2016-06-30
"Keeping the Faith" is a funny movie. And so long as it is treated as pure fantasy, I would dismiss it as harmless fun. However, I have been working among young people too long to believe that there will not be many idealistic men and women, especially 20- and 30-something Jews, who will applaud its message and swoon to its tear jerking portrayal of the triumph of love.

The movie revolves around Jake, a young rabbi, whom the movie publicists advertise as Orthodox, who falls in love with a non-Jewish woman who had previously been his platonic best friend, in a theme reminiscent of "When Harry Met Sally." The portrayal of the rabbi as a maverick who seeks to impassion his community but betrays his core values is further compounded by his eagerness to sleep with his girlfriend repeatedly, while staunchly rebuffing her desire to commit to her. Essentially, he uses her for sex and a casual yet passionate fling, because as a rabbi he realizes he cannot marry outside the faith.

Of course, in the movie's fairy-tale ending, even his Jewish mother, who has cut off Jake's elder brother for marrying a Catholic girl, suddenly "comes around' and encourages Jake to follow his heart. The film ends with Jake and his girlfriend reunited at an interfaith karaoke dance club, which Jake has set up with his best friend, a young Catholic Priest. The couple are united, love has triumphed, the rigid tradition has been cast aside, and there isn't a dry eye in the house. Bravo!

Jews can be a strange breed. As the credits roll across the opening screens, it is clear that the majority of people behind this movie are Jewish. They can be forgiven for the shallow, ignorant, and empty stereotypes of Jews rampant in the film. We are given endless examples of pushy and dimwitted Jewish mothers, and their equally empty-headed Jewish princess daughters. We can similarly overlook the objectionable portrayal of the rabbi as someone who abrogates Jewish tradition with impunity, eating out constantly at non-kosher restaurants and bringing Christian gospel choirs to sing at his synagogue.

But what borders on the unforgivable is their portrayal of Judaism as something so alarmingly restrictive that only the power of love can redeem it.

There is a tendency in films to herald the great theme of "love conquers all." It is a sentimental theme that plays well to the masses. To be sure, this is a noble theme when portrayed in the form of racism and genocide being shattered by the bonds of love and humanity displayed by an Oscar Schindler. It is an uplifting theme in plays like "Romeo and Juliet," when the innocence of youth surmounts the accumulated prejudices of generations. But is "love conquers all" noble in every portrayal? Is it really noble when a man discards his faith, tradition, and religious commitments, all in the name of love?

What would we say about a husband who runs off with his mistress because he loves her more than his wife? Would we look upon such a man as noble? Why didn't the directors of "Fatal Attraction" portray Michael Douglas as a hero when he had an affair with Glenn Close? Why wasn't it cool to show the beautiful couple of Demi Moore and Robert Redford living together happily ever after in "Indecent Proposal"?

The reason, of course, is that even in this age of nearly total sexual license, adultery still isn't cool. Betrayal in marriage is something that irks us to our very core. We look at a man who betrays his marital vows as weak, unprincipled, and ungrateful. Far from being a hero who has wielded the sword of love against the cumbersome institution of marriage, the man is seen as a jerk. No matter how much we admire Bill Clinton for being an able leader of the free world, we will still always look askance at him because of Monica Lewinsky.

The point, in sum, is this: the blanket statement that love conquers all is an empty myth which, taken to extreme, can even be dangerous. Was it okay for the Germans to love their Fuhrer with such wild abandon that they were even prepared to trample on all laws of humanity and decency? Is it okay for a man to love himself to such a degree that he becomes indifferent to the pain of his fellow man?

While it is true that love is the most noble thing in the whole world, not everything that claims to be love is love. To the man who runs off with his mistress in the name of love we would say, "You shallow ingrate. How can this be love when it causes so much pain to the woman who sacrificed so much on your behalf? This isn't love, but indulgence." Love has a sacrificial quality to it. You give up of yourself in order to give to an other. It is not where you give up your beliefs in order to indulge your own selfish appetite.

As a child of divorce, I believe in love more than anything else in the world. But I will not so demean that beautiful word, that noble idea, that unsurpassed experience, by allowing my eyes to tear up at a movie that tells us that love for a tradition is at odds with the love for a woman, a false message that seeks to portray love as liberating and Judaism as imprisoning.

The purpose of religion is to liberate the infinite power of the individual and empower him or her to maximize their spiritual potential. Only religion can teach us how to love because only religion can sensitize us to the spark of the divine that exists within every human being. We moderns who have witnessed the killing machines of the godless ideologies of Nazism and Communism know that that the death of religion spells the death of love. Without a soul, humanity becomes a utilitarian object to be used or discarded in accordance with a nation's or an ideology's needs.

G-d's law dictated the need for Jews to marry other Jews so that there will always be a nation who bears witness to G-d as a living presence in history. If G-d is alive and well and His image still burns brightly on the countenance of every human being, then all people are ends in and of themselves and therefore worthy of love.

This is not a racist law, as the movie so falsely portrays. Rather, Jews marrying Jews is an act of affirmation and the love of a tradition. It's purpose is not the rejection of any particular group. Indeed, the Jews are not a race. There are white Jews, black Jews, Latin Jews and oriental Jews and any man or woman can choose to join the Jewish people if their heart so desires.

To love romantic love and simultaneously trample on the book that taught us that "loving your neighbor as yourself" is the highest of all human ideals is a false pretense of virtue.

It was interesting to me that Brian, the priest in the film, is portrayed as gentle and virtuous throughout the narrative. He too is tempted by the feminine charms of beautiful Abby. Yet, when Abby's rejection of him frustrates his desire to indulge his sexual passion with her, he overcomes the momentary betrayal of his beliefs and is henceforth portrayed as infinitely virtuous for doing so. Yet when the rabbi attempts to do the same--break off the relationship with his girlfriend in order to stand up for his principles--he is portrayed as unreasonable, obstinate, and difficult.

We are a tiny nation who have collectively achieved great things and protecting our number through marriage within the community is an act of affirmation and responsibility. Not only is it not incompatible with love, it allows to simultaneously affirm both private and public love--the love for a member of the opposite gender as well as the love for the Jewish people.

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