The recently released film “Bee Season,” based on the book by Myla Goldberg, is in many ways an extraordinary movie. I do not ever remember seeing a popular film that was based so much on Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism.
The story is quite simple. Eliza, an 11-year-old girl, has an extraordinary ability to spell words correctly. To do this, she shuts her eyes, goes into an almost trance-like state and visualizes the letters. The character is masterfully portrayed by Flora Cross.
For the most part, her father (Richard Gere) tends to ignore her, seeming to favor her older brother (Max Minghella), with whom he plays cello. Interestingly, the father is a professor of Kabbalah and is very much into the Kabbalah of the 12th-century kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. He is married to a woman (Juliette Binoche) who, though raised Catholic, is a Jew by choice.
As the story proceeds, the father starts paying much more attention to his daughter, often becoming overbearing. As she succeeds in local, state and regional spelling bees, he pushes her through practices of spelling words. He begins to teach her Kabbalah.
Meanwhile, the older son goes into total rebellion. He connects with a gorgeous young woman (Kate Bosworth) and dabbles in Hare Krishna.
The mother becomes totally crazy to the point where she steals things; most of them are brightly colored beads and crystals, in order to make a room into a temple of light. She thinks this is the way to curry favor with her husband and his kabbalistic teachings.
At movie’s end, Eliza must make a critical and existential choice: “Do I do something that will bring me fame, or do I do something that will potentially lead to the renewal and repair of my family?”
Actress Cross is absolutely brilliant, but the same can’t be said for Gere.
Frankly, as my niece said, Richard Gere just does not work in this role. My mother, on the other hand, likes him in any part. But for me, it is hard to imagine the second-most-famous Buddhist in the world as a professor of Kabbalah. In addition, there is very little evidence in the movie that this is a Jewish home. Gere’s character never even wears a yarmulke (in the book, the father is a rabbi, but even Hollywood knew that Gere as a rabbi was too much of a stretch).
Cinematically, there are some beautiful shots in the film. In one such scene, the flowers of Eliza’s dress morph into letters during her trance. In another, which is my favorite visual, Eliza sees specks of light flying around. One of the specks lands on her cheek. She removes it with the tip of her finger and watches the light morph into the Hebrew letter “aleph.” Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and is symbolic of God’s Oneness and unity.
In order to understand the movie’s extraordinary themes, consider some of the background. Approximately 1,800 years ago a statement was written in the Mishnah that spoke of four men who went into the realm of mystical speculation. One of them became an apostate (that is, he converted to something else). A second one died. A third one went crazy, and only Rabbi Akiva went into the realm of mystical speculation and came out Bashalom, in peace.
I could not help but think that the movie’s four main characters represented a modern parallel. The son became an apostate. The mother went crazy. The Kabbalistic professor never really goes into Kabbalah deeply, seeing it as an intellectual discipline. Only the daughter goes in and comes out in peace. If, in a way, the movie describes an encounter with Kabbalah, then the four main characters each react to it very differently.
Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia was a Sicilian Kabbalist born in Saragosa, Spain in 1240. He was an extraordinary figure—an itinerant mystic who attracted a significant following. He was very interested in permutations of letters and designed kabbalistic meditations around these permutations. For example, take the Hebrew word for God, yod, heh, vav, heh. Abulafia then took five vowel sounds and would have his followers meditate to each one of the five vowel sounds attached to one of the letters in God’s name.
How did this work? If the first letter was a y, then in the meditation, one would take a deep breath, and recite the sound yo. The following sounds would be ya, ye, yeah, and the fifth sound would be you. These sounds would be recited in one breath for as long as possible. Then, five deep breaths would be taken and the five sounds would be repeated, but this time with the second sound being the first and the first sound being the fifth. In such a way he would go through the entire name of God with five breaths between each series of five sounds. Twenty-five sounds for each letter made 100 sounds in all for the name of God.
Abulafia felt that such meditations enabled one to achieve a mystical union with God. In some of the spirituality seminars that I have attended, we have done some of the meditations based upon Abulafia’s teachings. I have found them to be rather calming and quite unusual in their spiritual effect.
A second major theme underlying this story is the idea of Tikkun Olam, “repair of the world.” This concept of repairing the world was introduced as part of the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who is known as the “Lion,” the “Ari.” The Ari taught that through the performance of specific commandments, or Mitzvot, it could be possible to repair the world. He lived in Tsfat in the Galilee and taught there within 50 years of the expulsion of Jews from both Spain and Portugal. The Jews of central Europe had been reduced to impoverished wonderers by being expelled from the countries that they lived in on numerous occasions. Indeed, the entire world seemed to be against the Jewish people.
Luria felt that the cause of all this pain and suffering was the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel. But he also maintained that God Himself was in exile and that repairing the world was also an act of repairing God. In Tsfat, he attempted to develop a community based on the premise that if the entire community were to perform Mitzvot with intention to repair the world, the world could indeed be repaired.
The third teaching (which is not specifically mentioned in the movie, but which in my opinion the movie draws upon) is a teaching by one of the Ari’s contemporaries, Rabbi Haim Vital. Vital taught that each of us has a letter in the Torah and that we much search for our own unique letter.
In “Bee Season,” Eliza is indeed searching for her own letter. At the end of the movie, she faces a choice. Her trance has shown her the correct letter. She knows how to spell the word. If she does so, she will receive the accolades of her father and of the world. However, after looking at her family, she realizes that if she does not win, if she gives the wrong answer, she might really find her own letter, as it were, and that this letter could be used to repair the brokenness of her family. Her mother has been institutionalized; her brother is dabbling in Hare Krishna. Her father has proved to be an absolute failure as a dad and does not seem to understand that Kabbalah has to be integrated from the head into the heart.
Eliza understands this fully. For her, the letters and teachings of Abulafia, the Ari and Vital become part of the imprint of her soul.
In essence, each of us does indeed have a letter and must choose, like the girl, how to use it. Will we use our letter to make a word that will bring glory only to us, or will we use our letter to repair the world—to repair our relationships with family, friends and God?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.
Directors: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Writer: Naomi Foner (based on the novel by Myla Goldberg)
Cast: Saul: Richard Gere; Miriam: Juliette Binoche; Eliza: Flora Cross; Aaron: Max Minghella; Chali: Kate Bosworth.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.