The Jewish world has lost (at least) two luminaries summer: Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, who died nearly two weeks ago.
We will surely invoke Mr. Wiesel’s memory over the course of the High Holidays, but I think that the proper way to celebrate Mr. Wilder’s life is to recall his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy.
A few years back, Robin Williams (alav hashalom) said the following:
I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’
We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts – the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth – as being funny. Today’s parashah, Shofetim, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold various commandments, and particularly with respect to law and order. Taking responsibility for an unclaimed, murdered corpse (Deut. 21:1ff)? Not funny. Not destroying fruit trees during a siege (20:19-20)? Not funny. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing (Deut. 19:21)? Definitely not funny.
And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten. One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study about American Jews from October 2013 is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)
So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.
And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts. This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.
I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasional humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).
But the Talmud is a richer source.
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b
מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו
גמ’. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.
Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it…
Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a
אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.
Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”
Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcised and be like us.”
“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.
An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”
To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, and they ate him.
Comedy: human failure.
A piece of Gene Wilder’s work that crossed my e-desk this week was a clip from The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland traveling across the US in 1850 to serve a Jewish community in San Francisco, and to bring them a sefer Torah. There is a scene where the rabbi and his traveling companion, a bank robber played by Harrison Ford, are captured by unfriendly natives, and Wilder’s character expresses his willingness to trade everything, including his life, for the sake of the Torah.
It’s not a funny scene, and it certainly contains potentially damaging stereotypes about Native Americans.
But put in the context of Wilder’s body of work, I think there is a larger message we as contemporary Jews can draw from this: Even as we cling to our ancient textual tradition, we should do so along with a sense of humor.
Wilder was not a traditionally-practicing Jew. But he was deeply connected, as most of us are, to his heritage. He was an actor. But the fact that this scene sits alongside, say, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, BTW), suggests something about the nature of how we live today. The Torah is not relegated to a library. It is part of us, and we should approach it in the context of all of the enjoyable, playful parts of our lives along with the serious moments, along with the grief, along with the all of the challenges we face.
Our tradition is malleable; the ancient words of Jewish wisdom sparkle as much today as they did 2,000 years ago. But they are not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust. They are supposed to bring joy into our lives.
Some of you may know that Gene Wilder left this world in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly upsetting to picture Mr. Wilder gripped with that affliction; this man who brought us so many laughs, who at the end of his life would not even be able to recall the punch line, much less the rest of the joke. It seems to me a particularly ironic way for a Jewish comedic actor to go out.
But it is also a reminder of a gem of wisdom from our tradition:
Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):
אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין
There is no human being in the world without afflictions.
There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing, even as we cling to the values of Torah.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2016.)