Here is a bold statement.
No one has influenced American television as much as Norman Lear.
Think about it, and you will realize that it is true. Lear transformed a medium that offered us mundane, suburban stories into tales that were both funny and cutting. The 1970s unfolded through these stories – “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “The Jeffersons”, “Good Times”, “Sanford and Son”. Lear single-handedly put issues such as race, class, sexuality and bigotry before Americans. (He also invented the idea of the spin-off, which was a kind of midrashic art form, in which a relatively minor character in one story becomes a major character in another.)
Last week, Lear turned 100. Certainly, we celebrate his longevity. But we also celebrate his unique and overwhelming contribution to American culture. It’s an American treasure.
Lear reflected on his legacy in The New York Times – specifically, focusing on his creation, the iconic Archie Bunker. I had always thought there were parallels between Archie, originally from Queens, New York, and Donald Trump, who was born a few exits away on Grand Central Parkway. (Listen to the conversational style and you’ll hear the echoes. Trump’s roots are northern European working-class queens, like Archie’s).
Archie, much like Trump, was prone to sectarian outbursts. But, as Lear said, unlike Trump supporters on Jan. 6, Archie would never have ended up on Capitol Hill.
As Lear reflects:
Despite all his faults, Archie loved his country and he loved his family, even when they called him out for his ignorance and bigotry. If Archie had been around 50 years later, he probably would have been watching Fox News. He probably would have been a Trump voter. But I think the sight of the American flag being used to attack the Capitol police would have made him sick.
I take the occasion of Lear’s 100th anniversary to reflect on his accomplishments. He blended wit, entertainment, endearing yet maddening characters, and social critique in a way no one had ever done before, and few have managed to imitate.
But Lear had another role, a temporary one – as a Jewish thinker and commentator on American spirituality.
In 1994, I invited him to write the introduction to my book “Partnering with God: How to Find the Hidden Connection Between Spirituality and Your Work(Jewish Enlightenment). This book attempted to connect the inner world of religion and values to the outer world of career and occupation. It was a meditation on how to connect what you did with what you believed and how to find balance in life. It became a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, which had led us to define ourselves by work, income and class.
Reflecting on how the mall replaced the cathedral in cultural significance, Lear wrote:
What is remarkable in this contemporary source of values is not simply the message which can be reduced to the five-word phrase: “We are what we consume”. It is the excessive commitment of American companies, not to qualitative values, but to quantitative values. We define ourselves, our values and our aspirations by SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, box office receipts, cost-benefit analysis, quarterly earnings, bottom line and polls, polls, polls…
A culture that becomes estranged from its own inner human needs — unquantifiable, intuitive, mysterious needs — has lost touch with the best of its humanity; with that part of herself that pushes us to create art and literature and to study ethics, philosophy and history; with the part of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder; with our innate desire for a higher order of meaning, it is the spiritual life of our species, that aspect of ourselves that we have long recognized sets us apart from other creatures.
Whether Lear knows it or not, he was essentially channeling Abraham Joshua Heschel. More than that, it created, perhaps unwittingly, an “advertisement” for Shabbat – as a time for the qualitative, rather than the quantitative, a time of awe, wonder and meaning.
But then he turned his gaze to American society, with the gaze of a biblical prophet:
Most Americans are aware that we as a nation do not enjoy our material success. To analyze today’s cultural landscape is to see a burgeoning underclass, a growing army of homeless people, and an increasingly frustrated, alienated, and economically beleaguered middle class. We see drugs, crime, violence, racism, hate crimes, senseless killings and children killing children.
It was 1994. Lear was both descriptive and prescient. On the contrary, the explosion of technology and the ubiquity of the Internet have made our lives and our desires even more quantifiable; we judge ourselves by the number of “likes” we get and the number of “followers” we accumulate.
But Lear also hoped that a parallel wave of spiritual endeavor might serve as an antidote to the pain of our times:
A phenomenon of equal importance is being built. It is a buzzing, disconnected eruption of spiritual reaction to our times; it operates without the endorsement of popular culture or organized religion; and it can be used to break down the walls erected by the laity and, even, the religious that prevent us even from talking about it.
Again, that was in 1994, almost 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen that our culture is in even worse shape than we thought. Since then, we have seen that our way of judging religion and religious systems, and their structures and institutions, is whether they can respond to the decadence of our society – a decadence that is both within our scope of vision and quite apparent.
Lear is an American original. And, yes, a wise and shrewd Jew. We needed his ideas then. We need it even more now.
And so, as they say: Norman, ad meah v’esrim — may you live to be 120!
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)