How Tom Hanks became my rabbi

We need not only a Statue of Liberty. We need a Statue of Responsibility.

Tom Hanks is a nice guy.

At least, that is the way that he inevitably projects himself in the various movie roles that he has created over the years. Sit back, and think about every Tom Hanks movie that you have seen, and you will smile and say to yourself: “What a sweet guy!”

That is, except for his most recent movie, “A Man Called Otto,”

Hanks plays Otto Anderson, a widower in Pittsburgh. His wife’s death has plunged him into radical despair and loneliness, and he contemplates (and attempts) suicide.

Spoiler alert: ultimately, Otto’s neighbors inspire him to realize the innate goodness in himself and others. He creates a loving community, which is in reality more of an extended family.

“A Man Called Otto” is about the lethal nature of unresolved, unprocessed grief.

But, more than that, it is about the inadequacies of the prisons of our sadness and anger. It is about the blurring of the lines between family and community.

Ultimately, it is about what we owe each other

I thought of “A Man Called Otto” and its lessons, as I learned of the recent death of Amitai Etzioni, the Israeli-American sociologist, at the age of 94.

Born to German-Jewish parents who fled from Hitler to Palestine, Etzioni fought for Israeli independence, moved to the United States in 1957, and became an influential academic and political figure. He wrote prodigiously, taught at George Washington University, testified before Congress and advised presidents, prime ministers and other Western leaders on foreign and national policies.

But, Etzioni is best known as the father of communitarianism, a vision of society that asks people to care less about their own rights than about one another and the common good.

Communitarianism focuses on community, not individualism. While it believes in individual liberty and equality, these virtues depend on people’s willingness to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship.

“Strong rights presume strong responsibilities,” Mr. Etzioni told The New York Times in 1992. In order for that balance to work, you need institutions like the family, schools, neighborhoods, unions, local governments and religious and ethnic groups.

We see “A Man Called Otto,” and we long for the neighborhood that creates that civic, emotional unit. (It is telling that the film takes place in Pittsburgh, which I have always seen as the epitome of those kinds of neighborhoods and social networks. So much so, that the late Fred Rogers modeled his “neighborhood of make believe,” a true communitarian fantasy, on his Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill).

We reflect back on the television show “Cheers,” with its bar in which “everybody knows your name,” and they want that — to be seen and known.

We think of the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and we long for that village.

We want what sociologists call “the third place” — that place that is not the home, and not the workplace, but the place where you go to simply be. That is why Starbucks became so successful; it recreated the neighborhood cafe.

For some, the “third place” is in fact, the cafe, or the tavern; for others; civic groups; for others, houses of worship. For others, it had been the bowling league — the collapse of which was analyzed by Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

We say that we want “community.”

I have long been a fan of communitarianism, but it presents us a vision of society that is largely unfulfilled.

For most Americans, “community” is “those people whom I already know and like.” In reality, however, most of us live in the world of what sociologists call  “the sovereign self.” We increasingly live atomized, isolated lives, for which the gated community is a metaphor.

Yes, blame COVID for wounding our informal civic structures. But, it was not just COVID. Something has happened within American society, and the uptick in violence is simply a symptom of a world that the late medieval philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined — a world where everyone is a wolf to everyone else — a jungle, rather than a Garden of Eden.

Can Americans — specifically, American Jews — experience Etzioni’s dream.

Yes, but it is not easy. Neither is it readily available to most Jews, which is sad.

In general, here is the “rule.” The more observant the community, the greater the sense of community. “Community” are those people who share my values. That means communal expectations and responsibilities.

Say what you will about haredi Jews, their Judaism, and the internal workings of their communities.

But, there is one thing that I admire about them, and that is the precious nature of their communal self-help structures. It is called the gemach, an acronym for organizations that promote acts of gemilut chasadim, charitable acts.

That is communitarianism — perhaps the purest form of what Amitai Etzioni desired and advocated.

Back to “A Man Called Otto.”

Spoiler alert — as the story unfolds, Otto becomes more and more connected to his neighbors. And yes, they become his family, and they become his community.

Do we want that? It really isn’t all that hard.

But, it will require a huge leap of the spirit for most American Jews to experience that.

In its most accessible form, it is the idea of the minyan — the ten people that you need for Jewish communal worship. The idea of the minyan is perhaps the single most powerful Jewish mechanism for punching holes in the walls the surround people — that elegant and noble idea that unless I have nine people here with me, I cannot fulfill my religious responsibilities.

Or, as my classmate and friend, Rabbi Elyse Frishman teaches (quoting the late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi): Each of the ten people in the minyan represent one of the sefirot, the emanations of the divine personality in the world.

Each aspect of the divine personality has a name – Strength, Endurance, Compassion, Justice, Love, Might, Beauty, Eternity, Wisdom, Kingship. They are held in balance, each with the other – and that balance is necessary for the sustenance of the world.

Rabbi Frishman goes on to suggest that the reason why we need a minyan for worship is because each Jew represents one of the characteristics of God.

That we can only pray when there are ten Jews because only then is God whole.

That means that I need you, and that you need me.

My prayer for Amitai Etzioni: May he discover, in heaven, that ideal community of spirits.

May God comfort his family and friends.



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