"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.
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.