Where is the Jewish Mister Rogers?

All along, Fred Rogers was preaching a special gospel. Or, Torah.

Fred Rogers, left, with Francois Scarborough Clemmons on his show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Photo by John Beale

Judging from my Facebook feed, I am probably the last rabbi in America to see the bio-pic about Fred Rogers — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

And, darn — four days too late to preach about it on the High Holy Days, as so many of my colleagues were able to do.

It is an amazing film. It tells the story of Fred Rogers, whose “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” was omnipresent in the lives of children and their families for decades.

Here is what moved me about it.

First, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. This is a key part of his story — perhaps the key part. More about that later.

Second, Fred Rogers saw himself as a teacher. When Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968, the characters on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” explained that word “assassination” to children.

Think about that: Fred Rogers was teaching kids about death — a subject that is still radically taboo — fifty years ago.

Third, what drew Fred Rogers into creating an entire world for children — a world of trust, love, and kindness?

He was reacting to the — there is no other way to say it — crap that passes for children’s television. I am talking about violent cartoons, and programs that show kids being humiliated in various ways.

Fred Rogers was functioning — not only in a publicly pastoral role, but in the true sense of prophetic religion.

Fred Rogers was fighting a cultural war — against brutality in media.

That war is far from over. Often, we sense that cultural critics are supercilious prudes who want to trample on everyone’s rights.

I am not so sure.

Take tobacco, for example.

People might say: If you don’t want to smoke, then don’t smoke.

But, you don’t have to smoke to become the victim of second hand smoke.

The same is true of culture. You don’t want your children to watch violent, nihilistic cartoons? Just grab the remote, and turn those shows off. The same is true of violent video games.

But, just as there is the problem of second hand smoke, there is also the problem of second hand culture.

Just as smoke wafts beyond the spaces where people smoke, so, too, culture and media affects far more than the viewers.

It affects everyone — and that was what Fred Rogers knew.

Fred Rogers not only believed in a kinder, gentler way of looking at the world. He not only used the phrase tikkun olam (repairing the world); he not only lived that phrase — he was actually a borei olam, a creator of a world, “the neighborhood of make believe.”

Fourth, Fred Rogers knew that a good religion balances kindness with justice.

Consider the time when he invited Officer Clemmons to join him in bathing his feet in a wading pool.

Officer Clemmons is black; at a time when public swimming pools were still racially segregated, inviting a black man to share pool water with a white man was a powerful public statement.

When Fred Rogers dries Officer Clemmons’ feet with a towel, it becomes a Christian ritual — foot washing during Holy Week. 

Francois Clemmons is a gay man. He reminisced about how Fred Rogers warned him about going to gay bars — ostensibly because he was afraid of alienating conservative viewers. Was this a violation of Rogers’ “I love you just the way you are” philosophy? But then again, there is a line in a Rogers song: “I love the way you love” — a subtle nod to LGBT inclusion. And, also, ironically: some thought that Fred Rogers was gay — because no “real” man could be so loving and so soft?

Then, there was the time when Fred Rogers testified before Congress. Senator John O. Pastore was pushing for cutting funding for public television.

Fred Rogers sat before him, and quietly made the case for continued funding — because of the humane (one would have to say religious) values that his show was producing.

In biblical tones: Sen. Pastore had set himself up to be the Pharaoh against PBS. His heart had been hardened.

Fred Rogers unhardened that heart. His words melted the Senator’s opposition to PBS funding.

“Looks like you just earned the $20 million,” he said.

Like Amos, Isaiah, Nathan, and Elijah: Fred Rogers spoke truth to power. He did it as he always did — lovingly.

Let me get back to Fred Rogers as a minister. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was Fred Rogers’ ministry; the families of America, his congregation.

His principle message: agape — a Christian term referring to the highest form of love, a love that does not include eros, but the love of God for human beings, and the love of human beings for God.

It was a religious message, without theology. It was a Christianity without Christ.

It is a Jewish message, as well. Fred Rogers was talking about chesed — love, mercy, compassion, grace — which is itself an aspect of the divine personality.

Now, of course, hesed/love is not the only Jewish message — as it is not the only Christian message, either.

Fred Rogers only appeared to be loving to Officer Clemmons when he invited him to share pool water with him. He was screaming (quietly) about justice.

Fred Rogers only appeared to be loving when he confronted the Senate on PBS funding; he was screaming (quietly) about justice.

All of which leads me to ponder: For almost half a century, American children and their parents heard a subtle Christian message.

Well, actually, Christianity mixed with a communitarian ethic.

Imagine what a Jewish version of Fred Rogers could have done, and could still do.

  • You are special — because you are made in the divine image. (Would that fly on PBS? Just asking).
  • “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” (You want to argue with the sage, Hillel?)
  • We should all be free.

Oh, and by the way, about King Friday the Thirteenth.

Your majesty: We respect kings and presidents and prime ministers.

But, if you act in a mean and arrogant manner — if you even think of becoming a Pharaoh, or Antiochus, or Haman…

We. Will. Bring. You. Down.

It is time for a Jewish Mister Rogers.




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