I write too often in praise of South Park. It is, for the most part a pointlessly crude and occasionally cruel comedy that can too easily be interpreted as an exercise in cynical, nihilistic selfish Americanism. So there’s that.
But, you know, when Parker and Stone want to do something interesting, they really do it. And that is why I find myself consistently wanting to chronicle what makes South Park a truly unique television program. Last week’s episode “Jewpacabra” is just the latest in the program’s intermittent efforts to use their medium to introduce otherwise silenced elements of society and culture into the public sphere. Though packaged in exactly the sort of silliness and Jew jokiness that the title implies, the episode actually features one of the most interesting and, dare I say, authentic discussions of Judaism I can ever remember on TV.
If you’ll allow me to generalize – an ironic courtesy to grant, given what I’m about to say – most television discussions of Jewish life and thought have focused on facile, often Christianized understandings of what it means to be Jewish in America. By far, the most common topic is that of intermarriage which, though important both religiously and culturally, is in fact a rejection of traditional Judaism. Programs from Bridget Loves Bernie to thirtysomehing to The OC have devoted lots of time to discussing how Judaism can or can’t be blended into secular (but really, secular-Christian) American society. These issues are well worth debating, considering and even theorizing. But they are not discussions of Judaism itself and certainly do not engage with the religion on its own terms.
Yet, somehow, South Park puts forth just this sort of debate, and in an episode in which Cartman makes up a monster called a “Jewpacabra” in an inscrutable scheme to win an Easter egg hunt, no less. The plot is not of central importance and I’ll spare you the semi-sensical details. Suffice to say, Cartman ends up in Egypt on the night leading to the Jews’ exodus from slavery and escape from the Pharaoh. In a truly interesting TV moment, Cartman asks Kyle how he can be sure that the Pharaoh won’t change his mind, let the Jews go and thus spare the Egyptians the final and most gruesome plague – the death of all first born males. Kyle, more or less accurately, responds that G-d has “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, thus ensuring that he won’t change his mind. Cartman is taken aback, wondering how G-d could do such an unfair thing and exclaiming that it cannot be true because “G-d is not a dick.”
Now, the word “hardened” is not quite right here as the verse Kyle is referring to (Exodus 9:12) uses the Hebrew “Khazek,” which really means strengthened- a far from trivial difference. However, Cartman’s question is an excellent one that is debated throughout Jewish texts from the Talmud to today. How and why can G-d, who Jews believe prizes the free will of humanity, take an action that at the very least compromises Pharoah’s ability to do what he wants? There are a lot of answers and South Park doesn’t really offer any of them; this is perhaps too much to ask. I, for one, would argue that strengthening one’s will is something we often ask for help with and that does not, in general, mark a compromise of freedom.
But, in any case, Cartman does pose a serious question and one that I believe forces the conscientious observer to embrace one fundamental truth about Judaism: the Jewish G-d is not, in fact, a perfect model of liberal Western thinking. Why G-d should be is a bit of a mystery to me, but most televisual portrayals of the religion tend to point in just that direction. Little if any attention is paid to the admittedly irrational (Judaism rejects the idea that irrationality is inherently bad) strictures of the religion, in favor of the very real elements of Judaism that focus on universality, social justice etc. But, in the long run, Judaism does not believe in a G-d we can all agree about. This is one of the many (and perhaps the best) reason there are only 14 million of us on earth. Cartman, throughout the episode, comes to see that the Jewish understanding of G-d is a complex one that does not match nearly so well with Christianity as defenders of our “Judeo-Christian Culture” would like to think.
Parker and Stone perhaps seem to have a problem with Judaism’s embrace of the possibility that G-d can seem to be acting like a “dick.” And that’s fine by me. They have every right to say what does and doesn’t make sense to them about my religion or anyone else’s. What’s important is that they make some effort to understand what the religion in question actually says. Now, I’m not about to recommend them for a scholarship in Talmudic Law Studies. They have missed as much as they have found in their exegetic egg hunt. However, they get a B+ for effort – better than most other TV, and quite impressive for television producers so often noted for laziness and cynicism.