Jewish Journal


October 30, 2013

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology


Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed ...” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.

Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at http://mycart.wisela.org/center-for-jewish-life/ or call (888) 380-WISE (9473).

The opening pages of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s “God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology” (Jewish Lights, $24.99) begins with a pop-culture reference, too.  He describes how, when his family moved into their West Los Angeles home, the dining room had been “painted a sickly green … in the late ’70s during the high watermark of the aesthetics of ‘The Brady Bunch’ and ‘The Partridge Family.’ ” Only when he removed the paint did he find the richly grained wood paneling that had long been covered up. Here, Rabbi Artson finds an apt analogy to his task as a teacher of religion.

“Modern Westerners often approach religion as I did the paneling,” he explains; “they assume the only way to be religious is to accept the sickly green overlay of Greek philosophy.” But he offers a deep reading of what he regards as authentic Jewish spirituality, which “offers the opportunity to sandblast the philosophical overlay of Hellenistic Greece and medieval Europe off the rich, burned grain of Bible, Rabbinics, and Kabbalah, so that we can we savor the actual patterns in the living wood of religion, the etz hayyim, and appreciate Judaism for what it was intended to be and truly us.”

The relationship to which Artson refers is what he sees as God’s availability to mortal human beings in the most immediate sense. “God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction,” he urges. “Rather, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality to fulfill our own optimal possibilities.” Thus does he fuse the goals of the human potential movement and the modalities of the theological tradition known as Process Thought with the pieties of Jewish theology.

Artson, a professor and dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, declares that he “fell in love with God” while in college, but he dissents from the tradition that portrays God as perfect and unchanging. “Despite the impressive lineage of philosophers (and rabbis) arguing for an immutable, impassible, omnipotent and omniscient God,” he writes, “the Torah and rabbinic midrashim portray a God who gets angry, who loves, who grieves, who gets frustrated and surprised, and who repents!” By embracing and employing the techniques of Process Theology, he insists, the reader will find “a way to recover a biblically and rabbinically resonant, dynamic articulation of God, world, and covenant, integrating that portrayal with contemporary scientific knowledge of the cosmos and of life into a philosophy worthy of our engagement.”

Or, as he sums up: “The Torah is meant to be the first word, not the last.” Artson invites his readers to join him in “a continuation of that love affair in history between God and the children of Israel” with the promise that doing so can and will “radiate holiness and purpose back into our lives, our communities, our world.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson will discuss and sign copies of “God of Becoming and Relationship” at American Jewish University on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the AJU Web site at http://wcce.aju.edu/default.aspx?id=10462.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

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