Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Inspiration From Woody Allen

There is a scene in the film "Annie Hall" in which Allen and his girlfriend in the movie are waiting in line to buy movie tickets. The man in back of them is talking loudly about his opinions . Allen is getting steadily more annoyed, even though in his own remarks in line he burdens the other theatre patrons with details of his intimate life. Finally, Allen blurts out his exasperation at the grating quality of the man's voice and remarks When the man starts expounding on the work of Marshall McCluhan, Allen challenges him and in a feat of theatrical magic calls McCluhan in from the sidelines. McCluhan tells the man that he has no understanding of his work and no fitness to teach in university.
I enjoyed the plush upholstery in the theatre far more than I did Annie Hall, and slept through long stretches of the movie. Despite this, that one scene justified the inflated price of admission to the film. During present day debates within the observant Jewish community, it almost serves as a moshel or parable about the leadership difficulties of our troubled times .
A specific body of text deemed sacred anchors a religious group to a textual framework. When disputes arise, it is helpful to have a living arbiter of what constitutes a correct interpretation. When a leader passes away, there is a vacuum as disputes arise over how his teachings should be interpreted. When I hear people argue about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman or Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (all of whom inspire me greatly) I find myself longing for a scene like that in Annie Hall, where a Rebbe steps in from the sidelines and says "You don't know what on earth you're talking about. I never said that!"
Back in the 1980's, the Lubavitcher Rebbe started a campaign of "Aseh l'cha rav." or "make someone a rav over you." In plain English this means to have a learned person guide you in applying Jewish teachings to your daily life on a practical level. It is very tempting for a person who has no such guide to apply the teachings they espouse in a manner that is not intellectually honest. It seems that Jews today need the same advice collectively that the Rebbe gave us as individuals back in the 1980's. There is a Jewish legal concept known as nogeah b'davar. In English it would roughly translate as "having a vested interest". A person who has a personal stake in deciding a question can not be expected to decide the matter dispassionately or wisely.
In any religious group, you will find people who only want religious leaders who will rubber stamp their insanity. In Islam, that translates into high body counts and religious warfare. In Judaism, we have fist fights and messy arguments that spill over into civil court. We also have wife beaters and child molesters who can hop from community to community and men who refuse to issue a Jewish divorce. It would seem to be common sense that instances in which human life is in danger would be met with united rabbinical front, but we live in chaotic times.
It does us no good to compare our sad state to that of Islam. We can and should do better. We need religious leaders who can grab us by the collar and tell us we're acting like idiots. We need plain talk in Israel and in America ,in Satmar and Lubavitch ,in Lakewood and Flatbush. Cheer leaders who tell us how wonderful things are in paradise remind me of the old communist party hacks who would talk about the latest triumphs of scientific socialism. In the formative centuries of our faith, we had social critics whose writings were enshrined in our biblical canon. The Jewish prophets read like protest literature. Those who had soothing messages that we were all doing wonderful turned out to have been false prophets. The Three Weeks will soon be upon us. The focus during that time is often upon the eradication of baseless hatred. There are fragments of beauty and truth scattered among the various communities comprising Torah Judaism. In uniting ourselves as a people, we unite the truths we possess as well. The future in which mourning will be turned to rejoicing is something for which we must strive, not something we await.


Marshall McCluhan scene in "Annie Hall " excerpt shown in Ipod commercial

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