(RNS) — The question seems blasphemous.
But the idea certainly must be in many people’s minds as they emerge from the movie theater after seeing “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.”
The film stars Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, the iconic children’s television show host. It tells the story of Rogers’ relationship with a journalist who writes for Esquire magazine, based on the real life writer Tom Junod but called Lloyd Vogel in the film. Rogers helps the journalist to repair his relationship with his estranged father, and to become a better husband and father himself.
Tom Hanks is excellent as Rogers; in fact, a friend remarked to me that Hanks might have been a better Fred Rogers than even Fred Rogers. When you consider that Rogers was one of the most beloved figures in the American entertainment world, and that not a few people consider Tom Hanks to be one of the nicest people in that world, it works.
There are some aspects of the film that I found disconcerting. I did not love the toy models and landscapes substituting for real life panoramas.
I also had some trouble with Hanks’ otherwise splendid rendition of Rogers. Hanks/Rogers has a way of transfixing Lloyd with a particularly intense gaze, as if using a pastoral laser beam to cut away layers of the other person. The intention is to achieve spiritual intimacy. But, it felt invasive and a little creepy.
Let us remember, as the film certainly does: Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. The film shows him studying the Bible.
But, it failed to make clear that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was Rogers’ ministry; the families of America, his congregation.
His was a religious message, without theology. It was a Christianity without Christ.
Rogers walked the walk and talked the talk — and that walk/talk reached across religious and nonreligious boundaries.
Consider a short list of the Jewish values that Rogers — who, by the way, once uttered the term tikkun olam, repairing the world — walked and talked.
- Hesed — pure, covenantal, un-erotic love. However you translate hesed — mercy, compassion, grace — it is an essential part of Judaism, and it is itself an aspect of the divine personality. That godly love finds its ideal expression in gemilut hasadim — acts of loving kindness — which help the recipient with his or her needs, and helps the giver become more loving. Everyone wins. “The world is built on hesed,” as my colleague Menachem Creditor sings.
- Tzelem elohim — seeing people as being made in God’s image. That was Rogers. Perhaps it was the secret behind his penetrative gaze. Perhaps that was the secret behind his comfort with silence. There is a long moment of silence in the film, made even more unsettling and extraordinary when you realize that there is rarely silence in films, and even less so in life itself.
Perhaps the gaze was not invasive; it was the gaze of imagining the other to be a pixel of God’s face.
Perhaps the silence was not uncomfortable; it was the silence of hearing the other person as if that person’s own presence was the voice of God.
Perhaps it was what the theologian Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship — that moment of utter openness, that moment of being in connection with someone when you truly feel God’s presence.
- Teshuvah — repentance, return. That was Rogers’ project, to help Lloyd and his father make teshuvah with each other. You won’t likely see an example of cinematic teshuvah as powerful as this one.
- Tocho kevoro — when the inside person matches the outside person. The idea originates in a charming insight into the design of the ark in the ancient sanctuary. It had gold on the outside as well as on the inside — to teach that our outer self and our inner self must be in sync with each other.
I confess: I had a perverse idea for a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Rogers, in character, playing with his puppets and speaking gently and lovingly to his audience. Then, there is a break in the taping of the show, and Rogers starts screaming at the crew: “What the _____ was wrong with you?!?! How could you have screwed up that shoot?!?! Get the _____ out of here!”
As Fred’s wife, Joanne, said, both in the film and in real life: “Fred is no saint.”
Probably not. But, has anyone come even that close?
Which brings me to the question: Why?
Why has there been such a sudden explosion of Rogers-mania? How did this unassuming, gentle soul become a posthumous cultural hero?
Because, look at the world. We are soul-sick to death of monstrous political leaders. We are soul-sick to death of clergy who abuse their spiritual power, who gather up riches in this world and who are out-and-out haters and bigots — like this ministerial miscreant, Rick Wiles of Vero Beach, Florida, who has said that a “Jew coup” is behind the impeachment effort.
For better or worse, Rogers is who we want our clergy to be like: loving and, when necessary (as when Rogers stood up to Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore, 50 years ago, and fought for PBS funding), morally uncompromising.
It is a very difficult standard for any clergyperson to attain.
I am thinking of these words by my friend and teacher Shai Held:
“Judaism dreams of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. And yet the world as we know it all too often makes a mockery of that dream: Human dignity is trodden and trampled upon in countless ways, and God seems far away, absent, even nonexistent. How do we go on hoping in a seemingly hopeless world?”
No, Rogers was not the messiah.
But, at the very least, he might have been one of the 36 hidden righteous ones upon whose existence the fate of the world depends.
The memory of Rogers is more than a blessing; it is a goad.