Keeping the Faith

The 2000 film about a rabbi and priest gets Judaism all wrong.

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Jews have seen many inaccurate and even demeaning movie depictions of themselves and their religion. In the following, the author examines one film that presents a particularly problematic image Jews and Jewish life. Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

Keeping The Faith, a 2000 rabbi-priest buddy picture, boasts the stellar cast of Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman, and Norton's directorial debut. Writer Stuart Blumberg respects his clergy most when they are involved in a love triangle after a girl they both admired most in the eighth grade returns as a beautiful, high-powered corporate executive.

keeping the faith bannerIn an interview with Charlie Rose, Norton described the film as a takeoff on the screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s, such as The Philadelphia Story, but actually Blumberg's script is a fin-de-siecle nod at The Jazz Singer, moving from the cantor to the rabbi, but with the same premise: Love conquers all. If one wants to follow the heart, one cannot be bound by the attitudes and faith of one's fathers or mothers.

But another angle is added here: If one's love is deep enough, then one's faith will be reaffirmed.

Biblical Concerns

I couldn't help thinking of the well-known passage in the Shema (a major morning and evening prayer), that the heart leads people to stray from the commandments (Numbers 15:39) and of Jeremjah'5 knowing caveat that "the heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9). Keeping The Faith is not commentary on these themes as much as confirmation of the old biblical concerns. It is symptomatic rather than insightful.

The screenplay is crafty enough. The film, while not a work of fine artifice, has a certain effectiveness. While sitcomish in the writing, it offers a bit more finesse than the usual TV fare in the cutaway shots and editing (though at least one such transition uses Hebrew lettering for the Divine Name to accent some toilet humor).

The craftiness here consists in the impression that the film is advancing New Age "enlightenment." Visually, the suggestion is that the synagogue is at its best when the sanctuary is emptied of chairs and when Jews gather to practice their own version of Eastern meditation.

But the real message is far more orthodox in the annals of American film: True heaven is romance.

In order to understand what this film represents, we need to take a look at what it actually says about religion. Whether consciously or subcon­sciously, Blumberg respects the priest more than the rabbi. Norton reported in the same interview that Blumberg wrote the screenplay with him and Stiller in mind. One hopes that the respective depictions of clergy were based on the quirks of the proposed actors, but the consistent, unrelenting undertones of the screenplay suggest deeper ambivalences.

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.