of the big bases to receive their television signal easily.) Partially, I suppose I liked the show because Michael Landon is a landsman who hailed, albeit as Eugene Orowitz, at least originally from my old neighborhood in Queens, but mostly I liked it because it corresponded so precisely to one of deepest fantasies, the one that God’s governance of the world is not solely left in our hands, that it isn’t all about finding elusive and allusive signs of God’s presence in the world if and when we can, that there really are people who walk among us and who know (and not symbolically or metaphorically, but categorically and verifiably) what it is God wants of us all. Or rather not people exactly, of course, but angels, divine beings who only look like people but who travel the highway to heaven not by ruminating about it or fantasizing about it but actually by traveling on it in the manner of real people going somewhere on a road that exists fully and really outside the fertile imagination of the traveler.

The Bible, after all, is replete with such beings. One of my favorite biblical scenes is the one in which Joshua at Jericho suddenly looks up and sees a man standing before him. Naturally enough, he, Joshua, asks the man if he is friend or foe. The man answers that he Is God’s angel sent to lead the Israelites to victory and that he has finally arrived. For some reason I have always especially liked the words ata bati, the Hebrew words corresponding to the “Now I have come” part in that story, and wondered what it would be like actually to hear Michael Landon—or someone!—say them to me, then reveal some crucial, otherwise unknowable, piece of my personal destiny. Which of us hasn’t had some version of that fantasy? And therein, of course, lay the real secret of the success of Landon’s show, which took the form precisely of a weekly elaboration of that exact scene as Michael Landon’s character said those words or their equivalent constantly to people into whose lives he stepped in that great Hollywood style to share the One Detail That generally Changed Everything. Ata bati. I’ve come…and not just to earth (which would really be cool enough all by itself), but specifically to you!

Later on, there was Touched by An Angel. Different cast, same concept. The show, which ran for nine seasons, was far more successful than Highway to Heaven and it had a different feel to it—slightly grittier story lines, darker both in terms of the dilemmas its angels were obliged to attempt to resolve and also in terms of the way the human beings on the show behaved both towards their would-be saviors and towards each other—but the show appealed to me personally because it provided a weekly midrash on the same fantasy that earlier generated its predecessor’s plot lines. And so there I was, almost twenty years older when Touched by An Angel ended than I was when Highway to Heaven premiered, and I still liked the idea of there being malakhim among us guiding us forward through the mazes that are our lives, hinting to us which direction to take at which crossroads, even shoving us out of harm’s way when necessary. Like all rabbis, I like to think of myself as a sophisticated theologian who turns to the sacred classics of the learned sages of previous generations to find spiritual solace and guidance. But the allure of these kitschy, melodramatic shows featuring actual guides appearing out of nowhere to whisper precisely the right counsel into the ear of precisely the right person at precisely the right moment—how can reading even the greatest of old books compete with sitting on the couch and watching a show with that kind of seductive appeal?

Movies, I’m less sappy about. For some reason, I always find It’s a Wonderful Life more depressing than uplifting. Still, I loved John Travolta in Michael. Loved Ben and Matt in Dogma. Didn’t love Denzel Washington in The Preacher’s Wife. Truly loved Emma Thomson in Angels in America. Loved Prairie Home Companion, but couldn’t quite figure out what the angel thing was really all about. And then, just this last Saturday night, Joan and I went to see Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau. It got great reviews. It features great acting by some very talented actors. It will probably be a huge hit. I hated it.

The basic premise of the movie is that God, coyly called “The Chairman,” is in complete control of the universe and specifically of all the people in it. Indeed, according to the movie, we are only allowed to think that we make decisions that matter in our lives but are actually mere pawns in an elaborate game plan none of us knows or can ever can know. Free will is real, but trivial: we can decide whether to have oatmeal or corn flakes for breakfast, but when we make truly important decisions that might inadvertently lead us away from The Plan, God (or Whomever) sends angels, coyly called “case workers” in the movie, who work for the celestial Adjustment Bureau and whose job it is either gently or not gently to nudge, or occasionally violently to force, us back onto the right track. These angels are odd dudes. They carry around magic Kindles detailing in some sort of electronic hieroglyphics the plan God has evolved for every single human being. For some unexplained reason, they are powerless when surrounded by water. They don’t have wings, but for some reason they have to wear hats. (An angel in the movie notes en passant that even a yarmulke will do. So there!) And those hats really matter because they somehow allow the angels wearing them to travel around the world at miraculous speeds by opening magic doors that reduce the distance between their location at any given moment and wherever it is they wish they were to the width of a threshold. (There’s something about the direction you have to turn the doorknob too, but all that I could seize about that part was that it is really, really bad to turn the knob the wrong way!)

The movie also has a “real” plot that involves its two stars bucking the system—there’s a surprise!—and eventually either ending up together or not ending up together. (I don’t want to ruin the movie for those of you planning to see it by giving away the ending.) But what I wanted to write about today isn’t the movie’s plot per se, which was developed from a short story by Philip K. Dick, but the notion underlying that plot that free will is a chimera and that the real work of God’s angels consists of making us follow some pre-conceived plan without respect to the shape we ourselves may want our own lives to take or the path we wish them to follow.

The notion that we are all always on track, that some celestial creature dressed up like a regular human being is specifically in charge of keeping each of us on track, that none of us therefore is even capable of living life not according to God’s plan—this is a powerful set of ideas, one that will appeal on some level to more or less anyone who believes in destiny. How could it not? And yet…there is also something silly about the notion that these plans exist. And when we are not in the actual throes of succumbing to the pleasure of feeling ourselves so securely in God’s hands that no decision we ever make actually matters at all, I think most of us know that perfectly well. In any event, and Hollywood movies and television shows notwithstanding, our Torah teaches us that precisely the opposite is the case. That every decision a human being makes has the potential to further that individual along the path towards his or her destiny or to lead him or her off in the opposite direction. That deeds matter precisely because free will is real, because God rules the world specifically not by making us behave according to pre-conceived plans but by allowing us to make our own choices and then letting us bear the consequences of those choices for better or for worse. That the ineffable sanctity of life derives not from the sense that we only imagine ourselves to be free people but are actually marionettes endlessly being yanked along by invisible strings connected to the celestial Puppeteer, but from the sense that we are absolutely free and unfettered in terms of our ability to choose right from wrong…and also in terms of the ability each of us has absolutely to muck things up, to make a complete mess of our lives, and to turn our backs on our own ultimate destinies.

Movies like The Adjustment Bureau are popular, I think, because they play directly to the fantasy, no less soothing than pernicious, that none of us bears any real responsibility for our lives, that faith in God can be manipulated to yield the almost corollary belief that we are mere clay on the cosmic Potter’s wheel…and that we can no more make real choices that truly matter in life than can inert, lifeless clay. It’s a seductive idea and the challenge, therefore, is not to refuse to enjoy a good movie but to refuse to live lives based on the insidious supposition that moral decision making in life is hardly worth the effort because, in the end, our lives will be adjusted by angels wearing hats (and staying away from large bodies of water) who are responsible for making our lives play out according to some predetermined and divinely inflexible plan. Are we up to the challenge? It’s an excellent question, but one each of us will have to answer personally for him or herself.

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