For rabbis, the Jewish High Holidays are a ratings period. Synagogues are packed with people — many of whom attend only a few times a year — expecting to be impressed and even entertained by the sermons. This year, some rabbis are getting help from Hollywood.
"In Jewish tradition there's a teaching that says, 'Who is wise? One who learns from all people,' " says Rabbi Mark Diamond. "We wanted to bring together a cohort of our finest young and veteran rabbis with a cohort of writers who could really work with our rabbis."
So Diamond, fellow rabbi Jon Hanish and the rest of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California organized a workshop for top Hollywood writers to get together with rabbis. As Diamond and Hanish tell Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, the group included writers from the television programs Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
It's a natural pairing to Hanish, who attended film school at the University of Southern California. "[I] spent 15 years in the industry before I transitioned into becoming a rabbi," he says. "I see lots of parallels between screenwriting and between the rabbinate.
"Storytelling is storytelling," he continues. "Guiding them with an idea that's written in three-act-structure, well, it's no different whether you're a rabbi or a screenwriter."
One way to make those stories more compelling, the writers said, is to add personal details to a rabbi's sermons. This represents a change from Rabbinic tradition, Hanish says.
"Rabbis traditionally have shied away from personal stories, stories about their own lives," he says. "You're seeing with the new generation of rabbis, more and more we turn to our own lives to prove points, to humanize ourselves so we can connect with our congregations."
People often think that rabbis have a "pipeline to God," says Simon. Hanish believes otherwise.
"I think every person has a pipeline to God," he says, "and that's what we teach in Judaism: that it's not 'God through rabbi,' it's 'God through human interaction.' "
Personalizing the sermon is important even when its focus is on a biblical story that is compelling on its own, Hanish says. One tactic he uses to get through to audiences: take familiar biblical characters and place them in modern situations that the congregation is not expecting.
For example, Hanish says, one writer suggested starting with Abraham and Sarah going shopping at Costco. "And then you take the story from there; integrate the new with the old."
The rabbis hope the workshop helps the rabbinate address the "profound challenge and opportunity of the holidays." As Diamond describes it, "What message are you going to convey to the hundreds — in some cases thousands — of people sitting there in your audience?
"You are not speaking for God, but you are bringing the wisdom of God and the tradition to bear to a large audience," he says.