True, Whether It Happened or Not

Jan 9, 2018 by

True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Leave a Reply