A Movie You Can Use

Television reviews on Cross-Currents are rarer than Neturei Karta approbations to the thought of Rav Kook. A program to be aired on Sunday evening might be the exception that inevitably applies to every rule. You may want to know about “Have A Little Faith,” because it may prove to be a good way to open some people up to a discussion about faith.

When my good friend and evangelical leader Dr. Larry Poland called a week ago to invite me to a special screening of the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Mitch Albom’s book, I had a perfect reason not to join him. I was viewing a different movie, a dangerous and well-made piece of Palestinian propaganda aimed at luring Christians away from supporting Israel, and called “The Little Town of Bethlehem.” A few of us were preparing a response to the film, frame by frame, inaccuracy by inaccuracy. (Months earlier, we had done the same for a similar film, “With G-d On Our Side,” and made the study guide available to the public.) Larry Poland eats obstacles alive; if Adlerstein couldn’t come to the film, the film would go to Adlerstein. He was excited about the film, because it was not very often that Hollywood produced a genuinely positive depiction of religion. This, however, placed both Judaism and Christianity in a good light, as well as the values they shared. He had ABC send me a DVD screener by courier.

Days later, he asked for my response, which meant whether I liked it, and whether I would be interested in sharing my reaction with the public. I had taken a few minutes here and there and watched it to the end. It was indeed stimulating and thought-provoking. But I had to remind him of something I had mentioned to him in the past: that I don’t watch TV or own one, and most importantly, that the core readership of Cross-Currents do not own televisions either. A review on Cross-Currents was not going to do wonders for the ratings. Always good-natured, he found this lapse of his funny.

It could have ended there, but the film really was valuable, and our more kiruv oriented readers should know about it. Readers are likely familiar with Mitch Albom’s earlier long-term international bestseller, Tuesdays With Morrie, the reflections of a former sociology professor of Albom’s who was slowly preparing for his death while battling terminal ALS. Albom, a celebrated sports writer, heard about Morrie and spent much time interviewing him. The public took to Morrie’s spunk and to his wisdom.

That wisdom, however, was thoroughly secular, with little or no reference to G-d and an afterlife. “Have A Little Faith” is based on a similar premise, but Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi takes the place of Morrie Schwartz. Rabbi Albert Lewis asks the fame-anointed Albom agree to eulogize him after he passes on. Albom later guesses that the invitation was a clever rabbinic move to get him – who had left his synagogue decades earlier and was married to a non-Jewish woman – more involved with his roots.

Lewis was a Conservative rabbi in the old style, and an important figure in the movement decades ago. He was affectionately known by his congregants as The Reb; he called them his kehilla kedoshah. The depiction of Rabbi Lewis is quite unexpected for a Hollywood treatment. Lewis gushes with humanity, and is irrepressibly upbeat. Albom asks him all the hard questions, including how he dealt with the death of a daughter in childhood, and what he expects G-d will tell him when Lewis stands before Him after he dies. Lewis is unflinching – and well reasoned – in his responses. Instead of what we might expect from a media depiction of a man of the cloth – a rabbi who swims with all the currents of moral relativism – Rabbi Lewis takes positions on matters of faith, including some that are not so popular with those who believe that nothing is knowable other than our inability to know. He does this with grace and cheer, and without sounding like the Bible thumpers that believers are too often depicted as.

Albom does not become a quick convert to faith, but Lewis’ answers make him think – something the viewer learns only through the wrinkled forehead and lowered eyebrows in the superb performance by actor Bradley Whitford. While initially Albom interviews the rabbi in order To perform his assignment adequately, he quickly becomes hooked on the spirit and wisdom of his old rabbi, and is drawn back to visit often. He makes frequent pilgrimages from Detroit to New Jersey, and he begins to wrestle with basic questions concerning life and meaning.

His initial forays into the world of spirituality – which to Rabbi Lewis means taking a strong interest in the well-being of people – lead him to a dilapidated church in Detroit, where he is drawn to yet another clergyman, this time one not of his faith. Henry Covington was a black preacher, a former drug addict and serious street criminal, who turned his life around, and tended to a flock of mostly homeless people. He teaches Albom about the possibility of change – not the turn-over-a-new-leaf variety, but serious repentance. And Albom teaches him to be less suspicious of Jews.

Lewis (the screen one – I have no idea what the real one taught) speaks only about rituals and traditions of a people, not mitzvos. Looking at his message through the lenses of observance, and backed up by decades of hindsight, the Orthodox viewer would react triumphally. This is why Conservative Judaism was such a failure! Customs and folk culture can only go so far; without a sense of absolute obligation to a Loving Creator, such a system would not compete well against alternatives. Successive generations would gradually fall away – or upgrade to genuine tradition.

The makers of the film, however, did not concern themselves with the parochial interests of either Judaism or Christianity. It wanted to make a statement about the power of faith common to the two American monotheistic faiths, and it does that movingly and effectively. As such, the film may turn into a usable trigger piece to stimulate thought and discussion about the answers that religious faith best supplies.

For many people, asking the questions is the first step they need to take on any journey towards substantive connection to G-d. You may want to recommend it to coworkers and relatives – and then follow up with a Shabbos invitation. It might open doors that would otherwise remain shut.

“Have A Little Faith” will air Sunday evening, November 27th on ABC. For local times in your area, do not consult Yated.

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9 Responses

  1. Reb Yid says:

    The book is also an excellent, thoughtful read. Highly recommended.

  2. Raymond says:

    To this day, I am not sure what my approach should be toward Christianity. On the one hand, Christianity at least for Jews and I think according to most Rabbinical authorities even for gentiles, is considered to be pure idolatry, plus it has been the source of the worst antisemitism in history until the rise of naziism and communism. On the other hand, unlike too many modern day ideologies, at least Christianity has some respect for our Torah, considering it to be the Authentic Word of G-d, and has been the largest transmitter of Biblical teachings, done however imperfectly, across the centuries when we Jews have been too small in number or power to carry out this task, plus the inheritors of the Puritan tradition of Christianity (Fundamentalists, Evangelicals) tend to be the strongest supporters of Israel that there is. So I have come to boil it all down to this: those (Jews or gentiles) who are friends of the Jewish State of Israel, are friends of mine, while those who (again, Jews or gentiles) in one way or another oppose our Jewish State of Israel, are certainly no friends of mine.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I want to get hold of the book and read it eventually. I just read the preview. Mitch is a good man. I have read two or three of his books. Of course the Jewish tragedy of this generation hurts here as it does everywhere, in your family and my family and everyone else’s. The big question is whether reducing religion to the lowest common denominator helps or hinders the search for real faith. I ask myself and I honestly don’t know. But I am glad that Albom is on some level tackling the question. R. Yitzchok, maybe you should contact him, invite him for a Shabbos meal if he is ever in LA (or find the appropriate person in Detroit to do it). For a Jewish person of that spirituality never to have encountered real Judaism is a real tragedy. We should all feel the pain.

  4. Moshe says:

    If I remember correctly from the book, while the Rabbi served a conservative synagogue, he himself practiced orthodoxy. He didn’t drive on Shabbos and built a Sukkah etc.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    Another error in the original post–Mitch Albom did not “leave” his synagogue. In fact, it’s the only one he’s ever belonged to. In his book, he talks about the fact that he always comes back there each year for services on Yom Kippur.

    And Albom has a Jewish background. He was a shul regular as a kid and went to day school.

  6. Shmuel says:

    This book is a required text for Touro College’s Positive Psychology & Judaism class. I enjoyed it more than Tuesdays With Morrie; Rabbi Lewis’ crises of faith and his aplomb is something we can all learn from, particularly because it hits so close to home.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    At your suggestion, I watched the movie on TV (now the world knows I have a TV). I also had listened to the book on tape and heard an interview of NPR with Mitch Album when it first came out.
    It is a very positive movie and leaves good vibes for both Jews and African Amerians, It is very positive.

  8. DF says:

    “the core readership of Cross-Currents do not own televisions either.”

    I’m curious why you think this.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      the core readership of Cross-Currents do not own televisions either.”

      I’m curious why you think this.

      While we don’t have any real data, we get lots of feedback from readers, especially when travelling to different parts of the country. We have a strong sense that the majority of our readers do have right-of-center yeshiva training and leanings. Given that background, I HOPE they don’t have TV!

      Personally, I take most pride in how many of our readers are NOT in that group, at a time that so many people exercise the option to read only what is perfectly congruent with their mindset.

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