Amidst a flood of controversy, the film "Dogma" assails many aspects of Christianity as an institution. Filmmaker Kevin Smith claims to be a religious Catholic. Yet the Church has condemned the film. The original studio dropped the film for fear of repercussions.

On the other side, proponents of the film decry such opposition as an infringement upon the right of free speech. How do we reconcile the value of free speech with the need for reverence toward religious matters?

Everyone agrees that free speech has its limitations. The U.S. Constitution curtails free speech when it harms others. You can't yell "fire!" in a crowded theater.

But how about when the harm is not physical, but emotional? There, too, U.S. law prohibits slandering someone publicly, and ensuing lawsuits take into account not only financial harm but psychological and emotional harm as well.

Jewish law goes even one step further. Under the laws of Loshon Hara,(improper speech), Judaism forbids speaking negatively of others, even if what you're saying is true!

Freedom of speech is no excuse to needlessly lambaste what others believe. Free speech is a vehicle to correct mistakes; it is not a license to ridicule. People must respect each other, and it's wrong to attack a belief system "just for the fun of it." If you disagree with an idea, express it in a respectful manner. You can even use humor if it serves a constructive purpose. But don't insult people; just critique ideas.

CELESTIAL SILLINESS

The film's lone representative of organized religion, Cardinal Glick (played by George Carlin), is a slick and savvy PR figure, more salesman than saint. The caricature of the Cardinal is not an honest and upright critique. It's a cheap shot. The only reason "Dogma" gets away with it is due to the particular bias of our time. Not much different than Shakespeare's anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock as the greedy Jew.

Most of the movie is downright silly. Angels discover theological loopholes that allow them to go against God's will. God fancies coming down to Earth to play skeeball. Prophets are oversexed teenagers who spew obscenities. The savior of the world is a woman who works in an abortion clinic. The heavenly force responsible for all worldly creativity is an Indian woman who works as a stripper. In the end, God appears as a mute woman who does handstands and smells flowers.

PC TODAY

"Dogma" derides the dogma of Christianity. But in truth, the movie advances its own dogma of "political correctness." God and the assortment of heavenly hosts are representative of multiculturalism. God is a flower child, the 13th apostle is black and complains the white authors purged him from the New Testament, and the angels are pro-choice. Only the metronome, the powerless voice of God, is a white male.

All this is obviously part of the joke. Perhaps such a spoof seems innocuous, and the Christians who are protesting the movie can't take a joke. But we have to ask ourselves how we would feel if a spoof was made of those beliefs that we hold dear?

How would people react if a film made fun of political correctness, which is, in fact, the dogma of today? What if workers in an abortion clinic were portrayed as ex-cons who had murdered children and saw the clinic as providing them a legal way to do the same thing? Would liberal groups band around such a film in support of free speech?

No one would dare make such a movie for fear of the intense public protest that would undoubtedly ensue!

THE BOTTOM LINE

Free speech is crucial to Judaism - in fact, the entire process of transmitting Torah is predicated on open communication. Critical thinking is also a backbone of Judaism. However, "Dogma" is not a movie likely to inspire people to think. It will either reinforce their belief that organized religion is silly and flawed, or it will simply offend.

"Dogma" goes beyond friendly fun. It is hurtful to millions of Christians. We must always ask ourselves: Does the benefit of this criticism outweigh its offensiveness?