Written by Paul Rutherford
I got hoodwinked tonight.
I was watching re-runs of the old NBC television show Frasier—based on the minor character from Cheers, Frasier Crane—when I found myself agreeing with Frasier’s words describing Judaism. It wasn’t until later that night, as I passed those words through my worldview filter, that I came to realize something was wrong about Frasier’s comments. Frasier (at least the writers) was not giving Judaism a fair shake.
In the episode, Frasier’s son Freddy is celebrating his thirteenth birthday. Freddy’s mother is Jewish, which makes Freddy Jewish as well. The thirteenth birthday is a special one for Jewish children; it is the point in their lives when they become adults. To commemorate their passage into adulthood, a celebration is in order: a bar–mitzvah.
Frasier’s friend Roz knows that he is not Jewish, and asks him what that’s like for him. His response is what hoodwinked me:
Roz: Is it weird to have a son brought up in a different religion from yours?
Frasier: Not at all, Roz. It's a faith that espouses love, compassion, duty, education, and art. All values which I cherish.
What tricked me was not what Frasier said but what he didn’t say. Jewish culture definitely espouses love, compassion, duty, education, and art. I completely agree. Several friends who have helped me through dark times in my life have been Jewish. I feel a special affinity for the Jews as a Christian because I read the Hebrew Bible as a part of my own Christian Bible— essentially the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
But Frasier made no mention of the Hebrew God, who is the central figure of their faith. He is their Creator, Sustainer, Protector, and Savior. The Hebrew Bible is the story of this God and his special, chosen people. How then could Frasier have completely ignored Him?
To be fair, Frasier was merely speaking about the points of Judaism with which he agrees. We all understand that intuitively as soon as we read the dialogue. However, if these aspects of love, compassion, duty, education, and art are the only elements of Judaism that resonate with him, then I suspect he does not truly identify with the heart of the Hebrew faith because he has not mentioned anything about their God.
Granted, this represents one comment in one episode. However, there may be something else going on beneath Frasier’s words. When asked about the apparent conflict between Frasier’s religious beliefs and his son’s, in some sense he responds by saying that they are not so different. But he only says they are not so different in those five specific aspects: love, compassion, duty, education, and art. If he’s saying that’s all there is to Judaism, then I would have to disagree.
Philosophers have a fancy name for what Frasier did: reductionism. He has reduced Judaism down to smaller constituent parts which, when reassembled, do not recreate the whole. It seems unfair to equate Judaism solely with these five aspects because many other causes, beliefs, or even organizations can be characterized as espousing precisely the same principles, but not be Jewish in the least.
For example, Ancient Greece had a culture that espoused all such principles, yet it had no particular religious affiliation at all. Culturally we could also consider Italy during the Renaissance, or even the Chinese under the Tang dynasty.
Yet, cultures like these that valued love, compassion, duty, education, and art are in other ways very dissimilar to Judaism. Similarities do not equate to identity. That is, just because a religion or culture shares certain attributes does not mean that they are the same in essence. However, reductionism falsely makes them seem equivalent just because they share some traits.
So there must be more to Judaism than just these five aspects mentioned by Frasier.
Frasier’s religious synopsis may not seem like a very big deal because it is, after all, only one statement. But this one sentence is not what bothers me. I run across people making claims like these all the time in conversation, in magazines, news, practically everywhere. It’s sloppy thinking, really. I just want to encourage us not to slip into reductionism ourselves—and further, to be even more careful about what we take in, keeping that worldview filter on at all times.
© 2009 Probe Ministries
About the Author
Paul Rutherford is a researcher, writer, and speaker for Probe. He joined staff in 2008 after earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religious studies from Rice University. His areas of interest include philosophy of religion, world religions, and faith and culture. Paul's ministry experience includes campus ministry, cross cultural ministry, and he has spoken in churches and schools throughout Texas. He and his wife Kelly have two young children. Paul's hobbies include playing saxophone, singing, acting, swing dancing, and sometimes Texas two-step. Paul can be reached at email@example.com.
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