A Rabbinic Take on Gravity

The following review is part of the Kosher Movies project, in which Rabbi Herb Cohen gleans life lessons from the world of film.

Over the course of my rabbinic career, I have seen people face enormous challenges physically and emotionally. Some are overwhelmed and life stops for them. Others are resilient, and somehow find the strength to continue and even rebuild a shattered life. I remember many years ago when I received a call telling me that the son of a new synagogue member had tragically died in a farming accident as he was riding a tractor. The boy's father was a Holocaust survivor, and I stood in awe of him and his wife who kept their faith in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. Several years later, another major misfortune befell the family, and I could not understand how the father weathered the storm of tragedy that assaulted him.

How we cope with an avalanche of ill fortune is the subject of Gravity, a tense and engrossing film about an accident that occurs in outer space. It revolves around how an astronauts' bad luck multiplies, and how the duo psychologically deals with the reality of their impending mortality.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Mission Specialist, is on her maiden space shuttle voyage with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is in charge of the expedition. During a spacewalk procedure, they receive news that space debris is headed their way, and they must abort their mission. Abruptly, they lose communication with Mission Control, but they continue to transmit information in the hope of someone hearing them. Suddenly space debris hits them, causing Stone to tumble through space. Happily, Kowalski recovers her, after which they both try to return to the space shuttle, only to discover it unusable. This sets the stage for a survivalist drama as more and more problems occur, making it more difficult for them to return safely to earth.

In the course of their ordeal, they discuss Stone's life on earth and the accidental death of her daughter. As their situation becomes more desperate, questions about the meaning of life surface. Faced with her possible death within hours, Ryan laments that no one will mourn for her and no one will pray for her soul. Her articulation of her emotional isolation illuminates the sadness of her life since losing her beloved daughter. She may have gotten over the heavy sadness of losing a child by keeping busy with her scientific work, but deep within her psyche, the pain remains, for she has not emotionally come to terms with her tragic loss.

Whether she and Kowalski survive their ordeal makes for a tension-filled narrative that touches on themes of faith and resilience in the face of catastrophe. The outer-space setting makes these quandaries all the more stark and unsettling, for no one is present to view their frightening ordeal.

Judaism has much to say about how we should deal with tragedy in our lives. When we hear tragic news such as the death of a loved one, the Jew responds with a blessing: "Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Arbiter of Truth." Death, of course, is not a happy event, but the true believer knows that God, in His infinite wisdom, always does what is good. While we may not rejoice in the face of tragedy, we do not succumb to despair for we know that, from the aspect of eternity, everything makes sense. Moreover, when the Jew says Kaddish, the Mourner's Prayer during the year after the death of a close relative, the words he recites are words of praise to an all-powerful God. They are not words of anger or reproach, because the Jew inwardly comprehends that even tragedy is part of the divine plan. To fight it is impossible; therefore, the proper response to tragedy is to feel the initial pain, and then to move forward knowing that our own life's mission is not over, even when we can no longer share it with a loved one.

Gravity reminds us of the uncertainty and danger inherent in living, but it also reminds us that crisis can be the catalyst of new understandings about ourselves and the world around us.

Rabbi Herb Cohen was a principal at Jewish high schools across America for three decades. He now resides in Israel and blogs weekly about the intersection of faith and film at KosherMovies.com.