THE QUARREL (1991)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Philosophy of religion, problem of evil
CHARACTERS: Hersh Rasseyner (orthodox Jew), Chaim Kovler (secular Jew)
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ELI COHEN: Under the Domim Tree (1994)
SYNOPSIS: “The Quarrell,” like “My Dinner with Andre,” is a dialog-driven movie that consists almost entirely of a conservation between two people. Twenty years earlier, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Hersh Yeshiva Hersh and Chaim were childhood friends in Bialystok, Poland. They were both students in an Orthodox Jewish Yeshivah – an institute of Jewish Talmudic learning. Chaim became dissatisfied with the Yeshivah as his interest in creative writing developed, and he left the institute. Hersh, horrified at Chaim’s rejection of Jewish tradition, intervenes, thereby alienating Chaim from his family. Shortly after, Chaim’s and Hersh’s families were killed by the Nazis along with most of the European Jews. Twenty years later the two accidentally meet in a park in Montreal and drag skeletons out of the closet.
1. Chaim blames God for the Nazi Holocaust and states “If I knew God I’d put him on trial.” The issue raised here is that, just because God is powerful, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is good – or at least good in the way that humans understand goodness. Assuming that human and divine notions of goodness are different, should we buckle under and worship God nonetheless, or should we put him on trial as Chaim suggests?
2. Hersh argues that writers like Chaim make people’s flaws exciting, and thus justify those flaws. Instead, Hersh believes, writers should show people what they could be. Are one of these views better than the other?
3. The two argue about whether Hersh was justified in approaching Chaim’s family when Chaim first wanted to leave the Yeshivah. This intervention resulted in a rift between Chaim and his family, which we was never able to mend because of their deaths by the Nazis. Was Hersh’s heavy-handed intervention justified?
4. Discussing Hersh’s over-demanding father, Chaim states, “I used to wonder why the Bible commanded us to love the stranger but only honor the parent.” Why would any ethical text make such a paradoxical recommendation?
5. Because of his World War II experience, Hersh feels that people are fundamentally bad, and, if they followed their reason it would lead to disaster. Reason, he believed, is amoral, and he objects to the Ancient Greek view that we can be moral by following our reason. Rational morality, he argues, reduces to a matter of opinion, and so we need to ground our notions of morality in God instead. He poignantly states, “If there is no master of the universe, then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people who murdered your wife and sons did nothing wrong.” Is Hersh being a bit too hard on reason’s role in morality?
6. Chaim, by contrast, feels that people are fundamentally good, and that goodness comes from a faith that human beings ought to help each other. To illustrate his conviction, Chaim tells the story about an old Lithuanian atheist woman who risked her life to help Jews during the war. She did this because she believes in human beings and loves them. Is this an adequate basis of morality?
7. Hersh speculates that if while in the death camp an angel allowed him to switch places with his Nazi guard, he wouldn’t do it. Chaim responds that if he chooses to be a victim, then he has too much hatred. What besides hatred would be the cause of Hersh’s decision?
8. Hersh relates a story about a train trip he once took. The passenger next to him was a Jewish woman and she said to him in a whisper: “I don’t know who you are mister but I just want you to know how embarrassed I get when I see Jews like you dressed from another century. You make the rest of us look ridiculous. If you have to dress like this, the least you can do is stay at home.” When Hersh said that he was Amish and not Jewish, the woman replied, “I have such respect for you people, the way you keep your traditions.” Why would the woman think it was OK for the Amish to keep their traditions, but not Orthodox Jews?
9. “My Dinner with Andre” is non-stop dialog in a single setting. “The Quarrel” breaks up the dialog with scenery changes and moments in which the two remain silent. Does this help or hurt the movie?