The BEST: The Matrix 

Steven Gotlib Tradition Online | January 20, 2022

Summary: Thomas Anderson, the protagonist of the 1999 science fiction adventure film, The Matrix, has two identities; he is both a computer programmer and a hacker called Neo. Both lives are turned upside-down when a man called Morpheus, who gives him a choice between two pills: a blue pill that will let Neo wake up in bed and “believe whatever you want to believe” or a red pill that will allow him to “stay in Wonderland” and see “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Upon taking the red pill, Neo learns that he lives in a computer program (the Matrix), created by sentient machines to keep humanity complacent while they provide power to the machines. Using his unique abilities as “The One,” Neo works to liberate the real-world from the Matrix.

Why this is The BEST: In his Hebrew essay The Redemption of the Postmodern: On the Messiah of the Matrix, R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (widely known as Rav Shagar) wrote that although “the virtual world [of the Matrix], which is meant to be a computerized, cold, anemic, simulated, and fictitious existence, [it] is actually accompanied by a tremendously powerful, magical quality… the ability to inspire a high level of spirituality” via humanity’s innate creative capacity. However, to unlock that capacity, one must first take the red pill and learn how to see the world for what it really is. Only by understanding the true nature of reality, can human beings transcend it. The Matrix gives viewers an opportunity to not only glimpse the world beyond the world, but to enter it as well.

Questioning the nature of reality and coming to understand how the resulting paradigm shifts can lead to living better lives appears throughout Jewish mystical traditions. In Nefesh HaHayyim (3:4), R. Hayyim of Volozhin differentiates between God surrounding reality and filling reality. He writes that although limited human beings perceive the world as surrounded by a transcendent God, an infinite Divine perspective reveals that Godliness, in fact, fills all things. Though he cautions against hyper-focusing on reality’s true nature, R. Hayyim uses this idea to explain how human actions influence the heavenly realms. 

Such an understanding can also be found in the writings of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, whose Tanya (1:21) states that humanity’s sense of independence and individuality is not due to a separation between the Divine and the world. It is rather because of God’s hester panim, which leads to the illusion of separation. An elevated perspective, however, reveals that there is really no separation at all. Once that is understood, Jews can seek to awaken and uplift the holy sparks which are present in all thoughts, words, and actions. Rather than being a distraction, R. Shneur Zalman emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the world in which we live is an extension of Divinity which only appears to be separate and that we have a tremendous amount of power and responsibility within it. 

However, this approach is not completely identical to that of R. Hayyim. Whereas R. Shnuer Zalman advocates constant awareness of existing within divinity, R. Hayyim writes that such an understanding should only be meditated on during recitation of the Shema, Amida, and in times of mortal danger. In other words, Tanya prescribes taking the red pill, while Nefesh HaHayyim may be more representative of those who acknowledge the nature of reality but generally prefer the immediacy of the virtual world as experienced practically. At the end of the day, though, both Tanya and Nefesh HaHayyim agree that truth must be embraced rather than pushed aside. Unlike what one character in The Matrix suggests, ignorance is not bliss and an illusion is no replacement for reality. 

This is where our world differs from that portrayed in The Matrix. The film’s reality is one in which humanity finds itself in a parasitic relationship with machines that feed on the electricity given off by their brains. The relationship between man and machine in The Matrix is fundamentally antagonistic: for one to live freely, the other must be enslaved. Our reality, however, is quite different. The relationship between humanity and divinity, as portrayed in Nefesh HaHayyim and Tanya, is one of cooperation. Divinity emanates into the world to be used by humanity to better both sides of reality. In the words of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man, “the higher longs and pines for the lower” while the halakhic man “longs to bring transcendence down into this valley of the shadow of death—i.e., into our world—and transform it into a land of the living” (39-40). 

In The Matrix, Morpheus says that he can show Neo the door, but Neo is the only one who can walk through it. The Matrix is The BEST because it invites viewers to ask themselves if they are ready to take the red pill and become the One to take charge of their lives—to “let it all go: fear, doubt, disbelief” and free our minds by walking through that door. The film does so by providing an immersive experience that captures the imagination and captivates its viewers; it inspires them to think deeper, challenge prior assumptions, and redefine the limits of reality one step at a time. Alongside centuries of Jewish thought, The Matrix has the potential to help its viewers become better ovdei Hashem.

 Rabbi Steven Gotlib is a member of the kollel at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov and rabbinic educator at the Village Shul & Aish HaTorah Learning Centre in Toronto. 

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