A complex moral dilemma


Two emaciated men are starving on a raft in the midst of an unnamed sea. One of them picks up a spyglass to look more closely at a circling gull, which suddenly dives and plucks a fish from the saltwater. The bird, fish in its claws, makes its way to the very top of the raft’s wobbly mast. As the bird shifts its position, it drops the fish to the deck, landing between the two men.

The men’s moment of joy quickly turns to desperate aggression, for there is clearly not enough fish for the two of them to share. The men begin a shoving match, and one pushes the other into the shark-infested waters.

The one still on the raft is overcome with guilt or conscience – is there a difference? – and extends what appears to be a crude paddle to his flailing comrade. However, when he sees that the gull has returned for its meal, the man drops the paddle and chases the bird away, leaving his partner to drown and/or to be devoured by the sharks.

The man grabs the small fish, stuffs it into his hungry mouth, and quickly chokes to death on its brittle bones, just as a rescue vessel is bearing down on the rudderless raft with no one left on board to rescue.

This story is told without a word being spoken during the nine-minute 2005 animated film, “The Raft (Das Floss).” Jan Thuring, who both wrote and directed the film, has received a number of awards for his animated masterpiece. Though no words are spoken, the plot is accompanied by Marius Lange’s music.

The animation in “The Raft” is a world apart from the Disney Donald Duck cartoons of my childhood. The two men on the raft are meticulously constructed life-size puppets with exaggerated facial distortions reflecting their struggle to stay alive; their skin is shown to be dried up and blistered by sun and salt. In short, the animation technique in “The Raft” is designed to intensify the grim reality rather than to transport viewers into the far “safer” land of make-believe.

As I have continued to reflect upon possible “moral lessons” found in the story of “The Raft,” I have come to realize that what at first seems to be a simple tale of reward and punishment turns out to engender far more questions than answers. At first glance, the man who chokes to death on the bones of the fish that he hopes will keep him alive, for at least a bit longer, appears to deserve his fate; nevertheless, his dire circumstances might well allow for other possible approaches.

There is a story told almost a millennium ago that adds perspective to the moral complexity of the story of “The Raft.” We read in our Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a): “Two men were walking along the way (in the desert). One of them was holding a flask of water. If they both drank, they both would die; but if one of them drank, he could make it back to the settlement.

“Ben Petura explained, ‘It is better that they both drink and die together, so that one does not see the death of his friend.’ But Rabbi Akiba came and taught on the basis of a verse from Leviticus (25.36): ‘You should live (by performing a mitzvah) and not die.’ That is to say, your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

Rabbi Akiba (50?-135) is one of our people’s most authoritative sages, and many of us might agree with his decision regarding this complex moral issue. But many others might side with Ben Petura’s contradictory opinion that “it is better that they both drink and die together, so that one doesn’t see the death of his friend.”

The story of the two men on the raft shares significant similarities, but also significant differences, with this ancient Talmudic tale. Were Rabbi Akiba alive today, how would he evaluate the moral responsibilities of those two starving men? I do not know. I cannot know.

Does the structure of the silent narrative of “The Raft” lead the viewer down a path to moral certainty? Or does the film encourage us to live with our own unanswered, our own unanswerable moral questions? For me, my only certainty is that there is no certainty.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehbabonim.org