The Power of Visual Media

The Midrash teaches "eino domeh shmiah l'reiyah," that hearing about something is incomparable to seeing it. No matter how clearly or vividly something is explained, no description of an event or phenomenon can ever match firsthand experience. Today, we might use the expression "seeing is believing."

The power of witnessing a phenomenon firsthand is a recurring Biblical theme. In Torah law, for instance, capital punishment is only administered after testimony from two live witnesses; the Kohen can only render an individual ritually impure after personally inspecting signs of impurity with his own eyes.

Arguably the most climactic episode of the Bible, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, still binds together the Jewish nation even today -- precisely because the event of God's revelation to man was a shared experience, witnessed by the entire Jewish nation at once.

For centuries artists have used visual media to depict Biblical narratives, with the aim of allowing viewers the opportunity of realizing the profound messages of scripture and emulating its characters. In many Christian denominations, artwork holds a central place in worship because visual aid allowed worshipers to find greater sympathy with Jesus' sacrifice in suffering on the cross.

The innovation of photography in the past century and a half has captured the range of human experience -- everything from weddings and birthdays to the unsettling realities of war and suffering -- still greater. I have witnessed firsthand the immense impact film can have in my own work.

If a picture says a thousand words -- how many does a video say?

I achieved a new realization of the power of video this past fall when I was honored to host a public conversation at Cooper Union with Elie Wiesel and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The sold-out event was titled "Genocide: Do the strong have an obligation to protect the weak?" and came on the shoulders of a heated national debate about President Obama's proposal for intervention in Syria. I aimed to juxtapose these historic figures' experiences with horrendous genocides in their lifetimes with the ongoing Syrian civil war.

When I asked Elie Wiesel if the United States had a moral obligation to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for gassing children, Wiesel told our audience unequivocally that both the American political and Jewish communal leadership had failed on Syria. Chemical gas was a trigger point for genocide and mass murder, he said, and he needed to be tried for his crimes even after surrendering his chemical arsenal. President Kagame echoed that sentiment as well.

The world's two leading voices on genocide were jointly critical of the American government's decision to commute the military attack on Assad to simply destroying his arsenal. When our comments about Syria and American inaction circulated around the Internet, we received national attention in the ongoing discussion about intervention. Although I had been writing about that conflict since its outbreak and calling for Assad's removal, the video recording of the event, taken by distinguished film production group, LNC Productions, was highly effective. Eddie Nuvakhov and David Levy, whom I first met last summer, have now filmed several of our recent public events on Genocide, Syria, and the threat from Iran, all of which have developed a strong internet following.

They also produced the videos for our annual gala dinner where we distribute "The International Champions of Jewish Values Awards" which last year went to Sheldon Adelson, Elie Wiesel, and Dr. Mehmet Oz. LNC's visuals, narration, and interviews converged in a unique and effective way.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls "the most famous Rabbi in America," will shortly publish "Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Like Rabbi Shmuley's Facebook Page /RabbiShmuleyBoteach