It sounds like a plot from one of his movies: Woody Allen gets into a nasty battle over finances with one of his closest friends, and in a dream sequence is seen pacing in front of a panel of three long-bearded rabbi-judges, kvetching and stuttering as he tries to make his case.
In real life, Allen said in court testimony last week that he would have preferred going to a rabbi to mediate his allegation that longtime business partner Jean Doumanian defrauded him of $12 million than file the suit in civil court. That claim was met with a few arched eyebrows among local rabbis.
"That Woody Allen would think to call upon a rabbi on an occasion such as this must indicate that there is a God, and that the Divine has a tremendous sense of humor," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary.
Jewish religious courts, usually comprised of three rabbis, are increasingly where Orthodox Jews turn to resolve business conflicts. In both the Orthodox and Conservative movements, those courts have the authority to oversee the dissolution of marriages and conversions to Judaism.
Years ago, few Jews turned to rabbinic courts for help with business disputes, but "in the last couple of years it’s become more popular," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual adviser to students at Yeshiva University.
He and some other New York rabbis were amused by the idea that Allen might have been interested in rabbinic adjudication of his case.
The "references to religion in his films have not been those of someone who’s sympathetic" to Judaism, Rabbi Blau said. The rabbi said he used to go to all of Allen’s films, "until his moral life made me uncomfortable," he said.
Allen’s personal life, which has included an affair and subsequent marriage to the adopted daughter of his longtime girlfriend, hasn’t interfered with the admiration Rabbi Alvin Kass holds for the filmmaker’s genius.
"I would be honored to be part of any enterprise which could help him resolve his difficulties," said Rabbi Kass, who recently officiated at the funerals of Allen’s parents, both of whom died within the past year.
"I found him highly respectful and reverential toward his religion in his personal life," said Rabbi Kass, longtime rabbi of the East Midwood Jewish Center, in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Allen was raised.
But Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue, said she "would be pretty suspicious of his motives."
"I have never seen anything but a negative relationship with Judaism" in his movies, said Rabbi Kleinbaum. "I can’t imagine he’d be approaching a rabbi with any sense of respect for anything we might provide."