“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.