- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
Freedom, Liberty and Comedy at Passover
Comments before Passover 2023 (Coinciding with Torah portion VaYikra)
We are approaching Passover, the first night falling on the evening of April 5th, in about a week and a half. I would like to focus on Passover themes these next two Shabbatot. In this Shabbat thought, I would like to focus on the freedom to tell jokes.
The most widespread understanding of freedom, a core Passover theme, is liberty, to say and do what you want, up to the border of harming others. This liberty includes telling jokes.
The other side of freedom is freedom from inner forces that seem intent on harming others and ourselves. In Judaism, working on inner freedom from destructive forces is almost as important as proclaiming liberty throughout the land.
Maybe we shouldn’t tell jokes at other’s people expense, when they come from a inner destructive for to cause others emotional harm. Then why is joke telling, especially the joke telling at the heart of Yiddish culture, so significant? Why do we Jews tell so many jokes about ourselves?
We can see that on the border between freedom as moral duty and freedom as liberty is comedy, yes, sometimes rooted in the liberty to offend. Offensive behavior meant purely to harm or upset others is frowned upon, morally speaking. But what about comedy and satire, irony in general? The best comedy, satire and irony, often takes us to the deepest contradictions in the human condition. Jokes and comedy can pierce the veil of the shadow. Every joke has some kind of victim, fall guy or straightman for the joke to work. Turn that frown upside down.
Comedy exposes the uneasy contours of the unconscious. I love jokes about “Freudian slips.” Some of my favorite poems are the deep ones. Some of my other favorites are those that elicit laughter rooted in pain. An inside joke that one soul tells another.
At a recent Friday night Shabbat Table and Teaching, I asked the assembled who our greatest philosophers are today. By acclaim, those in attendance cited “comedians.” It was a sincere question, and I was delighted with the answer. (It took us a while to get to the Dalai Lama, a name that did not meet with much excitement. I will stick with comedians. I only know one joke about the Dalai Lama.)
Why comedians? The best ones disrupt complacent thinking, make us face complexity in thinking. Poking fun exposes incongruities. Laughter is our appreciation at inner tensions being revealed and exposed. Uneasy laughter is the most revelatory. One way our community got through the COVID shutdowns and all the fallout from that, was to tell one liner jokes, puns and hinky-pinkies at the end of our Friday night gatherings. There were moments of great brilliance, and constant moments of laughter.
I would add that laughing at and along with comedians is way easier and more enjoyable to most people like me than studying actual philosophy, e.g. trudging through Kant or Hegel. I haven’t encounted any jokes in either. The only exceptions among philosophers that come to mind are Socrates and Nietzche. Many Socratic dialgues are comedy sketches. Nietzche is often a wry comedy show. His aphorisms are some of the best jokes written.
My favorite comedians are in the line from George Carlin to Dave Chappelle. I’ll even include Key and Peele. Some people say they find these comedians to be offensive. Yes, that is part of the beauty. This offensiveness creates a moral quandary for me. Is doing comedy and telling jokes, especially dark comedy and piercing jokes, a freedom or a duty?
Comedians joke because they must, like muscians and dancers. The best comedy, the most artful, however, lies right on the line of offending and doing a service for humankind. How do we know? One thing every tyrant, every fascist regime does is suppress comedy. No making fun of those in power. Telling jokes can be a kind of spiritual resistance. Every time someone says, “that’s not funny” when I know it is funny, I think, “I am glad this person is not in power.” The freedom to humorously take a jab at someone fun the sign of a thriving democracy. The public (not the Twitter mob or the outrage industry) will eventually find the line over which folks should not step. I think it is a duty to poke fun at those who try to arrogate moral superioty to themselves. They are asking for it.
Most people don’t know that a core part of the Haggadah is rabbinic comedy, admittedly not the most accessible comedy, but comedy nonetheless. Hint: this comedy sketch is found in the part of the Haggadah that everyone skips.
Should comedy and jokes be a required part of every Seder, as part of our liberty/freedom discussion? I am uneasy with that question. I am a comedy snob. I much prefer Monty Python to Benny Hill. I’ve seen every Monty Python, and I couldn’t take more than 30 seconds of Benny Hill. If you are a Benny Hill fan and this offends you, chill.
Some jokes take us to the truth within. Some jokes are just salacious and muck stirring. Which ones are which should be one of the Four Questions.
Here is another question. Why do I find the following joke so funny? I tell it to myself often and chuckle. My wife asks, “What are you laughing about?” I start to answer and she says, “Okay, I retract the question.” She’s heard it enough. Every guest to our house is eventually subjected to this joke. Everybody who came to those Friday night gatherings heard it at least twice.
A guy is walking down Wall Street. He hears a rustle above. He looks up and sees a guy pitch out of a 14th floor window, hit the ground and stand right up. The pedestrian is astonished and asks, “What just happened?” The other says, “I don’t know. I just got here.”
Maybe that is the answer to every deep question, questions beyond the standard Four Questions, for example: “Does God exist?”
“I don’t know. I just got here.”