Friends, family, love. God, death, faith. These, and others, are deceptively simple words that we use all the time. Do we know what we mean by these important words? Do we know what other people mean when they use them? We seldom pause to reflect on these words or to make sure that we understand them. As we continue to use these words, we often misunderstand others and they often misunderstand us.
In Simple Words, Rabbi Steinsaltz examines some of the meanings of these powerful words. He transforms each word into a gem, turning it this way, then that, examining it to see more clearly its brilliant facets and what lies beyond them. He challenges us to think deeply about the connotations of these commonplace words, and in so doing, to see that there may be other ways of looking at things that we have taken for granted in our lives. Simple Words is a thought-provoking – and surprising – adventure that may change the way we think, speak, and act.
Read an excerpt from Simple Words, below, or purchase the book here.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essay on Hollywood
Hollywood is not just a place-it is a world in itself. Hollywood has done something remarkable: it has created a great and very successful religion. Through its successful missionaries-the films produced in Hollywood-it has spread all around the globe, gaining adherents faster than any other religion in the world. If it has not attained the stature of a full-fledged religion, at least it is a very strong cult.
Hollywood films are, of course, also a business, an amusement, and a highly efficient means for whiling away-even killing-as much time as anyone might want to kill. However, in this regard, it is not very different from other businesses or other parts of the amusement industry. Hollywood does much more than kill time, though. Hollywood has a formative influence on people’s lives. Hollywood influences people’s thinking, their values, their goals, the way they plan their lives, and their behavior. That is why boys will imitate the stance and language of a star, and girls will spend their last dollars just to have a Hollywood-style wedding.
Beyond that, Hollywood creates images of this world and of the next world; it creates desire and it creates dreams. Whether these dreams are far-fetched and unattainable, or very close to reality, they become the dreams of the people; they are the wishes of the people. People copy the manners, the behavior, the images, and the figures that Hollywood creates. In that sense, it is as powerful and as meaningful as any religion.
Like most religions and cults, it has both idols and worshipers, and a hierarchy not unlike that of a church. Its leaders do not have glorious titles such as Archbishop or Grand Lama, settling instead on being executives, producers, and directors. Even so, the lack of high-sounding titles and fancy dress do not hamper them from being rulers-sometimes absolute rulers-of their world. Like a church, Hollywood has active and passive members; some people make the rules, and others comply with them. There are the acolytes and the priests of the cult, and the multitude of worshipers.
Hollywood is a syncretistic religion that mixes pagan, Christian, and uniquely Hollywood elements. It is not new, or particularly creative. It recasts traditional images and elements in its own image in order to convey its message. The pagan elements are clearly apparent. This religion does not have one particular “prophet,” such as Moses or Muhammad, who could unanimously be considered its founder. Instead, it has a fair number of creators, some of whom have been identified, while others are left as hazy memories. The Hollywood pantheon contains the same gods of ancient times: Baal-Jupiter, the high god who became the god of money and power; Mars-Udin, who became the fierce fighter and soldier; Venus-Astarte, the goddess of fertility (and, nowadays, mostly of sex). These, and their minor helpers, are the abstract gods; their embodiments are the Movie Stars, who are mythic figures.
Like the ancient idols, some of the movie idols do not see, do not hear, do not feel anything. They are just bodies, images manipulated by producers and directors, the high priests of the Hollywood religion, who preach the gospel. These mini-gods, the stars, are worshiped. They are the subjects of dreams. Fans hang, and even kiss, pictures and posters of movie stars, and are enraptured when they can see them close up or even touch them. Their worshipers – as well as the worshipers of rock singers-create riots that are just like the riotous bacchanalia of earlier times.
Like many ancient religions-Egyptian, Babylonian, or Greek-the Hollywood religion does not have a clear-cut message or mission; it just exists. The tenets of this religion are not very explicit. It has many principles, most of them unwritten-there is no Holy Book of Hollywood. In that sense, too, it is similar to many primitive, ancient, and strong religions all over the world. These cults do not have a holy scripture, a book of law or theology, but they do have very clear-cut forms of worship as well as principles and ways of behavior.
Like Christianity – especially Protestantism – the Hollywood religion is very concerned with intention, sentiment, and emotion. The deed is of secondary importance. Within certain limits, the proper emotion justifies any outcome. It is the hero’s good intentions that matter; how he reaches his goal is far less important. The benevolent thief, the kindhearted prostitute, the noble killer can, and do, become heroes. Nevertheless, the Hollywood hero, unlike the villain, is not entirely free of boundaries. The Hollywood religion actually has a fairly limited framework, and cannot tolerate things or people that are too far outside that framework. Its internal moral code dictates that certain crimes are always punished. However, if you mean well, if you are in love, if you are a patriot, or if you are a victim – as long as your heart is pure, all the rest is not really very important.
The Hollywood religion is also a great believer in the happy ending, and in this it resembles some of the world’s greatest religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, unlike these religions, Hollywood simplifies the message. Its happy endings arrive faster (they must come at the end of the movie), and are far less connected to past deeds-except, of course, for the “pure heart.” Hollywood conveys the message that the world is like a fairy tale: somehow, it will all work out well in the end.
There are adventures and adversities, ups and downs, but these are, basically, like those in an amusement park. You do not ride the roller coaster or the Ferris wheel with the notion that you might fall and be hurt, or possibly die. You are able to enjoy the thrill because you have the firm conviction that you will always land safely. It may take a very long time and it may be quite complicated, but there will be, there must always be, a happy ending. The bad guys will ultimately be defeated and destroyed; the good guys will win and be happy. The story can be emotionally moving in other places, but the end has to be not only positive, it has to be happy. Often, the end is not just a solution to the problem-it has to be a happy solution. Even when the happy ending is not built into the story- some stories just cannot have a happy end, and the source material does not contain one-the Hollywood version will end happily, because otherwise it would be sacrilegious.
In this, the Hollywood religion diverges from pagan religions, which are far less interested in morality, allow for a great deal of real cruelty, and do not believe in happy endings.1 The Greek tragedies have no solution and no happy ending; some of them even end with everything destroyed and everyone killed. Hollywood does not accept such negativity, and not just because people do not like it. Such tragedy is contrary to Hollywood’s basic message.
What is the main point of the Hollywood religion? It is not sex. Although there is always a certain amount of sex mixed into the story, and very few Hollywood productions are completely devoid of anything sexual, sex is not the main tenet. As in many pagan religions, sex is one of the main rites. However, the Hollywood moral code dictates that this sex happen within a framework of love, even if it is a hollow image of love. Even in the more depraved productions, sex conveys at least some external, superficial resemblance to love. Anyone who has “clinical,” purely loveless, sex is obviously the villain. In any case, even when the sex is blatantly clear, it is not an aim in itself. Sex conveys the charm of the hero, or is the reward he receives for his success.
The main tenet of Hollywoodism can be summed up in one word: happiness. Happiness is the goal, the aim, the motivation for anything and everything. For some people, happiness may be sitting alone and looking at a tree, and for others it is hard work done well, but those are surely not examples of Hollywood-style happiness. Hollywood’s definition of happiness is comfort. It is a this-worldly happiness, not a heavenly happiness or a feeling of supernal bliss. The material goods, the house, the lifestyle, the dress are the happy endings of strife and struggle. Success is defined materially, and achievement is defined as gaining more of that brand of worldly happiness. The motivation behind every Hollywood story is the pursuit of happiness-which is, of course, attained at the happy end.
All these elements put together, coupled with the desire to reach as many people as possible,2 create another important aspect of Hollywood: the glorification of mediocrity. Outstanding achievements, in any field, are not part of the Hollywood religion. The Hollywood dream is not to be on top of the world, nor is it a goal to have great affluence, fame, or fortune. The outstanding people, of any kind, are not the real heroes. They may be part of the background scene, but are never supposed to be the objective of one’s striving. The goal is to be in a comfortable position, within the usual range. Excellence is just not within the doctrine of this particular religion.
The Hollywood dream is to be a successful mediocre person. Hollywood glorifies neither geniuses nor fools; it venerates ordinary people. Even outstanding historical figures are shrunk down to size, to be more or less the same as everybody else, within the limits of the mainstream. Hollywood makes the mediocre person feel that the hero is like himself in his daydreams-stronger, slightly cleverer, handsomer, sometimes even endowed with some supernatural powers, but behind all these disguises, the hero is really just a successful Everyman.
Very much like the Greek gods, the Hollywood-style heroes are ordinary human beings, not too outstanding, intrinsically not too much of anything, but with some exaggerated prowess, underneath which they are cast in a human mold. They are glorified simple people, glorified mediocre people. The striking beauty should be a beautiful version of the boy or girl next door. Therefore, Hollywood style beauty occurs always within a certain range of normalcy. Outstanding, startling beauties – Modigliani or Rubens types, for instance-will not work in Hollywood. The Hollywood hero has to be the simple person glorified yet still within the norm.
These rules are true in all types of filmmaking. These rules even hold true for Disney cartoons, which, even though they do not have human stars, use the same images. Cartoon characters are created in exactly the same mold as the human stars; in fact, because they are more simplified, they are better. Aladdin is a very nice example of this: a little bit of miracle, a little bit of humor – but not too much; everything is so very nice and sweet, and very well packaged. There is not much difference between Aladdin and Bambi – they even have the same eyes.
The Hollywood message, then, is to create for people a well-planned, technically superb daydream, which says softly, “I am all right, you are all right, basically, with small aberrations here and there, everything will be all right.” It hints, “You, too, are a hero. Look at these stars: in your inner heart, you are almost like them. Perhaps you are not as handsome, nor as strong, but you can dream about being like them.”
This religion does not demand anything exceptional from its followers, even as viewers. The messages and images created by Hollywood are not necessarily bad, but they all have shallowness built in. Shallowness is intrinsic; everything has to be within the audience’s grasp, tailored to its level of understanding, as well as to its dreams. Hollywood could not make a good movie about a saint-or a scientist or an artist-because a real saint, by definition, would not be within the norm. A saint is not part of normal society. He is an outsider, and is not, nor can he be, “me”. Therefore, good – however it may be depicted – is never very good, because if it were very good, we would not be able to identify with it without changing a lot within ourselves.
Hollywood functions in the same way as an advertising campaign-advertising itself and the American spirit. Very often, advertising is the best, most interesting, and most creative part of many magazines; to market something properly takes a lot of thought. Whether it says so explicitly or not, an ad implies, “If you buy this dress, you will be as beautiful as the model wearing it.” In actuality, the model may be just as beautiful without the dress, and most purchasers of the dress will not become as beautiful as the model even when wearing the dress.
Like any effective advertising campaign, Hollywood is very professional and very good at achieving its aim. It is so successful that it creates a world. It creates imitations, dreams, and people who want to live the Hollywood lifestyle, which is a crude representation of the “American spirit.” Beyond that, America and Hollywood have a reciprocal relationship: Hollywood draws from within America and simultaneously re-creates America in its own image. Hollywood does not draw an image from one particular segment of society; its image distills a fundamental national sense of optimism. Hollywood depicts an amusement park world, addressed to a democratic audience. The audience of the show is important to Hollywood not only because it pays for the tickets and thus finances the religion. The audience is something far bigger: it is, itself, the dream and the image.
In this sense, Hollywood is an advertisement for a dream, a very shallow dream-a dream about a simplified Heaven, about life that is supposed to be reality, but is not. For life is not like the movies. In how many Hollywood pictures do you see a person cleaning a house or washing a baby-especially a really dirty baby? In the Hollywood world, you see the results, but you do not see the sweat; you do not see the hard work. And think how different real relationships are from the way people fall in love in the movies. We all know that life does not always happen according to Hollywood pictures; still, some part of us believes that they are pictures of a possible reality. Hollywood has trained us to believe that somehow there will be a happy end, and that if something in real life does not work out, it is just a mishap. Therefore, we do not distrust the Hollywood religion itself. We tend to think that if something goes wrong, it is our fault-we were doing it wrong in the first place, or it was not the right solution. Even in those few movies that leave us unhappy, we somehow think that this unhappiness is incidental, it is not that important. We believe that the misery will somehow be resolved by itself, by a hero, or by good luck, and that it will surely pass. People know that those are dreams, but they believe that they can somehow become real. In that sense, the Hollywood religion is the “opiate of the masses.”
Being a very self-satisfied religion, Hollywood is not revolutionary; it is even anti-revolutionary. For one thing, Hollywood does not try to change norms, and certainly does not have the presumption to steer them; it merely reflects existing ones. When actors, or film heroes, behave in ways that were unthinkable or unspeakable years ago, it is simply because the general social norms have changed. Hollywood glorifies the status quo, or at least promotes the dreams of Middle America as the best of all possible worlds, and thereby diminishes the possibility for change.
Almost every revolutionary movement in recent times has had some messianic vision of how to change the world, to make it into a better place. The truly revolutionary vision must include the notion of strife, of struggle, of problems that are not easy to solve, and of suffering that is not immediately ameliorated. These are not themes that Hollywood wants to deal with. Hollywood does not produce revolutionary films or portray the true misery of the world. Although it does occasionally depict suffering, it does not show many real tragedies, and no deep or revolutionary change is portrayed.3
The Hollywood make-believe dream lies in the eye of the beholder, the viewer in a movie theater or home watching TV, and believing. The Hollywood religion is very successful, and has permeated the general culture so much, that everybody half-believes the fantasy-but half-belief is enough for this kind of religion, because the basic message is so very persuasive and moving.
These characteristics make the Hollywood religion strong enough to undermine, and even destroy, many existing religious forms and cults. For instance, it is quite possible that Hollywood played a more powerful role in destroying the Soviet regime than all the military vehicles of the United States. The Hollywood dream slipped through small gaps in the Iron Curtain-it was not considered dangerous, but it created a new world, not only by showing the existence of a different, more comfortable world, but mostly by replacing even the Soviet vision of the future with the Hollywood dreamworld, dreams of mediocrity, comfort, and the simplest material forms of happiness.
It is possible that the Hollywood religion, like many others, will die one day. Of course, Hollywood as an actual place may diminish in size, or move to a different site, but that does not mean that Hollywood as an idea will be destroyed. As it stands now, it is very well established, deeply woven into the fabric of reality, supplying daydreams to the world.
1. Many pagan religions have a rather pessimistic view of the end, and believe that ultimately, in the end of days, the world will be destroyed. The Nordic gods and the Greek gods were Mortal, and inherently incapable of solving all the problems; their myths were saturated with cruelty and full of unresolved conflict.