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Laughing at Ourselves, Laughing at Authority

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

I want to share with you one of my favorite Talmudic stories from tractate Baba Metzia. The rabbis are debating whether an oven that had become impure could be purified. This may not seem like a terribly entertaining or amusing discussion- yet- it is God’s gleeful response which calls this story to mind right at this moment. As Jews, we believe that we are made in the Divine image. This midrash demonstrates that one of those Divine qualities it serves us to emulate is the ability to laugh at ourselves. While almost all the sages felt that the oven could not be purified, Rabbi Eliezer, a lone voice but a great scholar, disagreed. Here’s how the story goes:

“On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the Sages did not accept them.

“Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halacha is according to me, let that carob ­tree prove it.’

“He pointed to a nearby carob-tree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits, and some say, four hundred cubits. They said to him ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’

“Said Rabbi Eliezer, ‘If the halacha is according to me, may that stream of water prove it.’

“The stream of water then turned and flowed in the opposite direction.

“They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the behavior of a stream of water.’

“Said Rabbi Eliezer, ‘If the halacha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study prove it.’

“The walls of the House of Study began to bend inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and rebuked the walls of the House of Study, and, by implication, God- ‘If the students of the Wise argue with one another in halacha,” he said, “what right have you to interfere?’

“In honor of Rabbi Joshua, the walls ceased to bend inward; but in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, they did not straighten up, and they remain bent to this day.

“Then, said Rabbi Eliezer to the Sages, ‘If the halacha is according to me, may a proof come from Heaven.’

“Then a heavenly voice went forth and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halacha is according to him in every place.’

“Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens’ (Deuteronomy 30:12).

“What did he mean by quoting this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah, ‘He meant that since the Torah has been given already on Mount Sinai, we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, for You have written in Your Torah, ‘Decide according to the majority’ (Exodus 23:2).

“Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked Elijah, ‘What was the Holy One of Blessing, doing in that hour?’

“Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.””

Imagine that! A God who is not threatened by being challenged, but who actually takes pleasure in humanity’s independent thinking. It is not for naught that the Jewish people adopted the name Yisrael, we are the ones who struggle with God, who challenge God- it is the essence of who we are. And we believe in a God who is big enough to transcend, enjoy, and, even GROW from our challenges.

As Jews, we have always been able to laugh at ourselves. Sigmund Freud notes in Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious that, “Incidentally, I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” The hallmarks of Jewish humor are its self-critical and even self-deprecating nature. One Jewish scholar who is often asked about this unique feature, classically replies to the question, “Isn’t Jewish humor masochistic?”- “No, and if I hear that line once more I’m going to kill myself!” (Novak and Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p. xv)

No subject is off-limits- Jewish mothers, intellectuals, rabbis, politicians, businessmen, anti-Semitism, Jewish ritual, and even God. Jewish humor is anti-authoritarian and it targets the most powerful most often, although there is a sub-category of humor featuring the schnorrer, the beggar who also has a prominent place in the community.

We have no problem mocking ourselves, along with the great faiths of the world- “A new flood is foretold and nothing can be done to prevent it; in three days the waters will wipe out the world. The leader of Buddhism pleads with people to become Buddhist and achieve peace through non-attachment. The Pope has a similar response, ‘It is still not too late to accept Jesus as your savior.’ The Chief Rabbi of Israel takes a slightly different approach- ‘We have three days to learn to live underwater.’ Let’s laugh at the intellectual nature of our community, not to mention our well-honed survival instincts!

During the era of repression of Soviet Jews, the Soviet Jewish community sustained itself with humor. Here’s a classic- “A Jew in Moscow was awakened in the middle of the night by a loud knock on the door. ‘Who’s there?’ he asked. ‘The mailman,’ came the reply. The man got out of bed and opened the door, and found two KGB agents. ‘Are you Goldstein?’ asked one of the agents. ‘Yes’ replied Goldstein. ‘And did you make an application to go to Israel?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Do you have enough food to eat here?’ ‘Yes, we do.’ ‘Don’t your children get a good Communist education?’ ‘Certainly.’ ‘Then why do you want to leave Russia?’ ‘Because,’ replied Goldstein, ‘I don’t like to live in a place where they deliver the mail at three in the morning.’” Being awakened at night seems almost trivial in contrast to the threats Jews face in the world today, yet threats to our existence are constant and in every generation we find ways to laugh at our oppressors.

God is an available target for Jewish jokes, as we see in this example- “A man brings some very fine material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of pants. When he comes back a week later, the pants are not ready. Two weeks later, they are still not ready. Finally, after six weeks, the pants are ready. The man tries them on. They fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes time to pay, he can’t resist a jibe at the tailor. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘it took God only six days to make the world. And it took you six weeks to make just one pair of pants.’ ‘Ah,’ says the tailor. ‘But look at this pair of pants, and look at the world.’

Look at the world indeed. The world at the moment is terribly unamusing and we are constrained in our ability to use humor in its traditional role of sustaining us in challenging times. Humor has become a life and death issue, and the world is not a better place because of it. In a few short weeks we will celebrate Purim, and celebrate laughter and mocking of all authority. Would that the world could learn from the Jewish example of not taking ourselves or our authority figures too seriously!

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