The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Humour in Jewish thought

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The recent incident in which a comedian performing at a Jewish charity event gave offence by a particularly tasteless routine prompts me to offer a few thoughts about the Torah’s attitude towards humour in general.
Maimonides declares that laughter or merriment (s’chok) will have no place in the world to come (Hilchos Teshuvah 8:2).  But its inhabitants will feel a contentment described by some of the prophets as happiness (simchah).
And yet there is no general sense in Jewish thought that laughter is in itself evil.  Indeed, in a number of places in aggadic literature God is metaphorically depicted as laughing.
Koheles, typically, reveals the ambivalence of the Torah towards humour.  In one place laughter (s’chok) and even pleasure (simchah) are completely dismissed as futile (2:2).  Later it is asserted that there is a time for laughter (3:4).  And later still great emphasis is put on the positive effects of joy – 8:passim).
There are thousands of Biblical and rabbinic statements regarding different kinds of emotion to which humour may contribute or be relevant, and it would be more than a lifetime’s work to construct a completely balanced view of the Torah’s attitude to these.  What is clear is that humour, levity and light-heartedness have an approved place, but they are also associated with a number of dangers (some kinds in particular – most notably flippancy or scoffing (leitzonus)).
The best overview that I have ever found of the various distinctions comes from a Christian theologian, C S Lewis.  In The Screwtape Letters he writes a series of letters of instruction purporting to come from a senior devil to a relative novice, instructing him in how to lead human beings away from the paths of virtue.  His passage on joy and humour is so powerful and brilliant an exposition of what I believe to be the Torah attitude on the subject that I think it worth quoting here at considerable length (although not quite in full).
“I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.  You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.  Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause.  What the real cause is we do not know.  Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us.  Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. …
“Fun is closely related to Joy – a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.  It is of very little use to us.  It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which [God] would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.
“The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field.  …  The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their ‘sense of humour’ so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame.  Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life.  Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame.  If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow.  Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny.  Cruelty is shameful – unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke.  A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. …
“But Flippancy is best of all. … If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.  It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”


Written by Daniel Greenberg

April 9, 2006 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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