Friday, October 06, 2006

Why So Many Jewish Comedians?

I think this gives some great insight into humor which can be very helpful in apologetics. Hat tip to Mark Shea.

"Why So Many Famous Comedians Grew Up In Religious Jewish Homes"

by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

The Jewish High Holy Days begin this Friday evening with two days of Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that what God thinks of us is far more important than what we think of God. Thus it follows that Rosh HaShana, literally the head of the year, is the time when God judges all humans. Rosh HaShana's solemn role of affirming that God indeed does judge us, makes one of its central themes, laughter, difficult to understand.

Is laughter indeed the motif of this most solemn day? Traditionally, we Jews search for the meaning of the day within the Torah portion designated for public reading on that day. On Rosh HaShana, Chapters 21 and 22 of Genesis are read; they chronicle the birth and early life of Abraham and Sarah's son, Isaac, history's first born Jew. Even from conception, laughter surrounds his life. In fact, out of the 13 Scriptural references to "laughter," nine occur in the context of Isaac's life. His name means "he shall laugh" and it is the name that God instructed Abraham and Sarah to give him after they had laughed about his birth. It must have seemed a comic thought to a 90-year-old woman that she and her 100-year-old husband would become first-time parents.

Ancient Jewish wisdom requires us to blow the shofar (ram's horn) 100 times on Rosh HaShana in a complex sequence of notes composed to sound just the way crying or laughing sounds. (From another room, deprived of visual clues, even mothers often fail to distinguish whether a child is crying or laughing.) With the laughter meaning of Isaac's name as well as the laughing sounds of the shofar all integrated by the day's reading of the Torah portion, Rosh HaShana is not only the day of judgment, it is clearly also the day of laughter. There must be some way of integrating our understanding of both the joy of laughter and the solemnity of judgment.

Laughter is one of the distinctions that humans enjoy over animals. What makes us laugh? People laugh at things that violate a sense of how things ought to be. A pompous mayor who slips on a banana peel is funny. A vagrant who falters and sprawls on the sidewalk just seems sad.

Likewise, a sexual innuendo that provokes howls of laughter among school boys and titters among stockbrokers, elicits yawns of indifference from hardened prison inmates. The dirty joke assaults notions of human refinement, thereby causing laughter. To the depraved, however, it is not a dirty joke, it is reality.

The only reason that we laugh at cartoons of talking animals is because of our underlying conviction that only humans were given the gift of speech. A joke can only be funny in the context of a fixed framework which it contradicts.

The paramount project of secular liberalism is to utterly obliterate most rules and fixed frameworks. In the absence of any system of inviolable, religiously based absolutes, there are no unthinkable acts to perform; there are few rules to violate. In a world in which everything floats, humor has nothing solid to thrust against.

To the dismay of secular parents raising Godless children, their offspring will probably find humor one day only in the absurdity of their parents' Godless lives.

The laughter and joyfulness that permeate the family life of religious Americans springs from the presence of Biblically inspired discipline and structure. Conversely, the grim seriousness with which the secular liberal seems to go about the business of life springs from the absence of absolute values. (One cannot help but recall the famous joke that reflected feminism's humorlessness: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: That's not funny).

Since jokes are only funny if they contradict a preconception, and all preconceptions are becoming banned, many genres of jokes are vanishing from our national repertoire. The political correctness doctrine banishes humor and laughter entirely because humor presupposes an existing standard. If nothing is absolutely good and nothing is unthinkably bad, nothing can be funny. Clearly one of the goals of secular liberalism is to eliminate most existing standards. The unintended consequence will be the dreary and somber atmosphere that was characteristic of life behind the old Iron Curtain. Secularism, and its sequel, socialism, work together to banish laughter from the world.

Jewish tradition has it that Abraham, through his renowned kindness, attracted thousands of devotees to Judaism. Yet, a full three generations later, by which time the world's Jewish population ought to have reached large numbers, the Bible (Genesis 46) indicates a total Jewish population of merely 70 souls.

The great transmitters of the Oral Torah explain that Abraham had focused on the Almighty's capacity for unrestrained love and compassion. Isaac, the icon of Rosh HaShana, introduced an awareness of God's firm hand into Jewish culture. Many of the disciples drawn by Abraham's gentle nature were later repelled by Isaac's unpopular emphasis on law, leaving a core following of only 70.

Yet it is precisely the structure of law that defines boundaries and allows humans to live among one another. Ancient Jewish wisdom in chapter three of Ethics of the Fathers, exhorts "Pray for the welfare of legal authority--without it, men would destroy each other." The origin of legal authority and its best validation is the model of Divine authority. For this reason, civil authorities like kings would often head the Church too. They were aware that their acceptance of God's authority made it more logical for citizens to accept their's.

In other words, my children are more likely to obey my rules and later, society's too, if they grow up watching me accept God's rules. Children of parents whose vehicles sport bumper stickers that read "Question Authority" will grow up doing just that. They will also become rather hard to live with.

We humans are by nature reluctant to submit ourselves to a higher authority. Showing how treasured human moments like laughter depend on that submission, helps persuade us that civilization depends upon allowing God to judge us. That is the paramount message of the High Holy Days and accounts for its laughter motif.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Being Catholic: From the Heart

Being Catholic: From the Heart, by Bishop Gordon Bennett
When I was Teaching high school English, I used to assign my students a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne to read and discuss which was titled “Ethan Brand”. The story is about a young man, the title character, who deliberately embarks upon a search for what he called the “Unpardonable Sin”. His journey involves, not a descent into unbridled pleasure or overt selfishness, but rather in desiring to know everything there is to know. Hawthorne skillfully describes how this young man gradually evolves from a sensitive and caring person into what Hawthorne describes as a fiend. He writes that Ethan Brand became a fiend “the moment his moral nature had ceased to keep the pace of improvement with his intellect.” His education, because it neglected his spiritual nature, had as its greatest fruit - the Unpardonable Sin.

Let me quote from the story: “so much for the intellect! It had ceased to partake of the universal throb. He had lost hold of the magnetic chain of humanity. He was no longer a brother, he was now a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment and, at length, converting men and women to his puppets, and pulling the wires that moved them to such degrees of crime as were demanded for his study.”

I used to teach this story as a kind of warning to my students of how important it was for the head and the heart to grow together, and this was a warning that students who were as privilege and gifted as my students were needed to hear. I was trying to help at the expense of disowning their own hearts. It was a way of asking them the question Jesus posed to the rich young man in the gospel: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” I loved giving that lecture and facilitating that discussion! It was a last chance to harangue my students about the importance of claiming their hearts, of paying attention to their inner longing, which are the prelude to discovering the presence of God. It was really trying to tell them that, in life, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

I had, of course, hoped that Ethan Brand would never have been on the list of those persons my students would choose to emulate.

But then, a few years later, when I was principal, I actually met Ethan Brand.

His real name (not really!) Was Kevin, 16 years old, bright, talented, handsome, athletic, a student body officer - and, apparently, a drug dealer. This last activity came to my attention through parents in his neighborhood who told me that, although Kevin never sold drugs at school (which would have been cause for expulsion), he was selling them to the kids in his neighborhood. The parents said they hd talked to Kevin’s parents but had been unsuccessful in convincing them that their son was really doing this.

I called Kevin into my office, partly because I thought he should know what was being said about him, and partly because I wanted to put him on notice that, if anything like that happened at school, he would be dismissed. To my surprise, he admitted that he was, in fact, selling drugs to his peers, that he was keenly aware of the repercussions which would attach if he was to do so at school, and that he had not qualms whatsoever about continuing. When I expressed some curiosity about why he would do this since he was obviously wealthy and did not use drugs himself, he gave and answer, which reminded me of Ethan Brand. Kevin told me he sold drugs because he was fascinated by the effects they had on other people and that he enjoyed the power he had gained over them.

Try to keep myself from doing something irrational, I began informing him, with as much genuine passion as I could muster, how his insensitivity to others had already ruined lives and could possibly even cause death. I tried to explain to him how what he was doing was beyond the pale of acceptable behavior toward friends or even enemies.

As I was talking, I saw something happening to him. He eyes locked into mine. His face reddened, his jaws shut tight, his eyes filled with tears. But I made the mistake of reading remorse when what he spat out at me was pure rage. He said: “I’m sorry I ever came to this damned school.” Being totally confused, I asked him to repeat what he had said, and he did, with even more energy than before: “I’m sorry I even came to this damned school.” When I asked why, he stunned me with his answer: “Because,” he said, “if I had gone to a public school, like I wanted to, I wouldn’t have had to worry about saving my soul.”

If I had gone to just a public school, I wouldn’t have to worry about saving my soul. ~Bishop Gordon Bennett, "Being Catholic: From the Heart"
“Ethan Brand” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got this from William Trentman from Utah's 44th Annual Pastoral Congress