Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mitt Romney's Magic Mormon Underwear and Beating Willows

I know I'm not the only rabbi who watches Bill Maher's HBO show "Real Time" religiously. I say "religiously" with tongue-in-cheek because I've never missed a show and the comedian has become increasingly anti-religion in recent years. Like many religious leaders I tune in to Bill Maher's show (actually I DVR it and watch it mid-week whenever I have a chance) for his political commentary, but I lose him when he gets into his rants about religion and God.

In yesterday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about Bill Maher's recent appearance at George Washington University when the creator of the documentary "Religulous" went off on an anti-Mormon rant when talking about Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate for president. "Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around. Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy."

Bill Maher is a staunch atheist who attacks all religions. He was raised Roman Catholic and now refers to the Roman Catholic Church as “an international child sex ring.” But he seems to be the most critical on the Mormon faith. "By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” Maher said. This could be because of Romney's recent popularity in the 2012 presidential race.

I spent some time this morning thinking about Maureen Dowd's column and Bill Maher's vicious attack on Mormonism during his recent stand-up comedy appearance. It could very well be that Mormonism gets a lot of attention for some of its odd beliefs and rituals because it is a 19th century religion that was founded in America. Its former views on polygamy and belief in magical undergarments make for good comedy material when the creators of South Park want to write a Broadway show.

But as I marched around the small chapel in synagogue this morning holding my etrog (citron fruit) and lulav (palm fronds bounded together with myrtle and willow branches) and wearing my long multi-colored prayer shawl with four braided fringes dangling from each corner as I chanted Hosannas, I realized that it's not fair to lampoon any religion for its silly ways. Today, Jews all over the world observe Hoshanah Rabbah when we beat willow branches as a way of ridding ourselves of our sins. A couple weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah we threw bread crumbs into moving streams of water. Sound weird? It is. But it's deeply rooted in religious tradition making it an accepted ritual. All religions have these odd customs that appear strange to an outsider.

If temple-going Mormons choose to wear special undergarments because they believe it sets them apart from the world and signifies a covenant between them and God, then great. One person's special religious underwear is another's yarmulke or burqa or gold cross around the neck. The Mormon underwear is sacred to the wearer for what it represents, but silly to the non-believer because it is rooted in a religious belief not their own.

I may not like when Mormon's posthumously baptize deceased Jews (the other focus of Maureen Dowd's editorial and Bill Maher's attack), but who am I to laugh at their sacred rituals and religious garb. I find Bill Maher to be a funny comedian, but I wish he'd give up on his unrelenting religious scrutiny. He's certainly entitled to his opinions about matters of faith and theology, but his aggressiveness has become offensive.

Mitt Romney will continue wearing his special underpants. I'll continue wearing a yarmulke and waving the lulav. And Bill Maher will continue his crusade against the religious groups in our country. But I hope he remembers that he's a comedian and gets paid to be funny, not disrespectful.


Anonymous said...

Dear Rabbi,

I applaud your standing out against religious intolerance of any kind. As someone confessedly concerned about the effects the Internet has on Jewish daily life, are you worried about, as an example, the way the Internet treats isolated Jewish ethnic groups that evolved different traditions?

There's the Samaritans, of course, but there are also the Ethiopian Jews, and ancient Jewish communities in India. While most (not all) of these groups have been granted the Right of Return, there seems to be a fear of acknowledging them publicly.

As an example, take a look at the Wikipedia article on Judaism. You'll find Samaritanism under the heading "Alternative Judaism" with the Secular Humanist and Buddhist Jews.

Is that fair? In point of fact, as a Jew raised non-Orthodox, I would bet that most Samaritans, as well as Ethiopian Jews and other communities, are more observant of the 613 commandments than I have ever been, so why do they get the cold shoulder? Wikipedia was just an example. There's the issue also of the not-so-nice names they're called by in the "Holy Land."

This is all leading me to my bigger point: there is a problem I find endemic in blogs like yours. Pardon my Yiddish, but why are you kvetching about a shm*ck like Bill Maher? Who cares about the sincerity of Mel Gibson's apology-by-proxy? He's not even obligated under Jewish Law to ask our forgiveness--you had to have thought of that.

Do you really think these are the biggest problems facing the American and international Jewish communities? Have you ever wondered just how much blood Judaism will lose before we acknowledge our wound?

I understand if you don't choose to display this comment. But I've been struggling to connect with the religion of my youth. When I was growing up I taught myself how to daven; I was active in BBYO--and I know why. A big part, I think, was because I heard "Tikkun Olam," "Pituakh Nefesh" and all of those wonderful Hebrew phrases for the values we hold dear, everywhere. Where's the ruach anymore?

Today I look for a Jewish blog and find TV and film gossip. Entertainment Tonight is on every day at 5:30pm. Like 99% of Americans (and a larger percentage of total Jews worldwide), I don't watch it. It's bupkis.

Charles Cohen (alias)

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


Thank you for your comments. All very good points. In terms of why I care about Bill Maher and what he says? I watch his show and find him funny, but also wanted to express my discomfort at some of his anti-religious rhetoric.

In terms of Mel Gibson, no I suppose he's not under any Halakhic obligation to perform teshuvah for his anti-Semitic tirade, but I hope he will repent for the hatred of others that he possesses.

Jeffrey said...

The religions deserve to be rousted. Catholic pedophilia, Scientology brainwashing and fundraising practices, Islamic terrorism, Judaism for its treatment of some of its scattered tribes. Do I have the right to know if Romney believes that his Underwear will protect him from nuclear fallout? When he might have his finger on the button? Do I have a right to know if Christian candidates support Israel because they want to hasten the second coming of Christ by hastening the end of times? I pray that G-d saves us from all these religious nuts!

Anonymous said...

Dear Rabbi,

While Maher may be funny which I agree I think there are a lot of americans that fear religious fanatacism. I myself have never considered the religion of a person as I weighed their ability to do a job. My view has changed only in regards to Romney and Huntsman. Six years ago I took a job in Mormonland (I discovered they don't like to be called Mormons).

They have a lot of odd beliefs and sacred rituals not to mention the secret hand signs that they use to identify, in secret, a member. Secrets are the one thing that worries me and I have found that they keep a lot of secrets. They prefer to report member crimes to their Bishops so that the church may deal internally with members rather than the authorites. I personally believe that the church though it denounces polygamy allows it and accepts it. I have overheard too many conversations of bishops with regard to this.

I am concerned that Romney and Huntsman two devout mormons have religious reasons for running for president. The mormon church has a prophecy that I have heard numerous times called the White Horse prophecy. This says that when the United States is on the brink, at the end a Mormon Prophet will come to power to save and lead the U.S. out of the wasteland. It is hard to not look at Huntsman and Romney and not see their desire to be this prophet. I am also concerned about the directive for the mormons to journal daily and these journals go to a vault in the mountains outside Salt Lake. I could see a Mormon president being required by his faith to journal daily about the important dealings of the day. What I have learned living amonst them is that their religious requirements supercede everything. Here is my concern in their faith if you don't do what the church wants they excommunicate members and that seperates them for all time from their family tree. This is a fear I have heard from members fearing losing their celestial family.

There is so much more that gives me concern that I had to do my own research about their religion. They see it as us versus them in regards to mormons and non-mormons. They are required by the church to have a 2yr food storage and they are some of the most heavily armed people I have ever met. They scare me! I am a man that accepts all religions and have friends of most all faiths even agnostics.


Nancy/NY said...

My concern with Mormonism is the same as it is with any religion that engages in discrimination of any kind and calls it an inherent part of that religion. With Mormonism, just to think of a few things, they have an entrenched homophobia and history of racism; they also have a tremendous amount of sexism and oppression of women included.

I am also extremely offended by their obsessive prosyletising door-to-door, and "conversions" of Jews who have died in the Holocaust. It seems shockingly disrespectful and tone-deaf, to put it lightly.

I also watch Bill Maher, but take what he says with a grain of salt (and actually can only stand to watch him sporadically). As a "recovering Catholic" myself, I can understand some of the vitriol he has for the Catholic Church and its hierarchy of oppression and abuse. (His cynicism gets on my nerves, however.)

I dislike any hatred, including hatred toward religions, and label it a form of bigotry. But Mormonism and other religions who posit themselves as "the one true religon" scare me. Apocalyptic world views that are backed up with religous excuses terrify me. And religions that advocate theocracy and any greying of the line between "church and state" drive me nuts. Mormonism is all this and more.

As a Unitarian, I practice a non-doctrinal, non-prosyletising faith that supports all other religions and their right to exist and flourish, guards the separation of "church and state", fights for the oppressed in social justice work, and takes wisdom from all faith traditions. So the whole "religion is such a scam" thing is a cop-out for me. It's possible to be a religius person and also be on the side of what is moral and right in this society. It's not neccesary to be religous to lead a moral and true life, but it's certainly possible.

Anonymous said...

Religions, like it or not, are fodder for comedy. I'm sure you would have disliked Galileo, as did the Roman Catholics, for making his "vicious" and "militaristic" remarks by telling the truth.

Beating oneself with a willow while meaningful to a person practicing one religion or another is certainly fodder for humor. I'm not hurting you, I'm just telling you that in my opinion only a moron would do that. So what? I'm sure you would call me a moron for believing that the government of Israel (though not all its citizens)is a total nut case right up there with Iran and Korea. And I would disagree.

I have no problem with treating PEOPLE with respect, but I certainly and not going to refrain from calling a PRACTICE or a BELIEF moronic if I think it deserves it. You, on the other hand, can call be wrong.

I just ask that you don't kill me as some religions are wont to do, but don't shut me up.

Religions resist change- they only change when completely forced to and usually not from within.