Though screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal and the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel retain the book's enchantment with Jewish mysticism, they have leached it almost entirely of its context. "We didn't want the religious side of Judaism to overwhelm the spiritual side of the story," the directors told me before the film's release. In the film's production notes, they explain, "We wanted to explore a more universal and accessible vision of what an internal spiritual quest of any kind might be like." [...]There's also an insightful audio interview with Myla Goldberg.
[I]n the book, Saul's stewardship of an ordinary congregation implicitly explained his obsession with mysticism; in the film, the avocation comes across as random and weird. These are certainly spiritual times in America, but it may be premature to assume that kabbalist aspirations require no more explanation than a gardening habit. A more specifically Jewish setting might have had a clarifying effect, making the material easier to relate to for non-Jews. Indeed, if Siegel and McGehee are right and Jews have become thoroughly integrated, non-Jews shouldn't find that backstory too difficult to absorb.
The film does pose an intriguing, if inadvertent, question absent from Goldberg's novel: Does anything indivisibly Jewish remain after the traditional markers of American "Jewishness"—the stock characters, the rituals of the shul—have been removed? Is there something uniquely Jewish about this story, or is the Jewish teaching it portrays so universally applicable because it's so unspecific? As American culture performs on Jewish tradition the loving evisceration to which it subjects other cultures before they can join its mainstream, what remains?