Religion as Metaphor (or, at the least, as a Broadway Musical)

A couple of nights ago, my family was delighted to attend a cabaret performance by Sheera Ben-David at Feinstein’s in New York City. Besides the power and beauty of Sheera’s performance, she was backed by a band which included her brother, Adam, who also happens to serve as Associate Conductor for the current Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon” … which reminded me that I’d had some pretty enthusiastic (and maybe important?) ideas about the show’s storyline. I wrote them up in a Rosh Hashanah sermon last September and share them here with you. 

Billy

A woman makes an appointment with her doctor and, after a bit of a wait, is led to an examination room where she is seen by a young, new member of the staff. After a brief consultation, the doctor tells the woman she’s pregnant. The door to the examination room bursts open, and the woman, now screaming, is running down the hall. An older doctor stops her and asks what’s the matter, and, after listening for a moment, has her take a seat in another room and breathe. The doctor then marches down the hallway back to where the first doctor is and says, “What’s the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is fifty-nine years old. She’s got four grown children and seven grandchildren. And you tell her she’s pregnant?” The young doctor continues writing on his clipboard and, without looking up, asks, “Does she still have the hiccups?”

The key to any good story is an ending that catches the listener by surprise. We start out with one image in our mind, that image grows in color and definition as the storyline develops, and then we’re asked to suddenly and radically change that picture. The results may prompt a smile, a laugh, or if the story’s intent is a more serious one, a sigh, a lump in our throats, or even tears.

Psychologists affirm the importance of storytelling in human experience. Stories are a timeless link to ancient traditions, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and to universal truths. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others. They explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values. Stories take place in our imaginations, but they create genuine emotions and behavioral responses. And by engaging our imaginations, we become participants in the narrative, stepping out of our own shoes, seeing things differently, and tapping into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.

So when I’d heard that the South Park guys were writing a musical, I knew it was going to be one heckuva story. And when they announced it would be titled The Book of Mormon, I braced myself for an outrageous evening of irreverence, but also hoped that the South Park sense of compassionate humanity would shine through. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is a kooky one. Mormon missionaries are sent to Africa, going door-to-door selling their particularly American brand of Christianity in a land that is so different from the one they trained in, there aren’t even doorbells to ring. Mormonism itself helps the musical achieve is goofiness, through its traditional assertions that Jesus visited upstate New York in the early-1800s, that Jerusalem will be moved to Jackson County, Missouri, and that, as the musical tells us, “in 1978, God changed His mind about black people.”

As a rabbi, I of course was curious as to whether The Book of Mormon would wreak havoc on religion in general. Would it dismiss all institutional quests for spirituality as, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; at worst, self-serving and destructive? — critiques that are not unfamiliar to any of us, perhaps concerning other religions, perhaps concerning our own. But as it turns out, and it was easy to miss, The Book of Mormon has something quite wonderful to say about religion, something worth sharing here this morning, and worth taking home to ponder and perhaps synthesize into our own understanding of religion in general, and of Judaism in particular.

The musical’s young missionaries are sent to Uganda for two years of sharing door-to-door the Book of Mormon’s message of eternal life through adherence to the teachings of the Heavenly Father, and making converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What these eager, enthusiastic, but naive proponents of God’s love find is stark poverty, barbaric mutilation, political corruption, and a community where more than a million men, women and children are living with HIV, the AIDS virus. In fact, religion grows quite popular in hard times, as people reach out for hope beyond what they can expect from the immediate world around them. But the Mormons are unsuccessful at bringing people into the fold until they realize they must adjust their message to the circumstances in front of them. They must make their teachings relevant. And when that happens, the Ugandans grow interested.

One of the two lead characters in The Book of Mormon sings a song that delineates Mormon beliefs. Well, not all of them. Since this is brought to us by the South Park people, it’s only the beliefs that bring a smile to our faces.

♬ I believe that the Lord God created the universe. I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins. And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

♬ I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet. And I believe that the current President of The Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes!

♬ I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well. And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. [I am] a Mormon, and a Mor-mon-just-believes!

All religions have their silliness. The Mormons haven’t cornered the market on that. For example, the Church of Scientology believes that 75 million years ago there was an alien galactic ruler named Xenu who was in charge of all the planets in this part of the galaxy, including Earth except in those days it was called Teegeeack. Because all of the seventy-six planets he controlled were overpopulated, he called in, with the help of psychiatrists, billions of people for tax inspections where instead they were given injections to paralyze them and were then placed in rockets that flew to planet Earth and stacked the paralyzed people around the bases of volcanoes which were then destroyed by hydrogen bombs.

Christianity gets to join in the fun too, teaching that Jesus died for our sins, that he’s coming back to fix the world, and that you too can do the math to figure out what day that’ll be. If you’re a hardened criminal, you can still go to heaven as long as you accept Jesus as your Savior. And two-hundred-year Crusades are a great way to reclaim the Holy Land from the infidel, and kill millions while you’re doing it!

Judaism has its silliness too. I invite you to sing along.

♬ I believe that God created the universe. I believe that He wrote it down for us to read. And I believe He squeezed 15 billion years of evolution and quantum physics into six 24-hour periods. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that God told all men that we get to be in charge. I believe that Eve made Adam eat the apple even though apples don’t grow in the Middle East or Africa. And I believe that Noah built an Ark that could hold two and sometimes fourteen of every animal on the face of the planet. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that in a dictatorship like ancient Egypt, Joseph could be thrown in jail and then rise to become prime minister (how come they didn’t just cut his head off?). I believe that our ancestors wandered in the desert for forty years without ever needing a change of clothing or a new pair of shoes. And I believe that if I perform the 613 mitzvot, most of which can’t be done outside the land of Israel and aren’t even done in Israel today, that I’ll get to go to heaven. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

I’ve got one more.

♬ I believe that Joshua made the walls of Jericho fall. I believe God split the Red Sea too. And I believe that Abraham was fine with God telling him to take his son up a mountain and kill him there. I am a Jew, and a Jew-just-believes!

See what I mean?

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that’s traditional Judaism, but we Reform Jews don’t believe any of that stuff.” Did I ever tell you about a friend of mine who was studying to be a rabbi and she got fired from her student pulpit because she taught that the Ten Plagues likely never occurred? That was a Reform congregation. And while I don’t have statistics (I’d really like to have statistics on this), I imagine that a whole lot of “liberal Jews,” despite college educations, advanced degrees, and knowledge of the sciences that so many of us have, there’s not a whole lot of questioning about the historicity of the events in the Bible. Our kids question it. In my tenth grade Confirmation class, students nail me all over the place about it. But maybe it’s just bravado because I suspect, fifteen years from now, many of them will no longer be challenging these stories.

I believe … that this is the scariest part of religion. Intelligent people willing to suspend disbelief, to set aside every critical faculty they use everywhere else in life, and allow not just the stories, but the laws, that were fashioned some three-to-four thousand years ago, to govern our lives today. We certainly see this in its exaggerated forms in Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, and Radical Islam. As a result, many people conclude that religion is, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; and at worst, it’s self-serving and destructive.

Author and dynamic lecturer Douglas Rushkoff wrote last year in The Forward that, “For most of us, the release from slavery described in the story of Pesach is metaphorical. We are not enslaved physically; we are rather imprisoned mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Mitzrayim, the ‘narrow place,’ is a narrow state of mind from which we are released the moment we are willing to smash our idols.”

Now, I love Doug’s take on Passover. I think that every Jewish moment, event, ritual, and even God, is a metaphor for something in our lives, something we want or need in order to live fully, to attain contentment, happiness. But I disagree with him in that I don’t think that “most of us” see religion as metaphor. And the reason we don’t see religion as a metaphor is that it requires time and thought to move from the literal to the symbolic. Not everybody wants to do that work. But I want to make it clear to you that not only does Judaism allow us to see it as metaphor, we must. Otherwise, we will often look as silly as characters in a musical comedy.

So let me extend to you an invitation. Come into your synagogue more often than you have to. Come to services, and listen to what the clergy and others on the bimah think Jewish ritual as metaphor offers us today. Come take a class or two, and dive more deeply into some topic, and move yourself beyond basic information toward more profound and metaphorical understandings of our religion. And lastly, come and perform community service … because ultimately, mitzvah (religious obligation) is about sensing our responsibility for one another. To demonstrate that we comprehend the metaphor of our stories and our laws, we need to carry these metaphors forward into compassionate and activist behaviors. Simply stated, the teachings of our ancient religion need to propel us to care, and to show that we care. The world really needs that from us.

The South Park boys demonstrated they understand this when, in The Book of Mormon, the no-longer-naive protagonist declares that religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” And with that one sentence, this musical made a profound contribution to our understanding why religions are with us, and why they should stay. Religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” That “something bigger” can be something awful, to be sure, if people pervert religion’s potential and use it to divide people into “the saved” and “the damned.” When religion encourages cruel treatment of outcast infidels, it’s lost its way. But when that “something bigger” is our shared sense that we’re all in this together, that although the world is vast our destinies are shared, and the work we do to improve life for all is the most important work of all, that’s when religion is on-task and earns an honored place in our community. So if our religion – for most of us here, Judaism – encourages us to do this by telling stories from times gone by that are intended to help us figure out how to live in our own time, and the resulting activity is helpful to everyone, then I believe we’ve stumbled upon one of life’s greatest truths.

My wife Ellen is always teaching that the stuff we learn about in Judaism doesn’t have to have happened in order for it to be true. So I don’t ask you, “Is the Torah true?” I ask, “How is the Torah true?” And the responses we create do not have to confirm that any of this actually happened; it only has to confirm our understanding of what we ought to make happen.

So just what do “I Believe”? I believe that the purpose of religion is to assist us in becoming fully human.

♬ I believe that religion can be tender and wise. I believe that we have to use it for the common good. And I believe that when religion teaches us compassion, mercy, tolerance, and grace, that’s when we write our own Broadway musical, a musical called “The Book of ……………………… Life.”

♬ I am a human.

And as a human, it is my nature, and my gift … to seek out something loving and ennobling … to believe.

Billy