The new Pew survey on American Jewry reveals a fascinating statistic: 42% of those who identity as Jews in the United States hold humor as an essential Jewish value. Like most commentators on the survey this statistic bothered me. I took it as a sign of the decadence of Jewish life in this country. It was the epitaph on our gravestone: We Died Laughing. But this morning my train of thought made a U-turn. Jewish humor may not be the death knell of our people but a shofar blast of our new awakening.
What does the humor of Gertrude Berg, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Gilda Radner, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Andy Kaufman, Groucho Marx, Sarah Silverman, Susan Essman, and many others have in common? Irony and the ability to pull back the curtain on the lives we live to reveal the madness at its heart.
Jewish humor has for centuries been the way the powerless speak truth; the way we who live in the absurd reality that is this world survive. Irony and humor is our way of shining light on the absurd. No it doesn’t make it less absurd—nothing can do that—but it does give a modicum of sanity by reminding ourselves that it is absurd. Can you be totally insane if you know you’re insane?
The Pew survey isn’t saying that Jews think Jews are funny, it is saying that Jews honor the Jewish value of using humor to speak truth to power. Indeed with far more Jews valuing humor over halacha (Jewish law), American Jews are simply lifting the holy fool over the wholly observant. But the two need not be in opposition.
Listen to Lawrence Gross from his 2009 review of the Penguin Classics edition The Talmud: A Selection:
“The reader ought to be told, even in summary form, how the centuries that Jews spent steeped in the Talmud laid the basis for the contributions that their secularized descendants would make to world culture. The penchant for studying godly law and lore, for example, engendered the interests and habits that sparked later Jewish intellectual achievement; the open-ended Talmudic debates set the stage for some Jews to think “outside the box” and chart new paths in science and mathematics; the stress on rationality and quantification sharpened Jewish business acumen, and the wordplay, irony and whimsicality encountered in the Talmud bred a distinctive Jewish humor — no Talmud, no Woody Allen and no Seinfeld.”
If Talmud led to Jewish humor, could not Jewish humor lead to Talmud? Can we post-modern liberal and largely secular American Jews recognize that what makes Jon Stewart Jon Stewart is Judaism and its love of irony, skepticism, argument, and doubt? And could we not in this way begin to reclaim the source of that stance—classical Jewish texts themselves? Could we once again hear the call of which irony is only an echo to not only laugh at the insanity of power but confront it with truth? Is it possible that we can once again learn that to confront the powers that be we must not only speak truth but embody truth? And can we, with all due respect to my teacher Mordecai Kaplan (z”l), use that realization to reconstruct ancient behaviors into modern counter-cultural lifestyles?
I don’t have the answer to these and similar questions the Pew survey raises, but to simply wring our hands over our people’s clinging to humor is to miss the deeper hope that cling contains.