Yada Yada Yada

Although a "show about nothing" may seem to offer us little to ponder theologically, we need only look at the Jewish tradition of seeking wisdom to see connections to Seinfeld. Even one of its main writers, Larry Charles, compares Seinfeld to "a dark Talmud" with "brilliant minds examining a thought or ethical question from every possible angle." Jerry Seinfeld himself admits to a higher purpose: "Comedy is my mission. That's what I can do to make the world a little less bad."

Seinfeld is, in many ways, the Ecclesiastes of sitcoms. In the Hebrew wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, the author, Qohelet, laments that "all is futility." The more common translations give us the famous catchphrase as "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Hebrew scholars say that this key word translated as "vanity" can also be interpreted as "futility." Either way, Seinfeld qualifies. The characters in Seinfeld are vain, and their lives seem futile. In their worldview, human beings are victims of the forces of fate that constantly put their lives in danger. Suffering seems to define human life. Therefore, meaning can be sought or contained only within the very small, mundane things that make up everyday life. Just like Qohelet, the characters in Seinfeld decide it is best to enjoy life's little pleasures, such as the humor in the nagging irritants of modern life. And why not? Death, or failure, is right around the corner. Also like Qohelet, the show depicts a God who is far away and unengaged. Both Seinfeld and the author of Ecclesiastes are solitary men....

The characters in this show find their salvation in the material things and activities that make up a mundane life: a nice car, going to the movies, eating out, having coffee with friends. In some ways, it would be "salvation" for many people to find significance, meaning, or even just humor in the ordinary, much as Jerry and his friends do. The ordinary can be a window into the divine. When people seek religious experience to lift them from their mundane existence, they refuse to see that God communicates in the dull and everyday probably more often than in mystical vision or rapture. Once a person has a mystical experience in the ordinary, he or she is much more able to laugh at and reject the bloatedness of our culture's need to acquire things. Seinfeld succeeds in stripping away the allure of materialism and self-centeredness by showing us how ridiculous it looks.

The producers of Seinfeld seem to say to us that life is full of suffering. Accept it, and get over it-you are not entitled to a worry-free life, so get on with your day-to-day routine and seek whatever happiness you can grab for yourself along the way (the Qohelet message updated). It is a bleak picture of society, but it captures that which is terribly bleak about contemporary life in urban America-its narcissism and nihilism. There may not be a hug in that message, but there certainly is a lesson.

Used by permission of Geneva Press. Available November 2001. To order call 1-800-227-2872.

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