Two and a half dozen 20-somethings inched forward in their seats as Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei turned on a television set one recent evening in Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple. Suddenly the Upper Traub room of the huge synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard was immersed in a classic episode of “The Simpsons.” In “Like Father, Like Clown,” Krusty the Clown (ne Hershel Krustofski) reveals he is the son of an Orthodox rabbi (brought to life by the voice of Jackie Mason).
For Schuldenfrei, a recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., the Fox network’s long-running social satire provides a new medium for teaching Torah.
“I see this class as an opportunity to use a fun medium — ‘The Simpsons’ — as a springboard to deeper discussions on Jewish beliefs and values,” he told the Forward. “Because the Simpsons are a satire of a contemporary family, the issues they encounter resonate with most of us.”
Over the sound of scattered laughs and the smell of powdered doughnuts, the Conservative rabbi questioned his audience of young professionals, who had gathered together for his four-session series, “The Simpsons From Sinai: A New Look at God, Judaism and the Torah.”
“What is the theological paradigm behind this episode,” he asked, “in our tradition — not [series creator Matt] Groening’s? What do our sources say about evil?” He wants his flock to look to “The Simpsons” as a point of departure for religious reflection. and discussion.
Following a viewing of the third-season episode “When Flanders Failed” — Homer rallies the town of Springfield to help neighbor Ned Flanders return his “Leftorium” store to solvency — came the following exchange. “Redemption comes from community,” a student wearing a yarmulke offered. “Yes,” Schuldenfrei concurred. “We seek some sort of reaction, compassion, some sort of rachamim. One can feel the power of God in the redemptive power of a supportive community.”
After the class, Schuldenfrei spoke with the Forward, admitting that he “doesn’t really know much about the show.” But at least one student agreed with the comical-philosophical approach. “Usually you go to these things and nobody talks, it’s more like a sermon,” said Sara Myers, 27, from Beverly Hills. “But this is really interactive.”
“Krusty the Clown is the vehicle for some wonderful, serious material about Judaism,” said Mark Pinsky, author of a study guide and book called “The Gospel According to The Simpsons” and a religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel. “This season’s ‘Krusty’s Bar Mitzvah’ was almost as insightful as ‘Like Father, Like Clown,’ which was a classic.”
How do “Simpsons” fans find out that Krusty is Jewish? Voted “most likely to hear God” and first in his yeshiva class, the heretofore-cryptic clown says the hamotzi when the family asks him to say grace. In another episode, noted Pinsky, Krusty goes door-to-door collecting for “The Brotherhood of Jewish Clowns.”
Funnily enough, there is a real-life national organization called Clowns for Judaism, which was founded in 1999. Some of this writer’s best friends are Jews in the Clown Care Unit, the Big Apple Circus hospital-healer troupe. And why not a badchen on mainstream TV? The 14-year-old show even used two rabbis, Lavi Meier and Harold Schulweis, as “special technical consultants.”
“Pinsky’s book was an enormous help for me in that it guided me to episodes that addressed significant issues,” said Sinai’s Schuldenfrei.
“The sources I utilize are obviously different. When he looks to the Gospels, I reference the Talmud and Maimonides!”
When asked what he thought of the class, Harry Shearer, who does the voices for a dozen “Simpsons” characters, told the Forward in his best Flanders voice: “Wait till they get to the next testament!”
The “Simpsons” series was part of ATID (Future), Sinai’s year-old activity program for young professionals. According to director Leslie Kliegel, a “martini and bruschetta bar” night is planned for later this month, but no Homer Simpson-inspired “beer and doughtnuts” night is on the calendar.
“This is the first time I’m aware of a synagogue class” based on “The Simpsons,” Pinsky said. “First were the Sunday schools, then came college courses and college Christian groups.” So Jewish study groups, it seems, are the next theological step.
“‘The Simpsons’ is clearly good for the Jews,” Pinsky said.
Hank Rosenfeld is a journalist in Santa Monica, Calif.
“The Simpsons” is now available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.