On Humor and Religion

[A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was looking for some ideas for a discussion on religion and humor for a panel discussion. The focus was on how we use humor in our professional/ religious lives. This is more or less the text I was working from in my speech.]

I see myself within a Rabbinic tradition when it comes to humor: we make jokes all the time, and the jokes aren’t very funny. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of funny Jews; some of the funniest people in the world are Jews. They just tend to avoid the Rabbinate.

The issue I’ve been asked to address is how I make humor and religion co-exist. To be honest, I have never in my life felt any tension between religion and humor, even irreverent humor. In fact, I find that the question itself betrays an attitude that, in a religious context, the only way for humor to have value is if it can somehow be used in a more productive context, employed and sublimated for a ‘higher’ purpose.

I can’t really answer the question because there’s no question. Humor doesn’t have to be in the service of something ‘bigger’, like religion. Rather, humor is intrinsically valuable. There are a number of instances that I can think of where a Rabbi, ancient or Modern, cracks a joke simply for the sake of cracking a joke. Gratuitous humor. The Torah (Bible) contains much humor. Humor and laughter are valuable in and of themselves. Nevertheless, like everything else, its value is maximized when in balance and proportion.

So the first way that I use humor in my professional life, then, would be as a role model, to show that humor and laughter are good. I use humor because I’m a human being, and happen to be in a position where fellow human beings look up to me. So, at the core, my use of humor is really no different than anyone else’s use of humor.

My father is one of the funniest people and greatest joke-tellers that I’ve ever met. He’s captivating. What’s always struck me, though, is that he always seems to have a joke to characterize whatever lesson he’s trying to articulate. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my ‘repertoire’ as well. For example, I often study and talk with students who are engaged to be married, and amongst other things we discuss sexuality in the Torah’s vision of things. One aspect that I think is central to the topic is that of ‘hesed’ or lovingkindness, pure giving, other-focused. Having sex always needs to be a gift, an opportunity to bring pleasure to your beloved, and not just an opportunity for personal gratification. I illustrate this with a joke (and first define the word ‘mitzvah’, which means ‘commandment’ or ‘good deed’):

The elderly Mr. Goldberg had a dream. In this dream, he is standing before a heavenly tribunal, being judged for his life on Earth. His record was stellar, completely unblemished. After going through his whole life, the ministering angel turns to him and says, “Mr. Goldberg, your record is so pristine that you can actually commit one grave sin and still get a seat in the front row. You’re time is up in one week; have a blast!”It just so happened that in the same South Florida complex as Mr. Goldberg lived Mrs. Schwartz, a woman whose life had been made very difficult by a husband who had been debilitated for some years. Caring for him took up much of her time and energy, and her life, as a result, became sad and difficult.Mr. Goldberg had noticed her occasionally give him the eye, so when he awoke from his dream, he already had an idea where he wanted to spend his one sin. One of their friendly conversations became a flirting match, and before you knew it, they were back in her apartment, making passionate love.When Mr. Goldberg was ready to head home, Mrs. Schwartz stopped him and said, “I just want you to know, that you did SUCH a MITZVAH!”

The joke I just told brings me to another use of humor in a religious context – the use of an inside joke. Speak to an entire group, but say something which will only reach – and amuse – a very limited segment of the audience.
Story about the ecumenical conference (somewhat like, but in many ways unlike, the one we’re participating in now). The participants, a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister, each spoke about mutual coexistence. At the closing session, the Rabbi noticed that the Priest and Minister had both taken subtle jabs at Judaism. When it was his turn to wrap up, he said, “really there’s nothing I can say that my colleagues haven’t already said, so I will conclude with a word from Scripture: ‘Shefoch Chamatcha Al Ha-Goyim’, ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. Amen”. Of course, the joke is that the verse quoted literally means ‘Pour Out Thy Wrath Upon the Nations’ (and concludes “who know You not”).

As a Rabbi, people tend to expect certain things from you. They expect you to have answers, to have a prepackaged speech for every occasion. I use humor to try to mix it up a bit, keep people off guard, or come out of left field. An example that some of you may remember: about a year ago, a media outlet ran an article on an active anti-circumcision group. So they called me for my opinion. So here I’m supposed to give a blurb, a sound bite, that may or may not be quoted correctly, would sound awfully trite and cliché, and attempt to describe a tradition that has been going on for millennia, and is something that still enjoys the consensus of the Jewish people. So I went a different route instead. When the reporter asked me why Jews circumcise their sons, I told him, that Jewish women like taking ten percent off of everything.

That quote did its job – it grabbed enough attention that it actually ‘stole the show’ away from the anti-circumcision activists, but it got a very mixed response. There were some who thought that I was being misogynist, stereotyping Jewish women, etc. I wrote a letter to the editor clarifying that I am in fact, against bigotry and negative stereotypes. However, the reaction of most was students that I encountered was extreme delight. One commenter was impressed that people in any position and of any faith can have a sense of humor.

This story brings me to my final point about how I use humor; humor helps me, and helps me help others, to find that balance between taking things too seriously and taking things too lightly. Part of the human condition is the tension between grandeur and smallness, being purposeful and arbitrary, dignified and depraved. Humor helps us not take ourselves too seriously, to not be led to the illusion that we’re indispensable or absolute. Yet, through humor we transcend ourselves, see beyond ourselves. The ability to mock one’s self is really a sign of maturity. It reminds me of another joke, which I’ll tell the way I heard it:
Q: how many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
(You can substitute any group that you believe takes itself a bit too seriously.)
Humor is a great tool to achieve the right balance between a sense of esteem and confidence and mission, and overemphasized gravitas on the other. Looking at the events of the past few weeks, I really believe that this is a lesson that many can benefit from.

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