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Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Norman Lear Neo-Talmudic sage of democracy, and good times

Carol O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Photo is from shutterstock.
Archie Bunker played by Carrol O’Connor. Photo is from shutterstock

Norman Lear passed away at 101 after living a life that not only brought laughs to millions, but did so while dedicating himself to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the unfinished work of Democracy.”  Here we show that not only is Lear’s work neo-Talmudic, prophetically midrashic, but that the way we frame him offers a different paradigm from which to expand understandings of democracy as more than the enlightened property based social contract understanding of community.

A Young Jew Who Cared about Democracy 

         Born in 1922, to a blue-collar Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut, Lear’s father H.K.—he told people the “K” stood for King—brooked no dissent in the house. The kids dared not speak back and if his mother disagreed, she was told to “Stifle!” He had a hard time keeping down a job and always had a new scheme up his sleeve until he returned back from a trip to Oklahoma and was arrested for fraud. He was incarcerated until after Norman’s bar mitzvah. 

         Lear’s mother and sister moved in with his grandparents, but Norman was circulated among relatives, never having a stable home. His escape was the radio, where he loved comedy, but found himself distressed by the antisemitic ravings of Father Charles Coughlin. Lear was a proud American, but knew that his Jewishness was leading to his exclusion. 

         Graduating high school, Lear wanted to go to college, but after his release from incarceration, his father still had not been able to work steadily and the family had no money. So, Lear took a longshot and entered a contest sponsored by the American Legion with an essay entitled “The Constitution and Me” where he argued that his Jewishness did not keep him from being fully American, but rather informed his Americanness. He won a scholarship to Emerson College. 

         He split his time there between the classroom and local burlesque house where he saw some of the greatest comics of the time including Phil Silvers and Red Buttons. Emerson being one of the nation’s leading dramatic schools, he was learning to act, direct, and write. He seemed destined for show business…and then came Hitler. 

         When the war broke out, Lear, like so many other young Jewish men, felt the need to volunteer. He was a radio man and gunner in the army’s air force, flying many dangerous missions during the war. Indeed, at one point a bullet pierced his plane, killing the soldier next to him. 

         In word and deed, Norman Lear was dedicated to promoting democracy and fighting fascism, hatred, and bigotry. 

 Mostly In the Family

         After the war, he returned home, got married, and started working as a publicist. He moved to Los Angele, where he had a cousin whose husband, Ed Simmons, was trying to become a comedy writer. One night, the wives decided to go to the movies, leaving the guys home with the kids. After the little ones were in bed, Norman asked Ed what he was working on. It was a song parody. They had it done when their wives came home. Singing it for them, they thought it hilarious. Norman said they needed to sell it…now. So, they went downtown to a club where comedian Betsy Abbott was performing and between sets, approach her. She loved it and bought it on the spot for $25—a week’s salary for them. They decided to become a team. 

         Writing a piece for Danny Thomas, they quickly became known in the industry and were picked up by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Eventually, the team broke up and Ed went on to write for Carol Burnett. Norman wrote and started producing for a range of programs which allowed his family to live comfortably…and then he read an article in TV Guide. 

         It was about a British program called “Til Death Do Us Part” about a conservative father and liberal son who argue about everything. It took Lear back to his own childhood  and he knew he had to develop an American version. That, of course, became All in the Family, a groundbreaking show that Lear could not get picked up. It was too provocative, too edgy, too smart. He was discussing topics that serious news programs rarely touched on, much less a comedy. The network thought the seriousness would kill the laughs. It was run with a warning to audiences the first season, telling them about sensitive topics. It got off to a slow start, but where the public did not appreciate it, the critics did and after it won several Emmy’s, it became a hit. 

         Archie Bunker was a blue-collar, bigot who hated liberals and minorities, but who loved his family including his wife Edith and his liberal daughter Gloria whose grad student husband Mike lived with them. The liberal Mike and the conservative Archie would fight nonstop, rehearsing exactly the debates that were happening around dinner tables across the country in the early 1970s. Archie’s frequent use of racial slurs alarmed the network and censors, but they brought an honesty and realism to the program which was also the pivot point around which the comedy revolved. There were no strawmen, no cartoon characters, but real people wrestling real problems.  

It changed television comedy forever. Instead of the screwball silliness of “Mr. Ed” or unrealistic domestic portrayals of “Father Knows Best,” we were seeing real America, warts and all. It was funny because it was true. 

But those laughs and that truth served Lear’s lifelong project of defending Democracy. A healthy democracy requires authentic debate, critical examination of a range of viewpoints. The American entertainment landscape was a falsely sterile ecosystem, devoid of real questions, new views, and authentic searching for solutions. Lear sought to change all that, to bring the town square, John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas, to the small screen in everyone’s living room. 

Enlarging the Family 

         Democracy requires freedom of speech because the truth will sometimes reside where we least expect it. We need to hear a wide range of perspectives and consider the insights they bring in order to keep from becoming trapped in our own cognitive bubble. Yet, America has a tragic history of silencing important voices. Lear’s love of democracy demanded that he increase the number of viewpoints in his comedy. He was not just going to look at white men on different sides of the political spectrum. 

         When Edith’s outspoke feminist cousin Maude Findlay appeared in one episode, the reaction from fans was instant and overwhelming. She had to have her own show. Bea Arthur’s portrayal of the title character was fearless as it took on issues from substance abuse, to domestic violence, to suicide broke ground. The two-part episode in which Maude considers whether to get an abortion is one of the most important moments in television history. 

         Lear replicated the All in the Family formula with the great Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son featuring junk dealer Fred Sanford in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Maude’s maid Florida was another strong character who clearly needed her own program and Lear launched Good Times, featuring the first two-parent black family to be the focus of a television show in America. They lived in the notorious Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago and that led to an unexpected visit to Lear’s office by a group of Black Panthers who demanded to see the “White trashman,” Lear. They confronted him, asking why all of his black characters were poor when there were many well-off Blacks wealthier than most Whites. Lear knew they were right and knew what he had to do, another spin-off. The Bunkers’ next door neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson owned a chain of laundromats and the profits from them allowed them to be moving on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky. The Jeffersons, which was the longest-running series in television history was also the first to feature a mixed-race couple that shared a bed. 

         Lear continued to work to increase the number of perspectives he could mainstream. One Day at a Time humanized single mothers in an age of increasing divorce. Hot l Baltimore featured a stable gay couple and sought to humanize sex workers. Remembering Father Coughlin’s antisemitism that tried to silence him, Lear demanded that no voices be silenced. 

Neo-Talmudism 

         Talmudic thought begins with the Torah and its mitzvot, the commandments Jews must obey. These are the fixed points, the undeniable stakes that ground rabbinic Judaism. But as a text, the Torah and associated books of the Tanakh, require interpretation. There is an active cognitive human element that must be added in order to glean wisdom from the words. Jews may be the People of the Book, but the Book is not passively absorbed. Indeed, quite the opposite, it is actively explored and interpreted by scholars in a wide range of ways. Unlike Christianity in which different sects are distinguished by their interpretations and fight (sometimes violently) among themselves over whose understanding is the literal truth, for Jews, God’s truth is too big to fit in any one interpretation. All of the different approaches unlock the various truths contained in the text. It is not subjectivism where anything goes, as it is tied to the text, but it encourages a creative stance toward unraveling the wisdom hidden within the words. 

         This approach is profound in marrying an absolutism—the text itself is venerated—with perspectivalism—the text gives rise to multiple understandings, all of which are considered meaningful. It allows for an intellectual version of a choir in which different voices sing different lines, but harmonize or contrast in order to create a bolder sound that no one could imagine when hearing only one voice. 

         The profundity of this dialogic approach stands in opposition to the Hellenic-Christian tradition. In it there is one and only one truth. It is the goal. The entire process is teleological, driven with a single end in mind—achieving a grasp of that one and only truth. But the Talmudic tradition sees the value laying not in the endpoint, but in the process, not in the knowing, but in the learning. As a result the great rabbi and philosopher Emanuel Levinas argues that beneath the commitment to the mitzvot, there exists one meta-mitzvah—discussion shall never cease.  

         If the Sacred Text is a ball, then you can think of the Hellenic-Christian approach as a game of soccer, each trying to possess the ball and score a goal, thereby defeating the others who want the ball for their own. But the rabbinic approach is instead a game of hacky-sack where the ball is hared amongst all, each doing with it what they will—some scholars making impressively fancy moves twisting in unexpected ways—while other rabbis are more straightforward in being simple in how they pass to someone else. But all of them are engaged in a collective endeavor, seeking to keep the process going as long as they can, all focused on the ball but passing it among themselves. 

         We can keep the game, but replace the ball. By changing the Sacred Text, we are no longer being Talmudic. Instead, we are being what we call “neo-Talmudic.” One can find neo-Talmudism throughout intellectual history, where some sacred text—be it a work of art, a social institution, or an ideal—is considered sacrosanct, yet is kept alive by constant reinterpretation. 

         In fact, Norman Lear’s television legacy is a perfect example. For him, the sacred text is the democratic experiment that is the American experience. What Lear gave to us was a great game in which the circle of players included those from a wide range of backgrounds. Each got their chance to play, to demonstrate their skills and style in working with it as they would. Everyone else would watch and laugh in appreciation until it was passed to another who would then get their turn.  One might say that much of his work exercises TV prophetic midrash, an approach that doesn’t base democracy only on property rights, but directs us to understand it as never ending discussion. No one gets to own the democratic discussion in Lear’s work. 

Norman Lear’s great insight was that nobody wins democracy. The American democracy that Lear loved with all of his being was not an end, a goal, a thing to be possessed. He realized that it was a process, a happening that required all of us. The point was not assimilation, homogenization, the disappearance of difference. That is what Hitler wanted. Democracy was, as Levinas pointed out, an unceasing conversation. The discussion must never end. But the only way to keep it going, was to have all of us—especially those who have been kept out—to become active parts of it. Norman Lear made us laugh, but he also made us think, and in doing so tried to make more of us part of “us.” 

Co-written with Dr. Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg College’s Philosophy Department. Gimbel is the author of “Einstein’s Jewish Science,” a one time finalist for the national Jewish book award.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College