Keeping the Faith

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

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An Unappealing Rabbi

Rabbi Jacob Schram is vain, selfish, and compulsively self-advancing. Since his youth, he has collected rabbi-hero cards (an Orthodox version of baseball cards), not so much out of respect for their teachings as to succeed at acquiring every possible card and thus to beat the "competition," namely, the other, rather limited group of collectors. The suggestion is made that this same aggressive spirit leads the rabbi to seduce his old school friend who has blossomed into a beautiful woman, in violation of his friendship with the priest.

Blumberg depicts a rabbi who wants sex and companionship with a Gentile woman but is unwilling to give up his congregation. Schram is able to make the synagogue grow, but the implication at every turn is that the crowd is attracted and misled by superficiality and emptiness. The New Age innovations are praised here but come across as hollow, as does the relationship between the rabbi and his girlfriend.

The film keeps insisting, even protesting, that Schram is doing a lot of good things, but it says nothing good about him and about his constituency. The synagogue members are either throwing their daughters at the rabbi or involved in trendy spirituality or in self-promotion. The senior rabbi, played by Eli Wallach, is a seasoned lackey with no real advice to offer.

The only touching and meaningful relationship in the film is that between Norton as the priest and Milos Forman as the older and wiser priest. The only virtue in the film is attributed to Norton's Father Brian Finn. True, at one point, he is ready to throw away his vows for his childhood friend. But he goes to the woman's apartment only after she begs him to come, unlike the rabbi who heads there in hot pursuit.

The priest remains loyal to his faith much longer. True, the film opens with the priest in a fall-down drunk state, but it offers disclaimers along the way that he is usually not a drinker, but has been driven to it by his "friends." No disclaimers are made in behalf ofthe rabbi, except his mother's statement that he is a "good person."

Blumberg has his characters observe that it is easier for the woman to seduce the rabbi than the priest because there are no "vows" involved. The suggestion throughout the movie is that Jews have no code, no authority, no discipline, that their only way of exercising religious community is to learn how to manipulate one another as pleasantly and efficiently as possible.

Trite Jokes

In another movie that would be an interesting critique of American Judaism. This movie seems to expect that we adore the rabbi and his innovations lamrot hakol, "in spite of everything," as the Hebrew saying goes. That is especially disappointing in view of the fact that this is the first and only film in memory to speak of a rabbinic calling, if only for a moment. The movie quickly gets bogged down in requisite circumcision jokes (and now incense jokes for Catholics). Had it even asked the question whether a rabbi can betray a calling, or whether a rabbi has the same calling as other Jews, it might have achieved a certain depth.

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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.