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Norman Lear, Jewish thinker

Norman Lear understood Jewish values, perhaps even more than he recognized.

Writer Norman Lear, 97, participates in Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays rally, calling for action to address climate change, at Los Angeles City Hall, Feb. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(RNS) — Here comes an audacious statement.

No one has influenced American television more than Norman Lear.

Think about it, and you will realize it is true. Lear transformed a medium that offered us bland, suburban stories into narratives that were simultaneously funny and cutting. The 1970s unfolded through those stories — “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son.” Lear single-handedly put such issues as race, class, sexuality and bigotry before the American people. (He also invented the idea of the spinoff, which was sort of a midrashic art form, in which a relatively minor character in one story becomes a major character in another.)

This past week, Lear turned 100 years old. True, we celebrate his longevity. But we also celebrate his unique and overwhelming contribution to American culture. He is an American treasure.

Lear reflected on his legacy in The New York Times — in particular, focusing on his creation, the iconic Archie Bunker. I had always thought there were parallels between Archie, a native of Queens, New York, and Donald Trump, who was born just a few exits away on the Grand Central Parkway. (Listen to the style of talking and you’ll hear the echos. Trump’s roots are northern European, working-class Queens, like Archie’s).

Archie, also like Trump, was prone to bigoted outbursts. But, as Lear said, unlike Trump’s followers on Jan. 6, Archie would never have found himself at the Capitol.

As Lear reflected:

For all his faults, Archie loved his country and he loved his family, even when they called him out on his ignorance and bigotries. If Archie had been around 50 years later, he probably would have watched Fox News. He probably would have been a Trump voter. But I think that the sight of the American flag being used to attack Capitol Police would have sickened him. 

I take the occasion of Lear’s 100th birthday to reflect on his accomplishments. He combined wit, entertainment, simultaneously endearing and maddening characters, and social criticism in a way no one had ever done before him, and that few have succeeded in imitating.

But Lear had another role, a temporary role — as a Jewish thinker, and a commentator on American spirituality.

In 1994, I invited him to write the introduction to my book “Being God’s Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work” (Jewish Lights). That book attempted to connect the inner world of religion and values to the outer world of career and occupation. It was a meditation on how to connect what you did with what you believed, and how to find balance in life. It became a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, which had caused us to define ourselves by work, income and class.

Reflecting on how the shopping mall has replaced the cathedral in cultural significance, Lear wrote:

What is notable about this contemporary fountainhead of values is not simply the message that can be reduced to the five-word phrase: “We are what we consume.” It is the overweening commitment of American business, not to qualitative values, but to quantitative values. We define ourselves, our values and our aspirations by SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, box office grosses, cost-benefit analysis, quarterly profits, bottom lines, and polls, polls, polls …

A culture that becomes a stranger to its own inner human needs — needs which are unquantifiable, intuitive, mysterious — has lost touch with the best of its humanity; with that portion of itself that impels us to create art and literature and to study ethics, philosophy and history; with the part of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder; with our innate longing for a higher order of meaning, This is the spiritual life of our species, that aspect of ourselves that we have long recognized sets us apart from other creatures …

Whether Lear knew it or not, he was essentially channeling Abraham Joshua Heschel. More than that, he was, perhaps unwittingly, creating a “commercial” for Shabbat — as a time for the qualitative, rather than the quantitative, a time of awe and wonder and meaning.

But, then he turned his eye to American society, with the gaze of a biblical prophet:

Most Americans are aware that we, as a nation, are not enjoying our material success. To scan today’s cultural landscape is to see a burgeoning underclass, a growing army of homeless people, and an increasingly frustrated, alienated, economically hard-pressed middle class. We see drugs, crime, violence, racism, hate crimes, mindless massacres and children killing children …

This was 1994. Lear was both descriptive and prescient. If anything, the explosion of technology and the ubiquity of the internet have made our lives and our longings even that much more quantifiable; we judge ourselves by the number of “likes” we get and the number of “followers” we accumulate.

But Lear was equally hopeful that a parallel wave of spiritual endeavor could serve as an antidote to the ache of our times:

A phenomenon of equal significance is building now. It is a buzzing, disconnected eruption of spiritual reaction to our times; it is operating without the sanction of the popular culture or organized religion; and it can be used to shatter the walls erected by secularists and, even, religionists that prevent us from even talking about it.

Again, that was 1994, almost 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen our culture is in even worse shape than we had thought. Since then, we have seen our way of judging religion and faith systems, and their structures and institutions, has been whether they can respond to the decay of our society — a decay that is simultaneously beneath our field of vision, and quite apparent.

Lear is an American original. And yes, a wise and perceptive Jew. We needed his insights then. We need them even more now.

And so, as we say: Norman, ad meah v’esrim — may you live to be 120!