How Humphrey Bogart Came to Cite a Jewish Legend

In the 1948 film Key Largo, a character played by Bogart mentions a “fairy story” that explains the existence of the philtrum—the small hollow above the lips. This is a variation on a traditional Jewish legend—no doubt known to the movie’s Jewish screenwriter—that first appears in the Babylonian Talmud. It states that an angel teaches every fetus the entire Torah in utero; at the moment of birth, the angel smacks the baby on the mouth, causing it to forget what it has learned. Abraham Socher comments on the tale’s meaning, and origins:

The philosophical point that seems to hover over this talmudic passage and its later elaborations is that learning is really an act of recall. As Joseph B. Soloveitchik once wrote, [the Talmud] “wanted to tell us that when a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something . . . familiar, because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.” As Soloveitchik and others . . . recognized, this seems to be a version of Plato’s famous theory of knowledge as recollection. However, it’s worth noting that although these texts speak of the unborn child as forgetting, they don’t explicitly describe its later learning as remembering.

The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew] of Prague came close when he suggested that the angel slaps the unborn child’s mouth to create “a lack and a desire,” by which he seems to have meant both a desire to nurse and a desire to learn. But the Maharal lived in 16th-century Prague when Plato was, once again, on every intellectual’s lips. Some 200 years later, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk explicitly argued that if we hadn’t learned Torah before we entered the world it would be impossible to grasp it now—a ḥasidic footnote to Plato.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hollywood, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Maharal, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, Talmud


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy