Jewish Humor – Summer 1991
Jewish humor. Most everybody admits that it exists. But not everybody agrees on what it means. Is it simply ordinary humor with a slightly distinct ethnic touch? Or is it more significant — a folk culture assault on the establishment ideology of rabbinic Judaism?
For most secularized Jews in North America, Jewish humor is a more important part of their lives than the Torah. It speaks more powerfully to them than the priestly piety of the Pentateuch. Long after traditional religion virtually vanished from the lives of many Western Jews, Jewish jokes remain a standard part of Jewish conversation.
Despite its universal presence, Jewish humor is rarely taken seriously. To the scholars of Judaism, Jewish belief and conviction lie in the texts of the rabbis, the Talmud, and the Siddur. Religion is a very serious business. What most people believe is what official texts tell them they believe. Since almost none of these texts is very funny, humorous observations about the human condition do not play a part in any elementary discussion of basic Judaism.
Traditional religion and humor are opposite ways of responding to the human condition. The heart of religion is worship, a recurrent surrender to the will of God. Worship rests on the profound conviction that all is well with the world even though the world appears to be sick. God is loving, just, and orderly even though we do not seem to be experiencing a lot of love, justice, and moral order. From the human perspective, life is crazy. From the divine perspective, the world, with all its supernatural rewards and punishments, is a wonderful place.
Philosophic humor starts with the absurdity of life. The world is not fair. The good are punished more than they ought to be. The wicked are rewarded more than they ought to be. Kindness gets you bubkes. Cruelty gets you power. The nicest thing you can say about God, if you believe that he exists, is what Woody Allen said: “God is an underachiever.” (Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, really say the same thing as Allen. But they are so caught up in the worship mentality that they don’t understand how funny they are.]
Humor, unlike worship, is neither friendly nor reverent. It is usually hostile. In human evolutionary history (as Desmond Morris suggested in Manwatching], laughter did not begin as a friendly gesture. Displaying teeth was generally the prelude to biting, not caressing. In philosophic humor, our words do what our teeth are no longer permitted to do.
A simple story by Sholem Aleichem from Tevyeh the Milkman will illustrate my point. Tevyeh is talking to God. “Pull, miserable monster! Drag, you wretched beast in the likeness of a horse! You’re no better than I am! If it’s your destiny to be Tevyeh’s horse, then suffer like Tevyeh, and learn like Tevyeh and his family to die of hunger seven times in the day and then go to bed supperless. Is it not written in the Holy Book that the same fate shall befall man and beast? . . . No! That is not true. Here I am at least talking, while you are dumb and cannot ease your pain with words. My case is better than yours. For I am human, and a Jew, and I know what you do not know. I know that we have a great and good God in heaven, who governs the world in wisdom and mercy and loving kindness, feeding the hungry and raising the fallen and showing grace to all living things. I can talk my heart out to Him, while your jaws are locked, poor thing. However, I must admit that a wise word is no substitute for a piece of herring or a bag of oats ….
“Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house (Good! But I take it, O Lord, that Thy house is somewhat more spacious than my hovel!)…. I will extol Thee, my God, O King (What good would it do me if I didn’t?)…. Every day I will bless thee (on an empty stomach, too) …. The Lord is good to all (And suppose He forgets somebody now and again, good Lord, hasn’t He enough on His mind?)…. The Lord up- holdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all that are bowed down (Father in Heaven, loving Father, surely it’s my turn now, I can’t fall any lower)…. Thou openest Thy hand and satisfiest every living thing (So You do, Father in Heaven, You give with an open hand — one gets a box on the ear, and another roast chicken, and neither my wife nor I nor my daughters have even smelt a roast chicken since the days of creation)…. He will fulfill the desire of them that fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them. (But when, O Lord? When?.. .)”
With worship like that you don’t need blasphemy. And with theology like that you don’t need religion. Like Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem is a folk philosopher. He says more in ten lines than most formal philosophers say in volumes. What he says, although formally couched in reverence, is profoundly irreverent.
Tevyeh is the voice of the counterestablishment in Jewish life. While the rabbis and the pietists weave tales of divine love and divine justice, the folk culture is more honest. After two thousand years of undeserved persecution and murder, the appropriate response to all this misery is not “thank you.” It is “oy gevalt!” The rabbinic establishment preached denial and came up with faith. The folk culture paid attention to experience and came up with skepticism.
The skepticism was never openly proclaimed. To do so would have filled the ambivalent souls of the common people with guilt. It also would have been very risky, inviting repression and excommunication. Skepticism generally was dressed up in tradition and piety. But the tongue was in the cheek.
Both prophetic and rabbinic Judaism are filled with a powerful sense of divine justice. In the end goodness will triumph and evil will be defeated. It is this conviction that made them such powerful ideologies, able to win the allegiance of the Jewish people. But they run counter to the experience of everyday life, especially the experience of oppressed people.
The ideological enemy of these humorless ideologies is Jewish humor, which is actually philosophy, albeit folk philosophy. Jokes may not be considered a respectable way to communicate philosophy, but they are usually more effective than tedious theological prose. Woody Allen and Sholem Aleichem are part of a long, largely unpublished, skeptical tradition, a tradition filled with anger and a sense of outrage.
Jewish humor is the chief “traditional” voice of this skepticism. It is distinct from humor not specific to the Jewish condition, which is the common possession of both Jews and non-Jews. Conventional humor rests on the absurdity of surprise. It ranges from slipping on banana peels to taboo sex. It makes you laugh because you are caught unaware.
Jewish humor has the element of surprise. But it has more: a philosophic bitterness that ranges in degree from the safe commentary of Sam Levenson to the cruelty of Lenny Bruce.
Jewish humor is more than the humor of an oppressed people. African-American humor is the humor of an oppressed people. But it is the humor of an oppressed servile people. Slave peoples mock themselves and their masters. They do not mock their religion. Jews are an oppressed pariah people. They were persecuted and rejected. But even though they were social outcasts, they retained their own community structures. Slaves are integrated into the lives of their masters. Pariahs are marginal, existing on the fringes of established society. They have enough distance to develop a healthy skepticism toward all authority, even divine authority.
There are two characteristics of traditional Jewish humor. Both are present in the words of Tevyeh. Both reflect the necessity to speak skepticism in a world that was officially pious. There is a false reverence, a false deference to authority. Tevyeh pretends to be pious, but his words are taunting. There is also deliberate denial. Disasters are called successes; defeats are labeled victories; absurdity is called justice. The implication is clear: “With friends like this, you do not need enemies.”
Jewish humor was just as important as Jewish piety in preserving the Jewish people. Without the catharsis of laughter, the Jews would have choked on their own rage. The philosophy of Jewish humor was an antidote to the philosophy of faith, with all its passive acceptance and passive waiting. The Jewish personality that emerged out of the Jewish experience relied heavily on Jewish skepticism. Jewish ambition and self-reliance did not come from piety. They arose out of the deep-felt conviction that the fates were not as reliable as the rabbis made them out to be.
The nervous, ambitious, skeptical, good- humored Jew has always been the Jew that appealed to me. Laughing has always seemed to me more Jewish than praying.