Baal Sham Tov: Woody Allen’s Hassidic Tale-Telling

by Jennifer Caplan

I wanted to speak a bit more informally about the issues behind my recent Bulletin for the Study of Religion article “The Baal Sham Tov: Woody Allen’s Hassidic Tale-Telling.” It comes from a larger project (because, really, aren’t academics always working on a “larger project”) about the role of religion in American Jewish satire. For too long so-called “Jewish humor” has been discounted as solely an artifact of “cultural Judaism” (and no, I don’t have the answer to exactly what people mean when they say that), and not taken seriously as a literary form. Over the years I have begun to be more and more convinced that this satire is really a work of constructive theology. Judaism has not traditionally produced theologians at the same rate that some other religions have. Of those that have emerged, perhaps none are more well-loved and well-read than Abraham Joshua Heschel, but even he is now half a century out of date and no longer as popular as he once was. Case in point: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s books are shelved with “Self-Help” in most bookstores and not “Religion.” But I don’t think that means that there are not still figures out there molding Jewish thought and telling people what it means to be a Jew in the modern world.

I have often been asked “what’s at stake” in my work, and this is why I see it mattering and what the major critical focus of my essay is. You can’t, to my mind, understand American Judaism without reading this type of satire as being a key feature in the development of Judaism in this country in the post-war period. You also, however, misunderstand the satire’s merit if you dismiss it as “cultural Judaism.” Allen’s writing works, and is as scathing as it is, because he operates from within a traditional framework. If you reduce him to just Alvy Singer, to just the awkward Yid at the Easter supper table, you miss the reason why his work is satire and not simply humor. It requires an appreciation of the way he twists the knife into the heart of Judaism—into the texts, practices, and beliefs—to see who and what he is really critiquing. But then attention also has to be paid to the way the work has been received, and the effect Allen’s writing and films has had on both Jews and non-Jews.

More than a decade ago I wrote a seminar paper for a modern Jewish thought class called “Woody Allen: Theologian?” My professor hated it, and re-reading it recently I can see why; it was not very good. But the core idea behind that paper never left me: what if we need to expand our understanding of what qualifies as theology? If we see it not as that which sets out to be theological, but that which provides people with their basis of what it means to be a religious person then a whole new range of possibilities are opened up. Over the course of several decades Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and now Michael Chabon, Judd Apatow, and even Jon Stewart have, for millions of people, defined what it meant to be an American Jew. Generations have grown up taking their religious cues not from Heschel or Kaplan, but from Safran Foer and Gilda Radner. If you ask 100 Jews on the street what has had a greater impact on their understanding of the American Jewish community: Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” or Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” I am fairly certain which one will win.

Does it matter, in the great grand scheme of things, that this stuff gets labeled as “theology?” Probably not. But to my mind it does matter that it gets more seriously analyzed, not just on its own merits but because of the on-going impact this satire has on Jewish identity. C.S. Lewis manages to get taken seriously as both a great author and an important voice in 20th century Christianity, and I think it is past time that we consider that there are Jewish writers and directors who have made equally important contributions to both popular media and religious understanding.

Jenny Caplan is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University and holds a Visiting Assistant Professorship at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL for 2013-14. She works primarily in American religion, specifically American Judaism and frequently uses popular media such as film, literature, and television to tell the stories of religion in the United States.

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