Rabbi Marc Gellman (left) and Msgr. Thomas Hartman have become like brothers.
The God Squad appears regularly with Joan Lunden on Good Morning America.
Photo From ABC
In a media world said to be saturated with secularism, the somewhat unlikely duo of Msgr. Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman brings faith and humor to their observations on how religion affects everyday life.
By Peter Feuerherd
ITS THE END OF ANOTHER The God Squad television program taped at Telicare, the Diocese of Rockville Centres Long Island cable station. The programs title refers to Msgr. Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, Americas most famous priest-rabbi media duo.
Msgr. Hartman, director of Telicare, gives Rabbi Gellman a handshake, followed by a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Its a regular ritual signifying accomplishment for a job well done, interfaith understanding and, perhaps most telling, a sign of an abiding friendship which transcends show biz.
We are really friends and this is not an act, notes Gellman. Some people have said we are like brothers.
Hartman adds that there is, however, a planned message in the symbolic kiss and hug on TV: This is a visual medium. People will react more to our friendship than the concepts we develop, says the fair-haired 50-year-old monsignor, who is regularly chided by his partner for being the Robert Redfordthe handsome oneof the duo.
Becoming Media Megastars
The two have been doing the cable program for over 10 years. It was originally designed to promote interfaith understanding among Long Islanders, of whom about 50 percent are Catholic and 25 percent are Jewish. But the good humor and pastoral approach of Gellman and Hartman have transcended the small world of cable-television religious talk. In short, they have become media megastars, perhaps the two clergymen in the United States with the widest regular viewing and listening audience.
They are now regulars on the Imus in the Morning radio show, based in New York but syndicated throughout the country. The program combines bad-boy humor with serious interviews.
The God Squads radio work caught the ear of producers for Good Morning America, the ABC morning news program. Hartman and Gellman were hired in 1995 to give a regular religious slant to whats in the headlines, in the process becoming the first clergymen hired by a major network since Bishop (later Archbishop) Fulton Sheen held court in the 1950s. And, most recently, the rabbi-priest team reached a kind of immortality after they were made animated figures in an HBO special based on their newest childrens book, How Do You Spell God?: Answers to the Big Questions From Around the World. (They also wrote Where Does God Live?)
Theyve both combined media stardom with holding regular clergy jobs. Hartman celebrates Mass at St. Vincent de Paul in Elmont, New York. Gellman, a Milwaukee native and former academic, is rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, a Reform congregation in affluent Dix Hills, Long Island. He frequently wears a bow tie, which he regularly twists and jokes that it will, on occasion, squirt water on the unsuspecting.
They are perhaps the two clergymen in the United States with the widest regular viewing and listening audience.
Before a taping, Hartman is carefully putting down notes for his interview. Gellman is telling old war stories about life as a rabbi with a suburban congregation thats always in danger of falling into the abyss of American culture at the expense of Jewish identity. While both men are different, they bring similar pastoral perspectives to their media commentaries.
In a media world said to be saturated with secularism, this clergy dynamic duo is a hot item. They are in demand for their reflections on how faith affects everyday life. Why have they become media stars?
Gellman, 50, is the self-described goofy one with a serious view of social trends. He credits their friendship as communicating warmth, which attracts viewers. But there are other factors at work as well, he emphasizes. People have not seen humor and religion combined in a way that doesnt degrade religion, he notes. Religion is important to people. Were about representing that in a public way. We have no angle. We dont ask for money. Were only trying to affirm peoples religious beliefs.
Gellman notes that we are sailing on a sea where there are no other boats. He explains that he and Hartman are exploring together how religion fits into everyday life through what has largely been a secularized media: People are comfortable with religion in a little box which is not part of life. Were trying to explode that box.
Imus Promises Window of Purity
They do that in perhaps their liveliest way on Don Imuss radio program. Its an unlikely mix: Imus, a longtime New York radio fixture, has been credited, or blamed, for pioneering shock radio, combining sexual innuendoes with rough ethnic and racially edged jokes designed to appeal to a young male audience.
Still, in between the raunchy banter, politicians such as Bob Dole and Bill Clinton have been heard on the show, cracking jokes yet engaging in serious political discussion. For a religious dimension and prayer, Imus brings in Gellman and Hartman. Still, Rabbi Gellmans sardonic humor and Msgr. Hartmans straight-man routine come through.
During one recent appearance, Gellman complains in a joking mannerlaced with the serious insight of many Jewish leaders who worry about their ability to maintain a religious identity in a largely non-Jewish cultureabout the nearly 975 million Christians worldwide. Thats enough, he says.
Soon they proceed to a serious discussion of the Bible. Hartman proclaims that any fair reading of the Scriptures reaffirms that Gods love is inclusive and notes there is no religious justification for racism or anti-Semitism.
Imus is antsy, wondering if the serious points are connecting with his audience, which is more used to rough-edged political and social parodies than to religious piety. No wonder Howard Stern is killing me [in the ratings], he jokes.
The God Squad ends this radio appearance, as always, with a prayer taken from either the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. While the Imus in the Morning appearances have been the God Squads entry into the world of big media, both clergymen acknowledge there was a risk. They were asked to be on the show after the radio personality heard them talk at a fund-raising dinner. Both were wary of Imuss risque reputation.
It was a big reach for us, says Gellman. But, he adds, it was an opportunity to reach the unconverted, the largely young male audience which tunes into Imus in scores of cities across the country each morning. Many of them rarely enter a church or synagogue. People in their cars at seven each morning are not usually thinking about religion. Maybe because we are on Imus they are.
When the talk around their appearances became too disrespectful and raunchy, the God Squad threatened not to appear. Imus responded with a promise to maintain a window of purity around their appearances, a time when sexual and ethnic humor would be toned down.
A More Serious Edge
There is a more serious mood when Gellman and Hartman appear on Good Morning America. Still, Gellmans sardonic barbs surface, with Hartman providing a foil.
Host Charles Gibson notes that Hartman is in Barbra Streisands The Mirror Has Two Faces, a movie in which he has a cameo playing a priest who presides at an interfaith wedding ceremony. I would have been there but I have principles, says Gellman, a typical slice of humor with a serious edge.
That serious edge involves one difference between the men: Gellman will not preside at interfaith weddings, while Hartman will. Like many rabbis, Gellman is concerned that interfaith marriage is gradually eroding Jewish identity. Hartman takes the view that such marriages are living examples of interfaith understanding.
Unlike many discussions along interfaith lines, Gellman and Hartman are quick to share differences as well as similarities in their religious views. Like the friends that they are, disagreements are explored and not glossed over.
In contrast to many more formal interfaith dialogueswhich are often characterized by an icy politenessHartman and Gellman will publicly disagree, often with a humorous approach to take some of the edge off centuries of misunderstanding. For example, Hartman will readily proclaim the Christian belief in the afterlife. Gellman responds that is a too-facile explanation to make up for this lifes heartaches.
Hartman, the Christian, describes the Incarnation (the son of God becoming human) as bringing the belief that God has entered into human experience. In Jewish tradition, Gellman explains, God has often been seen as more distant, so much so that some observant Jews have historically not been able to mention his name publicly.
Both Gellman and Hartman participated in a lobbying trip to Washington two years ago to encourage action by Congress on behalf of Bosnian Muslims who were in danger of becoming ethnically cleansed from Europe. Gellman, citing arguments used by Jews in defense of Israel, urged support for arms sales to Bosnians to allow them to defend themselves. Hartman played the role of conciliator between those who supported arms sales and those who didnt.
Facing Difficult Tasks
The two share a pastoral understanding and rely on each other to cope with the troubles faced by clergy of all faiths who encounter difficult pastoral problems. Perhaps their most important public work was their presiding at the wake and prayer service for the families of the 230 passengers and crew who perished in the TWA disaster off Long Island during the summer of 1996. Asked by New York Governor George Pataki to pray with the stricken families, both recall it as the most difficult task they have faced as clergymen.
It was so overwhelming, Hartman says during a recent God Squad taping during which the clergymen interviewed two surviving family members of the victims of the crash. Marc and I are used to going to a wake for one person. But on that Long Island beach, a place where thousands usually frolic on warm summer days, hundreds of grieving families gathered, many of whom went down to the water to touch the ocean where their loved ones were entombed.
It might have been the hardest thing I have ever done as a rabbi, says Gellman.
Hartman says that only the death of a brother last year from AIDS was similar to the kind of grief he experienced on that Long Island beach. The biggest learning for me has come through the greatest pain, he notes.
That pain has been eased by his relationship with Gellman. We have become like spiritual directors for each other, says Hartman, noting that he will rely on his rabbi friend for advice on coping with tragic circumstances he has encountered in his priesthood and in his personal life.
You hear the religious side
of the story. Its layered with
religious values you dont normally get.
In the clergy, you look for someone who understands what youre going through, says Hartman. He leaned on Gellman during his brothers illness and death; Gellman leaned on his priest friend after he was disturbed about presiding over the funeral of a teenage boy in his congregation.
They write and speak regularly about issues which go beyond denominational lines that affect clergy. In their book How Do You Spell God?, the two note, Working for God is great. The Boss is invisible. You get to go to a lot of great parties with good food, and you get to preach sermons where you tell other people how they should live and maybe throw in a few jokes.
Yet, they note, sometimes clergy will be confronted with the question from a bereaved believer: Why did this person we love have to die? They add, This is when you understand that working for God can be a very lousy job.
Gellman notes that for many Christians the concept of heaven provides a consolation in tragedies. That belief has been less explicit in Jewish tradition. For example, after the funeral for the victims of the TWA crash, he talked to a woman whose daughter was killed in the crash. Holding her daughters infant, the woman said she didnt believe in God and wondered what she could do. Believe in the baby, Gellman counseled her.
Religion With a Humorous Zing
Gellman and Hartmans regular media appearances, books, speeches at fund-raising dinners and services such as the one for the TWA crash victims have established them as living embodiments of interfaith understanding. Yet what makes it work is not simply the sharing of noble sentiments. There is often a humorous zing to their talks.
At one recent business luncheon, the two gibed with each other about stereotypes associated with each others faith. What were here to announce is that Judaism will be buying Christianity, Gellman joked, reported Newsday.
Hartman responded: See, theyve got the money, weve got the people. They note, however, that there were some difficulties with the deal, particularly over the issues of celibacy for rabbis and circumcision for Christians. Its cracks like that which indicate the duo have transcended the usual barriers in interfaith dialogue.
Msgr. Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman
share laughs and teach faith lessons.
Rabbi Elliot Stevens of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, based in New York, says that too often in discussion of important issues there is a tendency to be confrontational. But while Gellman and Hartman may disagree, Stevens says, Its clear that there is a good chemistry between them. This encourages the people in their audience to improve their own interfaith understanding.
Philip Sherman, a ritual circumciser for New York Jews and a guest on The God Squad television program, says that Gellman and Hartman are popular because they are so approachable. They defy the stereotype of the distant clergyman unconcerned about everyday life.
Their media commentaries, Sherman says, provide an opportunity for people to hear a different perspective. You hear the religious side of the news story. Its layered with religious values that you dont normally get.
Kevin Magee, senior program producer for Good Morning America, notes that the God Squad received a universally positive response since joining the program last year, despite concerns from some of the shows producers that non-Catholics and non-Jews might object.
But, he says, Hartman and Gellman have made a positive connection with viewers because of the warmth of their personalities. Our time of day is a fairly intimate one, says Magee. People are in their nightclothes watching television. They are gentle.
He also notes that the God Squads message is universal. They speak not just on religion but on ethical concerns which we are grappling with all the time, says Magee, noting that they are perhaps most effective on everyday issues. On one holiday season program, for example, the clergy duo discussed what to do if you receive a bad Christmas present from a loved one. A few months later when a cloned ewe made headlines around the world, the God Squad joined a panel that included science and legal experts to discuss the ethical aspects of cloning.
Promoting Interfaith Understanding
Are they in danger of overexposure? No way, says Gellman, who readily admits to enjoying celebrity. They usually have something new to say, he notes, adding that we never know what were going to say until we get on anyway.
The spontaneity works because of the duos teamwork, complementing each others qualities. Im pastoral and more serious, says Hartman. Without that, we wouldnt have that strong of a religious message.
Gellman responds with a characteristic needle. Without Tom we would just be goofballs. Without me, wed be in jail for murder, he says, joking that Hartmans short sermons would encourage too many morning drive-time listeners to Imus in the Morning to fall asleep behind the wheel, causing untold catastrophe. Im just trying to keep him out of trouble.
It appears that he may be doing so for a long time. The God Squads HBO special, which aired near Christmas, garnered strong positive reviews. Gellman and Hartmans media appearances keep increasing. And they cant fulfill all the requests for after-dinner speeches. Gellmans wife, Betty, jokes that she is the only woman in America married to a rabbi and a priest.
Theres enough interfaith strife in the world to keep the God Squad together for a long time, fighting godless bigotries and promoting understanding, notes Gellman.
After we bring peace and justice to the entire world, our basic plan is to go golfing where no one can find us, he says.
Hartman straightens his friends spectacles. Put your glasses on right and maybe youll see the world in the proper perspective, he playfully admonishes.
The byplay makes it obvious. The God Squad plans more laughter, hugs and friendship, with fortunate Christian and Jewish viewers sharing in the laughs and learning valuable faith lessons at the same time.
Peter Feuerherd is assistant editor of The Long Island Catholic and host of The Catholic Forum television program, as well as a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Commonweal. He and his wife have two children and live in Rego Park, New York.