What Does Judaism Have to Offer Seth Rogen?
Seth Rogen doesn’t owe you anything. Rogen is Jewish, but he never claimed to be a spokesman for the Jewish people. He is an actor and entertainer. Why do we expect celebrities to represent us or promote our beliefs or causes? They can be hired to do so, but as far as I know, no one is paying Rogen to be their spokesmodel, and no one is writing him a script to read for the cameras. He is entitled to his beliefs and opinions, and you are entitled to disagree with him.
One of the many things Rogen said about Jews and Judaism on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast recently was that he is afraid of Jews. Based on some of the responses to his remarks, it’s hard to blame him.
The censure from more conservative quarters of the Jewish world has been swift and severe. There are those who have essentially branded him a traitor. What did Rogen do to earn such furor and condemnation? He voiced his apathy, and even antipathy, toward Israel. And he expressed his disinterest in Judaism, with the declaration that religion is “silly,” and the assertion that he doesn’t care that his wife is Jewish even though she wishes he did.
Admittedly, these are mortal sins in the world of Jewish advocacy. There are those who are angry that Rogen is not more positive about his Jewish identity. There are those who contest that as a high-profile celebrity with a large megaphone and a wide audience, he should be more educated on the subject of Jewish history and more sensitive to the influence he will have on the millions of young Jews who will be exposed to his words. But though they might wish that Rogen thought or felt differently, why should they assume he would? What has Judaism done for Rogen or other young Jews other than brand them with a target and laden them with something that they must defend, which they never chose and never understood?
What benefits has Judaism bestowed on young diaspora Jews that assure their devotion and allegiance? What have they learned of Judaism that merits defending? The primary lessons that Rogen seems to have gleaned from his Jewish experience and education are a) that everyone hates Jews, b) that every Jew has a funny uncle, c) that Jews today are “soft,” and d) that Jewish summer camp is a breeding ground for young Jews to cohabit and replicate.
Is there something that Judaism provides someone like Rogen who is living the “American Dream?” Does it have anything to offer millions of young Jews who may not have attained Rogen’s level of success but who believe that his fame and fortune are the summit of human accomplishment?
One of the most telling things about the WTF interview to me was toward the very end, when Maron asked Rogen if he and his wife were planning to have kids. Rogen said they’re not, and Maron asked why. Rogen mentioned the absurdity of bringing children into a world so dysfunctional, but he also concluded that his carefree life is good and children can be quite a burden. “So they would cut in on your you-time?” Maron asked. “Exactly,” Rogen responded, agreeing that they would.
In an interview several months ago with Jimmy Kimmel, Rogen made a similar point. Discussing his experience dealing with quarantine, he explained how he has actually enjoyed himself at home, smoking a “truly ungodly” amount of weed and spinning pottery. “The fact that I have no kids is making this truly not that bad,” he asserted. In both interviews, he commented that he may regret the decision to go childless in his later days when he is alone, but that loneliness would be worth all of the carefree me-time that he was able to enjoy now.
While others are devoting plenty of ink to the issue of Rogen’s animus toward Israel, and by extension the trend in this direction for many young diaspora Jews, it may be worth focusing for a moment on this larger issue of Judaism’s relevance to a generation that a) has been raised on values that are very different from those expressed in Torah, and b) has never really been exposed to the beautiful and truly radical ideas that Torah presents.
In other words, it may well be that the Judaism that Rogen deems “silly” is silly indeed, but it is not, in fact, Judaism at all. A stripped down and secularized version of Jewish practice and tradition which maintains rules but abandons all depth and spirituality is certainly no competition for a free and self-gratifying lifestyle that includes “ungodly” amounts of weed, entertainment, and personal liberty.
The “New World” offered Jewish immigrants an escape from not only violent persecution of antisemitic hordes, but also from the strictures of what was often an oppressive religious orthodoxy that stressed compliance over personal joy and self-actualization. The justifiable move away from self-denial and toward personal development eventually evolved, several generations down the line, into the culture that we inhabit today, which stresses immediate gratification and zealous self-concern.
This is not a judgment or condemnation of millennial Jews, but rather a recognition of their circumstances and an understanding of how we got here. The responsible next step, then, is not to denounce or excommunicate, but to ask ourselves what it is that Judaism truly has to offer, and how we can make that available to Rogen and the cohort that he represents.
To a generation for whom there is nothing more significant than the here and now, Torah suggests a more protracted gaze toward posterity and legacy. To those for whom the visceral and temporal is most valuable, Torah offers the spiritual and eternal. These alternatives are less immediate and palpable, but they are more profound and enduring. A life of intoxication and diversion may be fun and pleasurable, but it may also be the result of a deep-seated gnawing dissatisfaction which needs to be numbed and buried at all costs because it is never addressed or resolved.
If Judaism can fill the void that begs for constant palliatives and distractions, then it is worth exploring. The version of Judaism that has been offered to generations of diaspora Jews does not do so, but as someone who grew up secular and embraced a more traditional and devoted Jewish lifestyle after college, I can confidently affirm that authentic Jewish spirituality does.
Many friends and family members questioned my turn to a more observant and spiritual practice as a young adult. I was affluent and successful and married to a wonderful woman and seemed to have everything. In one particularly frank and probing conversation, a close friend said to me, “but we don’t need God.” After thinking about it a moment, it struck me, and I responded, “but what if God needs us?!”
Judaism gives us many things — among them, the Golden Rule of “love your neighbor as yourself,” an eternal code of law and morality, the notion of one God, and even more radically, the notion that God is one and there is nothing other; but one of the most significant gifts it affords us is the awareness that we are needed and we are capable of transcending ourselves and affecting the entire creation.
Why does God need us? If He’s the infinite and omnipotent God, He doesn’t need anything. And yet He created us, and He gave us a role to play and a job to do. That job is to be a “light unto the nations.” This means to reveal Him in the midst of the darkness, to show the world around us that He exists. We do so by being Godly ourselves. Every time we overcome our self interest for the sake of someone or something else, we are revealing God, because if there were no Godliness within us, we would be purely self-preserving and self-serving.
Each of us is charged with the job of being a light unto the nations, and each of us can fulfill it. When we neglect the job God gives us, He understands. It’s not an easy job, and the world He created is distracting and seductive. But if we comprehend how precious the job is, how fortunate we are to be entrusted with such a job, and how great our effect will be when we perform it, we will then be more inclined to embrace our birthright rather than eschewing it.
What Judaism gives us is something far more important and fulfilling than “me time.” Seth Rogen believes that he doesn’t need Judaism, and there are millions of young, impressionable Jews who are exposed to his beliefs and opinions and who agree with him. But Seth, and all of you others, there’s something you should know: Judaism needs you! There’s something in this stuff that’s more enriching than money, more intoxicating than weed or fame, more captivating and addictive than video games or porn or other forms of entertainment. Check it out and see for yourself. Or hit me up, and I’ll be glad to connect you with someone who can help you find what you didn’t even realize you were looking for.
Marc Erlbaum is a filmmaker and social activist. He is the founder of Common Party (www.thecommonparty.com), a non-political social movement that is working to bring the country back together in these divisive times through the celebration of our overwhelming commonality.