Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yom Kippur 5779/2018 - Truth

By Rabbi Robert Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
Yom Kippur, 5779

In the evening service every night of the year, the minyan leader combines the last two words of the last paragraph of the shema with the first word of the next paragraph to form a brief and entirely new sentence.  This new sentence is at the heart of what is wrong in our society today, and the politics that so divide us.

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I, the Lord, am your God. That is familiar to us, and very straightforward.  In the evening service, we then say, Emet ve’Emunah kol zot v’kayam aleinu, ki huAdonai Eloheinu v’ein zulato, va’anachnu Yisrael Amo.  True and faithful is all of this for us, that God is the Lord our God, and no other, and we are God’s people Israel. 
In the morning service, the reading is slightly different.  The first words after the Shema are Emet ve’yatziv v’nakhon v’kayam v’yashar v’ne’eman v’ahuv v’chaviv v’nechmad v’na’im v’nora v’adir u’m’tukkan u’m’kubal v’tov v’yafeh, hadavar hazeh aleinu l’olam va’ed. This thing is true and lasting, correct, enduring, straight, believable, beloved, cherished, pleasant, enjoyable, awe-filled, mighty, ordered, accepted, good, and beautiful for us for ever. Emet Elohei Olam malkeinu, tzur ya’akov magen yish’einu.  True the eternal God is our king, rock of Jacob, shield of our salvation.
So each of those services has the shema end with the affirmation “I am the Lord your God,” followed by the word “Emet,” or true.  Emet v’emunah, True and faithful are these words and our relationship with God. Or Emet v’yatziv, True and lasting are these words and God’s eternal protecting rule.  I am the Lord your God. And that relationship is true.
But when the prayer leader, according to universal Jewish custom, repeats the last two words of the shema and pulls out that one first word of the next paragraph, Emet – “truth” she or she makes a bold new statement:  Adonai Eloheikhem Emet – The Lord your God is Truth.  God is truth.  Everything true is of God, God is only that which is true.
This morning I want to talk about truth. 
Truth is a term used to indicate various forms of accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to a standard or ideal. The opposite of truth is falsehood, which, correspondingly, can also take on logical, factual, or ethical meanings.
Truth may also often be used in modern contexts to refer to an idea of "truth to self", or authenticity.
The difference between truth and fact is that fact is something that cannot be combated with reasoning, for it is objectively and provably so. But truth is something which depends on a person's perspective and experience as much as the facts that it is describing.  Truth is dependent on, grounded in, and disprovable by facts.  But it is also contextualized and shaped by our beliefs.  The one True God.  A Hindu would, of course, argue the point.  When I say that I believe in one God, I believe that to be a fact.  And it is true.  But while all facts are true, not all truths seem to be facts.  I would argue that this breakdown of truth is a gaping wound in our society and one that needs to be rigorously fixed.
Is truth relative?  Is truth subjective?  Is what’s true for me necessarily true for you? Or is truth true with or without me and you, and we merely discover it or live in ignorance?  There is a long and ancient arc of philosophical debate on the topic. There is a phenomenal aspect to true which can not be denied. Hegel’s called it ‘the presence or presentation of essence’ (Margins of Philosophy, Chicago, 1982, 120); ‘the presence of the being, here in the form of presence adequate to itself’ (80); Husser said the givenness of the thing itself in intuition; Heidegger describes ‘the alleged simplicity of the opening, of the aperity – the letting-be, the truth that lifts the veil-screen’ (Dissemination, Chicago, 1981, 314).
            The deconstructionist move in postmodern philosophy argues that truth is context and a kind of layering on top of facts that can be unpeeled like an onion to discover levels of cultural assumptions and personal experiences which become the real sense of truth, but which are removed from the phenomenon about which they speak.  My love is true, is qualified by every other experience of love I may have had, who the I is, and if the love is just love or if there is someone or something that I am loving.  Why and how I love that person or thing is another layer, in relation to them, based on desire, enjoyment, appreciation or even loyalty.  My love is true does not tell you what love is, or who I am.
            The debate between the two is about objectivity.  Is what is true, absolutely true. Or is truth what the person and the society at the time hold to be true?  For example, to newly constituted Supreme Court will almost certainly revisit Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive path in pregnancy. But a major consideration for many is the life of the embryo.  When does life begin? When does human life begin?  Is it at birth with a breath of air? Is it at brain activity? Is it at the formation of limbs and organs?  Is it at conception or implant? A biological truth is that the sperm and the ova themselves are alive. Somewhere a judgment will be made that is based in truth as judgment, not truth as fact. Whatever we do, we must base truth in fact.
            Watch cable news shows.  Try to break down the tactics of the debate or the panel of analysts.  Often one person will interject, “to tell you the truth…” and then say whatever it is they have been trying to say.  Mere rhetoric is when they follow it with opinion.  How often do they follow it with facts?
            Remember, facts are data.  Information is organized data for a useful purpose. Intelligence is the application of information to a specific purpose.  As soon as facts and data become information, someone has organized it for you and we aren’t just dealing with facts anymore.  I believe that truth the relationship between facts and the person making judgments that result in useful information.  Unfortunately, in our current political system, people use truth in the intelligence efforts to operationalize data.  Data is compiled, producing information, but the information is weaponized. I can say it this way, to have this effect, to create this impression, to make people feel this, to make them vote this way.  The eventual statements are connected to a train of interpretation and subjectivity that leaves the fact set far behind, but in the name of so-called truth.  This is the skill of the master manipulators.
            So the deconstruction of Derrida and other postmodernists give me the tools to uncover these weaponized truths, these manipulations.  But rather than conclude that truth is therefore elusive and belief is all that matters, I turn it back to fact.  Roll it back words. Unpack it.  Know where fact became information Where did the information come from. When did the information get skewed as intelligence for a purpose, and weaponized?
            I have a challenge for you.  Most Americans right now have their favorite news sources on television. Let’s say you gravitate to CNN, of Fox News, or some other source.  Hopefully you can admit that your news source is biased.  You may agree with its bias, but it is not just presenting facts or even information.  It is fully weaponized.  Here is the challenge.  From tonight until the end of the month – just 10 days – watch the other side.  Go over to the dark side and watch their news for 10 days.  Don’t watch your news at all. Suspend your paper, close your app. Live on the other side for 10 days.  If it is Israel news, you can go to the left or the right, or even to Al Jazeera.  Go somewhere really uncomfortable and stay there for 10 days.
            Note your feelings. Note your resistances.  Listen to their logic and their allusions. Unpack their prejudices, but find their truths. What is their information based on? How many fact-based statements are made, even if you disagree with the conclusions they are coming to. 
            When you come back from the 10 days, watch your own news programs with the same criticism that you watched the other side. Look at what they do, and why they do it.              
            What the postmodernists teach us to do is recognize the truth of rational judgment.  We ultimately have to judge if something is true. We make contact with being, with facts and reality, but a true judgment occurs in the wake of those facts.
            When the prayer leader declares, Adonai Eloheikhem Emet – and makes a new sentence “The Lord your God is Truth.” He or she is actually quoting from Jeremiah 10:10
וַיהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת הוּא־אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים וּמֶלֶךְ עוֹלָם מִקִּצְפּוֹ תִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא־יָכִלוּ גוֹיִם זַעְמוֹ׃
But the LORD is truly God: He is a living God, The everlasting King. At His wrath, the earth quakes, And nations cannot endure His rage.
Jeremiah introduces divine wrath to the idea of truth.  From his wrath the earth quakes  But the Hebrew is Mikitzpo, from his wrath, tir’ash ha’aratz the earth is engaged in mighty noise. Ra’ash.  The opposite of truth is not falsehood in our day. The opposite of truth is noise.
In midrash shir hashirim rabba 1:9:1, it is asked “what is truth?” Everything that is true, is done in judgment. For Isaiah proclaimed, I saw God seated on his high and exalted throne.  And that is the throne of judgment.  What is truth? Rabbi Ayvun, that God is living and eternal. Rabbi Elazar said, everyplace where it says Hashem, it is Him and his beit din.  And what is Kayam? Enduring? That he signs and seals, He alone with no one else.  And what is God’s signature?  Emet. Truth.  When God signs our judgment in the book, He signs the word Emet. Truth. As it says in the Book of Daniel (10:21)
אֲבָל֙ אַגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ אֶת־הָרָשׁ֥וּם בִּכְתָ֖ב אֱמֶ֑ת וְאֵ֨ין אֶחָ֜ד מִתְחַזֵּ֤ק עִמִּי֙ עַל־אֵ֔לֶּה כִּ֥י אִם־מִיכָאֵ֖ל שַׂרְכֶֽם׃ (פ)
No one is helping me against them except your prince, Michael. However, I will tell you what is recorded in the book of truth.
The midrash asks, recorded in the book of truth?  If it is true, what record it?  If it is recorded by God, why do you have to say it is true? It is because, the judgment of God can be recorded, but it is still not final until signed by Emet.  Reish Lakish asks why Emet? Because the letters of Emet, aleph, mem, tav are the first middle and last of the Hebrew Alphabet.  Quoting Isaiah (44:6) he says, I God am first, I am last, and besides me there is no other.  I was king from no other. I will never hand the universe off to another. And there is no other now with me. Emet is the structure of the universe and its relationship with God.
All of this is why I am sorely distressed by the content of political discourse today and the choices we are given.  It is nearly impossible to find actual truth in politics, if you listen to the noise.  The noise is ra’ash.  It is cacophony, not truth.  That thing that is said which derails all hard work, all discourse, because it is patently absurd, overtly prejudicial, shocking or contrary to long held beliefs about who we are as a people or a nation… that thing that is said is noise.
In April of 2017, Time Magazine ran a stark cover – all Black with large red words: “Is Truth Dead?”  It is a lament that all objective thinking must take seriously.  Less known to many is the reference of that cover article.  It is a recreation of their 1966 cover, “Is God Dead?”  The answer then was no.  The answer now is no.  But look at the changes in society since the death of God claims in the 1960’s and ask yourself, “What fundamental changes to society may be in play if we lose a common sense of Truth?” 
            Do we just say, “they are all liars so I will vote for the party that I agree with?”  Does association trump truth? Yale law professor Amy Chua has addressed this in her book Political Tribes, which are forcefully described a closed mindedness which I find frightening.
            She writes,
“When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them. In America today, every group feels this way to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives—all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution—but such is political tribalism.” 
To be honest, we Jews have made a living being tribal for a very long time.  And it is not all negative as Professor Chua seems to feel. But the tribal identity does have a basic need which she points out: the need to exclude.  And when America becomes tribal, there is no common ground.
And truth is the victim to tribal loyalty.  The other side, whoever that is, is a presumed liar for their own purpose.  And your side, validation bias it is called, is pure and true and good.  We need to break tribal ties in politics. We need to embrace tribal identities in culture and in religion, but break them in politics.  Our differences in judgment, in the creation of values and communities are deep and important.  And our differences in political policy are deep and important. But truth wins out in the end, and falsehood can not stand.
We live in an age of perjury traps that come from a life lived without genuine truth. People are afraid of cross examination because they are either not committed to the truth, or not knowledgeable enough to be consistent in their answers.  Ignorance or dissimilitude.  One or the other is the main explanation for fear of testimony.  Which stops you from being honest about what matters the most?
When our tradition asserts that truth is God, that God is truth, it stares at our current political cacophony in horror. When a news program includes assertions that truth is not truth, that one person’s truth contradicts another person’s truth, that there is no truth so we shouldn’t seek truth, we have fallen into a rhetorical trap that is meant to immobilize us.  I believe that there is always truth, that it is objective as an idea grounded in facts.  The sky is blue.  The grass is green.  But judgment is real, and judgment is what we are talking about in politics.  Is the sky beautiful when it is blue?  My judgment of the facts is different from your judgment of the facts.  And our tradition asserts that ultimately, our judgments will be judged.  The standard of truth will bear out amidst your judgments and actions.
            Perhaps Shakespeare said it best of falsehood and politics:  Time's glory is to calm contending kings, To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light, To stamp the seal of time in aged things, To wake the morn of sentinel the night, To wrong the wronger till he render right, To ruinate proud buildings with thy hour And smear with dust their glittering golden towers. (from The Rape of Lucrece)
            But God’s hour is long, and our time is short on the Earth. And the abandonment of truth as a standard is rampant in our society and in our politics.  Hold your political leaders to a standard of truth.  The fact is we don’t have time to wait for God to prove true and false, right and wrong. We need to actually vote. We need to make decisions based on truth.  We need to commit ourselves to breaking out of our CNN or Fox news bubbles, and hear a variety of voices. We need to take topic by topic, person by person, the issues of the day.  We need to be willing to vote outside of your tribe for the sake of truth.  Seek truth and pursue it in your business, in your families, in your lives.
            We are created in the image of God.  If Adonai Eloheikhem Emet, the Lord your God is truth, then you too shall be truth.  You shall be living truth, pursuing truth.  Are you able and willing to push aside the ra’ash, the noise of manipulation and falsehood and act based on facts and reality?  You must be, for the good of us all.
            Faith, in the end, must be based in truth.  We must not merely believe in some fanciful mystical system, but in a plausible, possible, likely explanation of what really is.  If you are talking to a rabbi who believes that the world is literally and factually 5779 years old, you need to find a new rabbi.  Because they are not able to hear truth, see truth, or engage in truth beyond their own narrow and closed system.  If you are listening to a politician who is repeatedly saying things that are simply false, then you need to fire them in the ballot box, regardless of your tribal affiliations.  The opposite of truth is noise.  You have to power to eliminate the noise by committing to truth over opinion.
            In the end, there is a truth to our lives.  As individuals, we hope that our story and our facts will line up. We lived according to our beliefs, and our beliefs and actions were true.  Our love was true. Our hope was true. 
            This is what we declare at the funeral or the graveside of a loved one, when we tear our garments in mourning.  Barukh Dayan haEmet. Blessed is the God of truth.  Only God knows all truth, and all truth is known by God.  The truth of our lives, what we really did and did not do, is held and known by God and not us. We don’t know everything about anyone, but God does.  And when our time comes, our loved ones will need to be content not knowing everything, but that doesn’t mean that everything is unknowable. There is One, who does know.  What I am left not knowing when I grieve and mourn, I will one day know and understand when I can look out through God’s eyes at my own life.  Barukh Dayan HaEmet.
            And so, this morning, we join as a community of Truth.  We commit ourselves to an unflinching, and unwavering exploration of our own truth.  We reject ideas of complete relativism or destructive tribalism in the face of truth.  And we look to the One who is the source of truth, and the destiny of truth.  Adonai Eloheikhem Emet.
            And in memory, we declare that God is the holder of the truth of our lives and of those we recall in sacred memorial this morning, as we begin our Yizkor service….

Kol Nidrei 5779/2018: To not regret the past, nor close the door on it.

To not regret the past, nor close the door on it.
Rabbi Robert Tobin
Kol Nidrei 2018 5779
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ

Erev Tov.  Kol Nidrei. 
            “God, forgive the promises we made but could never keep.  Forgive the promises that were made under duress. We were forced. Or we were afraid. We were foolishly optimistic, or too trusting.  We did it to make something better, or to stop it from getting worse. And it didn’t work.  We became liars. We became promise breakers.  We became disappointments. We became unreliable. Untrustworthy.” 
            Is that who we are?  Is that all others will think or know or remember about us? Is that everything? Does it negate the good? Does it call in to question all the promises kept? The responsibilities met? The problems solved? The time spent?  Does breaking a promise break a relationship? Does it end love? 
            Sometimes, yes.  Sometimes no.  Tonight we look in the mirror and know that we have not done not only everything we could have done or should have done. We have not done everything we promised to do. 
            We need kol nidrei for the ones beyond our control.  We need yom kippur for the ones within our control.
            Tonight I am not afraid of the year ahead.  I am afraid of the year behind.  It is not the future that we fear tonight.  It is the past.  Tomorrow, in the unetaneh tokef we will look to the future.  For now, we pull the past into the room with us.  And the goal tonight and tomorrow is not to close the door on the past, or to regret it. Tonight we come to terms with it.
            There are so many ways that the past can continue to harm us.  A grudge.  A resentment.  Guilt.  Genuine guilt.  Anger.  Pain. What I didn’t do.  What they didn’t do for me.  What I did.  What they did to me. 
            The most common is a bitter grudge.  Kamsa and Bar Kamsa.  [summarize story here, conclude how bitter grudges can destroy the world].   
            When Nathan said to David [summarize story here briefly w/o detail], “you are the man,” David accepted the accusation, the terrible losses that came from it, sat shiva and then… somehow… got up and returned to rule his kingdom.  How? Surely David could have argued.  He could have lawyered up.  He could have claimed royal privilege and immunity from prosecution. But in fact, he couldn’t.  It is because he was king that he couldn’t.  The Torah commands that the king will make a copy of the torah himself, read from it every day and carry it with him on all journeys.  Grudges only fester with their twin sin: evasion. Avoidance. Denial.  If it needs to be addressed, address it.  Some part of it needs to be owned. Own it. Some part is reparable. Fix it.  Some part of it is educational. Name it. Some part of it may rise again one day in temptation to thwart you. Transcend it. Learn from it. The Torah contains not just the blessings, but the curses as well.  Not just the victories against Moab, but the defeat under the King of Arad. The king brings all of this with him every day.
            When Jacob wrestled with the Angel, he was intent on a blessing.  He was afraid, as he prepared for what?  To meet his estranged, powerful brother who had every reason to resent and hate him.  Jacob had bought the birthright for a bowl of stew when Esau was hungry.  He had dressed up as Esau to take the blessing from their father Isaac on his deathbed. What was Jacob feeling that night?  Confidence? Vindication? Or fear? Guilt? Crossing the river and wrestling the angel in the dark of night.  Yes, he acquires a blessing. But he is rendered lame for the rest of his life by the encounter.     You may win, but become the walking wounded.
            When King Hussein of Jordan came to Israel on March 16, 1997 to visit the shiva of a murdered Israeli girl… killed by a Jordanian soldier in a terrorist attack… what might he have felt?  Guilt? Shame? Evasion? Blame the other?  Could he have felt resentment for the loss in war in 1967? How do we move forward when such horrible things really do happen in our lives?  He felt loss.  He identified with the father and the mother who lost their child, and felt pain.  He had come to a place, with Rabin and Israel, where the past was fact – not a battlefield to be fought over every day.  He was not the walking wounded.
            The worst pain that carries forward are the pains of betrayal or abuse. When we were victims to another’s sickness. Again, guilt, shame, complicity – self-accusation, self-debasement as a result.  The inability to find joy in love or trust when those things are taken and the burden continues seemingly forever. But these too are pointers to truths beyond our control.  The pain of betrayal shows the need for trust.  The harm in intimacy points to the desire for caring. These take a lifetime not to forget, but to name and to transcend.  I am not what anyone else has done to me.  I am today, and today can be full and beautiful, safe and caring.  I may have a limp, but darn it I can walk.
            Think of a time of loss.  When you sat by the one you loved as they died, or as you heard their eulogy. Were you at peace?  Was everything said? Was what should be left behind learned from, named and carried forward?
            Everything we have done, and that we have experienced, has made us who we are in this moment:  a creation of God, taken from hope and love and given life and opportunity to pursue time.  We are each of unique purpose, and seek that purpose in all that we have learned. Everything that has happened has given us something that we need and can use as we look to our own future, and share the present with those we are near. Your greatest pain and fear may help you to understand another.  Your toughest diagnosis may help guide another being shocked by their own news. 
            Yes. Kol Nidrei.  Forgive us what we could not fulfill. Let our guilt flow into our hearts, our hands, our minds as we seek to learn to love better, do better and understand more from what we have done. From what they did. From what was undone. From life.
            Tonight we promise, We will not regret the past nor wish to close the door on it. We will know serenity and discover peace. God grant us full memory, whole hearts, and from time to time a limp that allows us to carry on.
            L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’teichateimu.

Rosh Hashanah 2 - Jewish Humor

“How Judaism works, or What is a Jewish Joke?”
Rabbi Robert L. Tobin
Rosh Hashanah 2, 5779/2018
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
(*note:  this is a deliberately “light” sermon, among 3 other very serious ones this year)

L’shanah Tovah.  What’s the point?  As a teacher and a rabbi, every once in a while I get this question.  What’s the point?  Why do we do any of this? Does it really matter?  We are a quirky little people with an incredible history, and we have developed some eccentricities along the way to be sure. Our uniqueness does not come easy.  It takes time attention and often money.  This past week I went to our newest local kosher establishment in town.  Where else but a Jewish place can you find ruggelach and sushi in the same store?  And where else is $4.00 a pound for chicken considered cheap, except in a kosher market?
Let’s face it, we’re a little strange if you look in from the outside - especially when living in a non-Jewish culture like America.  We eat different food, we teach our kids a “foreign language.”  Our teenage rite of passage is chanting an ancient book from an animal parchment scroll.  On weekdays we pray with boxes on our heads.  To mark a day as important we either feast or fast -everything or nothing.  Once a week, we stop work and all kinds of productive and controlling behaviors - mowing lawns, cooking, laundry, electronics, travel shopping and more.  We have particular attitudes and ways of talking that allow us to pick up on social cues and find a fellow Jew in a room full of strangers.  We are definitely different, and we like it that way.  Most of the time. And we poke fun at ourselves constantly.
The Talmud says that you can judge a person by Kiso, Koso and Ka’aso.  (Their pocket/spending, their chair/social relations, their anger)  You can also judge a person by what they think is funny. Our humor says a lot about us.  When God tells Sarah that she is going to have a child, with her and her husband well above 80 years old, Sarah laughs.  God turns to Avraham and says, “Why did Sarah laugh?”  Now if I’m Avraham -  I have a hard time in that spot.  Really? Why did Sarah laugh?  Are you kidding?  Because it’s better than crying?  90 years old and I’m going to be a father again?  It hurts playing baseball and basketball in my 50’s... oy I’m gonna throw my back out changing diapers.  The whole thing is funny. Of course she laughed.  But the use of laughter as a challenge to faith is essentially a Jewish attitude. 
We use laughter to cope and to face the sense of the absurd in our lives.  Yesterday when I pointed out that the Beit Din in Haifa was trying to put a Conservative Rabbi in jail for performing a wedding that they had eventually agreed would be kosher, we laughed.  Not because it’s funny, but because if it is not funny, it is tragic. And the truth is that it is tragic, so we need it to be funny.
According to the Big Book of Jewish Humor, that sacred text, our jokes trend to be unique in four ways.  
First, Our humor is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd. As social or religious commentary, Jewish humor can be sar­castic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive. Sometimes the “point” of the humor is more powerful than the laugh it deliv­ers, and for some of the jokes, the appropriate response is not laughter, but rather a bitter nod or a commiserating sigh of recognition. This didactic quality precludes laughing “for free,” as in slapstick humor, which derives its laughter from other people’s misfortunes.
In the 1920s, a Jew travels from his small Polish shtetl to Warsaw. When be returns, he tells his friend of the wonders he has seen:

"I met a Jew who had grown up in a yeshiva and knew large sections of the Talmud by heart. I met a Jew who was an atheists. I met a Jew who owned a large clothing store with many employees, and I met a Jew who was an ardent Communist. "
"So what's so strange?" the friend asks. "Warsaw is a big city. There must be a million Jews there."

"You don't understand," the man answers."It was the same Jew."

Second, our humor is often anti-authoritarian. This makes sense given how authority often treated the Jew, but is ironic given how rabbinic authority, parental authority and divine authority are essential to our social and theological belief structures. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk.  Rabbi, fiddler famously asks, is there a blessing for the Czar?  May God bless and keep the Czar.... far away from us!
Third, Jewish humor usually is biting.  It is sharp. There is some stinging comment that gives it an edginess. This edge creates discomfort in making its point. Often its thrust is political–aimed at leaders and other authorities who cannot be criticized more directly. This applies to prominent figures in the general society, as well as to those in the Jewish world, such as rabbis, cantors, sages, intellectuals, teachers, doctors, businessmen, philanthropists, and community functionaries. A special fea­ture of Jewish humor is the interaction of prominent figures with simple folk and the disadvantaged, with the latter often emerging triumphant. In general, Jewish humor characteris­tically deals with the conflict between the people and the power structure, whether that be the individual Jew within his community, the Jew facing the Gentile world, or the Jewish com­munity in relation to the rest of humanity.
Here is a Jewish joke that you can tell your Christian friends:
A Jewish father was very troubled by the way his son turned out and went to see his rabbi about it.

“Rabbi, I brought him up in the faith, gave him a very expensive Bar Mitzvah and it cost me a fortune to educate him. Then he tells me last week, he’s decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?”

The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Funny you should come to me. I too, brought up my son as a boy of faith, sent him to university and it cost me a fortune and then one day he comes to me and tells me he wants to be a Christian.”

“What did you do?” asked the man of the rabbi.

“I turned to God for the answer,” replied the rabbi.
“What did he say?” asked the man.

He said, “Funny you should come to me...”

And fourth, our humor is completely irreverent.  It can, and does, mock everyone.  It frequently satirizes religious personalities and institutions, as well as ritu­als and dogma. At the same time, it affirms religious traditions and practices, seeking a new understanding of the differences between the holy and the mundane.

A barber is sitting in his shop when a priest enters. “Can I have a haircut?” the priest asks. “Of course,” says the barber. The barber than gives the priest a haircut. When the barber has finished, the priest asks “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” replies the barber. “For you are a holy man.” The priest leaves. The next morning, when the barber opens his shop, he finds a bag with one hundred gold coins in it.
A short while later, an Imam enters the shop. “Can I have a haircut?” he asks. “Of course,” says the barber, who gives the Imam a haircut. When the barber has finished, the Imam asks “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” replies the barber. “For you are a holy man.” The Imam leaves. The next morning, when the barber opens his shop, he finds a bag with a hundred gold coins in it.
A bit later, a rabbi walks in the door. “Can I have a haircut?” the rabbi asks. “Of course,” says the barber, who gives the rabbi a haircut. When the haircut is finished, the rabbi asks, “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” replies the barber, “for you are a holy man.” The rabbi leaves. The next morning, when the barber opens his shop, he finds a hundred rabbis.

The rabbi is the favorite target for Jewish humor precisely because the rabbi is the symbol of wisdom, authority and purpose.  Who else to better be irreverent of?  Who else to be be anti-authority? Who else to be edgy? Who else?  Humor is a coping mechanism and social commentary on our lives and our history, but most of all it is a survival technique.  Whatever it is that we experience, we need commentary to make sense of it.  And humor, with irony and a solid dose of humble pie humility, is an easily accessible way to achieve that.
Avner Ziv, an Israeli humor scholar, defines Jewish humor and explains its origins in Eastern Europe. He writes, in his book Jewish Humor (Ziv, 1986, p. 11):
From my standpoint, a Jew is a man who considers himself Jewish and identifies with the Jewish people. Thus, Jewish humor can be defined as humor created by Jews intended mainly for Jews, and which reflects special aspects of Jewish life….Naturally, Jewish humor changes as a result of important changes in the life of the Jewish people. Thus, one can speak of Eastern European Jewish humor, Moroccan Jewish humor, American Jewish humor or Israeli Jewish humor. Nevertheless, what is identified in worldwide professional literature as Jewish humor originated in 19th Century Eastern Europe. There Jews lived under special and extremely harsh conditions confronted with a real danger to their lives. In these conditions, humor developed which had particular characteristics what helped the Jews cope with their terrible ordeals.

         Jewish humor points out the essential concerns of Judaism as a whole, and like most cultural Judaism can not stand alone.  Judaism itself is not just culture but content.  If we were culture than how could a Yeminite Jew and a Livingston Jew claim any kind of commonality.  It is, at its core, Torah, rabbinic literature, common history and - in our day - the Land of Israel that gives us that commonality.  And these things are harder to learn than a joke. Yet the humor is really needed.
Judaism is not just a moral posture.  And it is not a reflexive validation of everything that you already think is good and proper.  Judaism is a discipline that takes some time, and fulfills profoundly adult needs.  When lived in full, Judaism works.  Judaism makes life better, makes you better, and makes the world better. Judaism is both needed and necessary, beneficent and beneficial.
Starting every day with core prayers and affirmations about our purpose and our identity. Forming a minyan of Jews and allowing a mourner to say kaddish and to not be alone.  This makes us better. This makes us more grounded.
Eating every meal with a sense of identity and Jewish purpose. Making menu choices or committing to full kashrut. This makes us more mindful, and aware of the gift of life when we eat.  This binds us to a people, through the culture of food and reminds us each day that we live not from bread alone but from purpose and meaning.
Watching sunset for minchah, and being aware of the cycle of the moon through the Hebrew months, and the sun through the agricultural holidays.  To be aware of growing seasons even though we aren’t farmers and to be grateful for the gifts of life and the miracles that God has created in nature for our stewardship and our benefit.
Circumcising and naming of babies to bind them in the chain of generations. To keep a name of a loved one alive for another step in the family journey. To know that not just a child is born, but a Jewish child with all the potential that includes.  To note the chair of Elijah at the bris or naming to say that this child may not just be great, but a source of redemption - of salvation - of our people and the world.
To stand under a Huppah in sacred love, sharing the love of the garden of Eden and experiencing our covenant with God in our love of each other. To raise a child to be literate and critical, to find their way in Torah by learning it and applying it.
To seek community when we hurt and when we lose what we have loved most in life.  To never be alone. To create synagogue communities that will be there even if we are not going this week or this month.  To know that building those communities and supporting those communities is essential to our own well being, and creates a place where our people, our children, our children’s children may find their way and their place.
And to learn. To constantly study and learn from our tradition to bring our unique identity to every place, conversation, decision and promise we make.  To hold ourselves up to the high standard of Torah, Talmud and Wisdom that Judaism has always declared to be the greatest nobility of the Jewish soul.
While Judaism takes from and adapts the surrounding culture in every generation, we are always counter-cultural.  In this way our religion creates unique Social bonds, Family bonds, Communal bonds, a sense of Jewish National hope, and a means for Self improvement as a Jew which is different than and greater than self improvement in general as a person.
Essentially, through it all with tragedy and humor, Judaism matters.  Judaism is important.  Judaism is helpful.  Judaism is necessary.  In a life learned and lived in Judaism we are given everything we need to face everything that comes our way in life.  We are given permission to believe that the soul is eternal, that our loved ones wait for us, that the world can and will be repaired and the social order turned to a full humanity of justice and peace.  We are commanded to cheer up and to be optimistic about the world, humanity and ourselves
A group of elderly, retired men gather each morning at a cafe in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks usually are depressing. One day, one of the men startles the others by announcing, "You know what? I am an optimist."
The others are shocked, but then one of them notices something fishy. "Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?"

"You think it's easy to be an optimist?"

No, not always. But sometimes it’s funny, and in Judaism that usually means it’s true.
Shanah tovah.