How Humphrey Bogart Came to Cite a Jewish Legend

June 22, 2015 | Abraham Socher
About the author: Abraham Socher is the current and founding editor of the Jewish Review of Books, and professor emeritus at Oberlin College.

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.

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