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What ‘The Good Place’ says about Jewish ethics

This article contains spoilers for all four seasons of NBC’s “The Good Place.”

Like many things in Judaism, notions of the afterlife can seem to be a jumble of competing interpretations.

There’s no consensus as to what the life-to-come may look like, but one suggestion of heaven is the yeshiva shel ma’ala — or the “yeshiva on high,” where the departed engage in endless Torah study. For some, this would truly be bliss: Time enough at last to review the questions and moral dilemmas that occupied their time on earth. Others, however, might find it a snooze or a moot point. After all, you’re in heaven — who needs to study the stuff that made earth such a clusterfork?

Whatever your take on what happens when we die, it’s undeniable that Michael Schur’s NBC comedy “The Good Place” — in which a name-dropping socialite, a vindictive Arizonan, a “pre-successful” Jacksonville DJ and a professor of philosophy must work to ascend to The Good Place (akin to heaven) and escape “The Bad Place” (i.e. hell) — comes very close to the yeshiva proposal. Schur, who’s Jewish, hasn’t admitted that any one faith tradition has informed his vision, but we’ll choose to see that as coyness on his part.

In the first episode of the series, we’re told that each religion got the hereafter “about 5% percent” right. But as far as a conceit goes, Jews seem to be winning out. A central thread of “The Good Place,” which begins the second part of its fourth and final season on January 9, is all about studying in order to benefit yourself, others and the world around you. The tool for this task is philosophy, as taught by Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a decision-paralyzed professor who believes every answer can be found in books.

While the texts and thinkers discussed in the show — from Immanuel Kant to T.M. Scanlon to David Hume — are secular, the series is extremely Talmudic. At least, that was my hunch. Unlike those rebbes who dream of a vast library and unlimited hours of intertextual exertion, I am a TV Guide Jew, more learned in our pop culture than our central texts. I, like the flawed residents of “The Good Place,” needed help.

For my consultation, I approached two rabbinical students who are fans of the show. (Unsurprisingly, rabbinical students love this show about ethics.) We met on a rainy Friday at a crowded matcha tea place on the Upper West Side. Most other patrons were busy sipping, reading and writing.

“For me it’s the big questions that the show asks that feel really Jewish,” said Ariel Milan-Polisar, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Manhattan campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform seminary. “What does it mean to be human, and can people change? This theme of second chances and that there’s always another day to be better feels very Jewish to me. It’s like this theme of teshuva [Jews’ yearly repentance during the High Holidays] that we revisit every year.”

Ariel Milan-Polisar, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion

Ariel Milan-Polisar, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion Image by Courtesy of Ariel Milan-Polisar

The rabbis Milan-Polisar works with at her internship at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, often recommend “The Good Place” to their congregants — particularly families — for the show’s take on ethical dilemmas. In recent seasons, with the revelation of an afterlife “points system,” (negative for Bad Place clout and positive for Good Place), the show has become even more relevant as a tool for thinking about our individual impact on the world, from plastic straw-use to moral intangibles like how we treat those around us.

Milan-Polisar’s classmate Andrew Oberstein, who is interning at the Columbia-Barnard Hillel and discovered the show during a trip to Israel with other prospective rabbis, believes the teshuva thread became more explicit in the current season. The reason comes down to a Judge, a deadline and a chance to improve.

After Michael (Ted Danson), the once-evil architect of the fake “Good Place” neighborhood where the show begins, appeals to Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph, in a role that is as close to God as the show comes) to reform a broken system that hasn’t let humans into the Good Place for 500 years, she gives them a year to prove that people can change for the better.

“On Rosh Hashanah it’s written, on Yom Kippur it’s sealed,” Oberstein said of the three books — for the wicked, middling and righteous — in which God judges our deeds on Earth. “You have this window of time after what’s been written, before it’s been sealed to go back and reevaluate your actions. That 10-day period is literally what this entire season of ‘The Good Place’ was.”

Andrew Oberstein, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion

Andrew Oberstein, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion Image by Courtesy of Andrew Oberstein

Season 4 puts a ticking clock at the center of the action, as the core characters remake the neighborhood for four new test subjects. Their goal is to goose the Good Place points of their guinea pigs by making them better people to prove that humans are not a lost cause. The model neighborhood, where humans don’t have to worry about rent, money or unethical origins of daily goods, provides the perfect control for the experiment in betterment, and on that can’t be replicated on Earth.

In the show, actions are valued above faith or grace, something Oberstein believes is very Jewish. But all actions are added up using the byzantine points system, that hasn’t yet caught up to the realities of a world that grows more complex by the day. Even Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), a man who devotes his life to earning enough points to get into the Good Place, falls short due in part to his intent to make it to his eternal reward. In the meantime, his virtuous life involves drinking his recycled sewage and getting harassed by a local boy in the hopes that the happiness it brings the kid might be tabulated into his afterlife GPA.

“I was fascinated and so sad for this guy,” Rabbi Nicole Guzik of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a Conservative shul, told me over the phone of the question of Doug’s motivation. “You spend your entire life trying to live for Olam ha-ba, and so much of our rabbinic literature is focused on that — that you might not see your reward in this world, but you’ll see it in the world to come. But that’s a hard way to live your life.”

Rabbi Nicole Guzick of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles

Rabbi Nicole Guzick of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles Image by Courtesy of Sinai Temple

Doug is the exception, however, as the only living person to have figured out postmortem bureaucracy. The faulty points system excludes everyone else from the Good Place by virtue of unintended consequences, dooming them to torture in the Bad Place.

In his argument to Judge Gen, Michael uses the point score earned by a man named Douglas Lerpiss (he’s pulling from a “Book of Dougs”) for buying a tomato, an act for which he earned a -12.368 points. As Michael explains, “these days just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re accidentally making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.”

Oberstein sees the idea of our actions having different degrees of merit as corresponding to Maimonides’s “Ladder of Tzedakah,” where the act of giving charity has “rungs of worthwhileness.”

“It’s actually not just giving $5 to somebody who needs $5,” Oberstein said. “There’s so many different choices in that. Do you disclose your identity? What’s your relationship to that person? Is it better if it’s anonymous? Is it better to sustain them till they get back on their feet?” (Or, put in tomato terms, buying local from, say, a farmer’s market is better than buying GMOs from a chain, and growing your own tomato is even better.)

The humans and Michael are challenging this sort of codified system before an immortal judge, an action that has a Jewish precedent as well.

In Numbers, Oberstein said, Moses took the case of the daughters of Zelophehad before God, who then changed the laws of inheritance for them. Likewise, Judge Gen’s perspective on the points system shifts when she spends some time on Earth and realizes that even eating a delicious Chick-Fil-A sandwich could means in the words of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), “you hate gay people.” Changing the rules to fit the situation marks a key facet of Judaism — that of applying the shifting realities of the world to Torah.

“In the Talmud, when there’s a question of whether to do one thing or another, and they can’t come to a decision, often the answer is essentially to go out and see what the people are doing, and that’s the answer,” Milan-Polisar said. (Often in Talmud, Rabbi Guzik told me the rabbis even leave the matter as a question mark, an ambiguity she sees reflected the show’s ongoing puzzle of how to lead a good life.)

The humans of “The Good Place,” with some help from Michael, made a practical case for a change in the way the afterlife operates that factors in the lived experience of Earth. Once that case was argued and accepted, the humans took control of fine-tuning.

“This whole universe changed into the hands of people,” Milan-Polisar said of the show’s fourth season. “The people took charge and said ‘this is unfair, this is not how the world works, it’s too hard to be good all the time.’ And actually, being good all the time is not the measure. Improving all the time is.”

But while the humans argued for the standard of improvement after their year-long experiment — even getting a sexist, racist, tee-time-motivated executive named Brent (Ben Koldyke) to reflect on his behavior at the very last moment — Judge Gen decided the best course of action was to “cancel” Earth, some serious Noah’s Ark vibes.

Heading into the home stretch of the final season, Chidi has been tasked with thinking of a better model for the afterlife to save humanity. He’s the obvious choice in some ways, having devoted his life to the study of ethics, but he’s also quite possibly the worst, given his indecisiveness.

“Chidi felt really rabbinic to me,” Milan-Polisar said. “He has so many internal conflicts and can’t make one choice. It’s like two Jews three opinions.”

The good news is that the last time we saw Chidi he had finally seen the bigger picture — that there isn’t any one answer to the puzzles of life and what comes after it. He, his friends and his soulmate, Eleanor, have a chance at Tikkun Olam — literally repairing the Olam ha-ba (the World to Come.)

But they’re not alone in the effort; they also have the help of Michael, a demon-turned-good, and a crew of Janets (semi-omniscient androids, all of whom are played by D’Arcy Carden). Just like the humans, Michael and the Janets grow and change and come to accept that humans simply striving to do better is one step toward improving everything.

“In Judaism we’re partners with God in this tikkun process,” Oberstein said. “God is not really a character in ‘The Good Place,’ but humans partner with eternal divineness in order to make this repair, make this tikkun of what’s been broken. It’s a team effort.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]


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