Two rabbis walk into a synagogue…

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

There’s a misconception that Jewish scholars who use humour are seeking to entertain rather than educate, but it’s a tradition that dates back to talmudic times

Rabbi Avi Finegold

Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Finegold: The inclusion of jokes in our previous column (“You know what happens when a ‘yekke’ marries a chassid? You have a wedding that starts exactly two hours late”) is something I have been thinking about lately.

I was teaching a class on midrash recently and I found myself comparing the use of mashal (parables) in midrash to how rabbis will often use humour in their sermons. It is a trope, a common feature of the genre that people now understand and appreciate as a method of connecting the material to the listener.

I suppose that bringing up this topic is quite appropriate for Adar, and so I was wondering, do you use humour in sermons? In everyday life? To what purpose?

I find myself trying to be funny in my classes, partly because I think it is central to my persona and partly because I recognize the performative aspect of teaching. So in the hope of creating a new way of thinking about rabbinic humour I ask, brother, can you paradigm?

Rabbi Scheim: Funny you should ask. I am in the process of teaching a course on Jewish humour from rabbinic times to the present, focusing on humour as a survival tool, and as a means of making sense of an increasingly crazy and troubled world.

Many recent books have brought new light to this subject, especially Ruth Wisse’s No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. This being the 100th yahrzeit year of Sholem Aleichem, I have used the opportunity to examine his writings and deepen my appreciation of his role in setting the stage (literally and figuratively) for today’s Jewish comics. I do attempt, where appropriate, to use humour as a tool in sermons and teaching, but try to avoid the formulaic “opening joke” preferred by many rabbis, which can lead to the joke, more than the sermon itself, being remembered.

Many of my teachers in my seminary years hailed from the old world and were funny, though not always intentionally. Their unique sense of English syntax didn’t always correspond to their impeccable grasp of talmudic text, which allowed for memorable classroom experiences, something today’s students sadly are far less likely to experience. I frequently share stories about my teachers, because both their profound learning and their humour taught me a great deal about the nature of Jewish survival.

Rabbi Finegold: There seems to be a misconception that rabbis who use humour are seeking to entertain rather than educate, and that they see their role as that of a showman, someone who is irreverent, quite literally. But we have a long history of scholars and rabbis employing humour going all the way back to the Talmud. Rabbis were quite cutting in pointing out the shortcomings of their colleague’s arguments, and sometimes even the colleagues themselves.

My favourite commentator, the medieval Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, never misses an opportunity to take a jab at the other commentators, sometimes gratuitously. There is value in humour and wit in and of itself though, even beyond the classic joke during a sermon.

The Vilna Gaon points out that the name of our most solemn day – Yom Kippur – contains a play on words. Yom Hakippurim (its name in the Bible) is akin to Yom Ke’Purim, a day that is like Purim. He sees the day with the most levity as potentially greater than a day filled with prayer and repentance. Wit and joy are greater tools than fasting and chest beating when it comes to achieving closeness with God.

Rabbi Scheim: The vast Jewish over-representation in modern comedy seems to reflect a DNA-level Jewish instinct to find humour in even the darkest of circumstances.

We have used humour to mock our adversaries, to find laughter in our day-to-day struggles in times of poverty and persecution, and to find perspective in an ever-challenging and dangerous world. Humour has taught us humility in casting light on our foibles, idiosyncrasies, and quirks that can drive even those who love us to distraction.

Using humour appropriately and effectively offers a rabbi the opportunity to lift spirits in the context of meaningful Torah learning. Indeed laughter amid life’s challenges may be one of our secrets to survival.

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