Jewish humor is prevalent in our culture, or at least at one time it was. Many of the great comedians are Jewish: Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis—the list seems endless. Humor, of course, is possible because the contrast of human behavior—whether sinful or just plain clumsy—with truth can be very amusing. So it seems that an awareness of truth and what’s “normal” (according to nature) is necessary for humor. True humor is self-effacing. It is the tribute fallen man pays to truth.
Comedian Jackie Mason is a rabbi, and he’s a master of wit—and, I dare say, Jewish sarcasm. Which leads to an observation that perhaps many others have made. It seems that a good deal of Jewish humor is based on Bible passages and a certain biblical style.
An angel of God appears to Sarah, the wife of Abraham and reveals that she will bear a son in her old age. Sarah, of course, prefigures Elizabeth and like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, she is skeptical of the revelation. “Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?” Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.’ Sarah denied it however, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. And He said, ‘No, but you did laugh’” (Gen. 18:25).
Theologians probably have spent a good deal of time and study on the sinfulness or lack of sinfulness of Sarah’s response, as well as her lack of punishment. (In contrast, Zechariah was struck dumb for a duration as punishment for his skepticism of the Lord’s revelation about the elderly Elizabeth bearing a son.) But I think there is real humor in Sarah’s exchange. Sarah comes across almost childlike in her response. When caught red-handed she lies like a child denying eating cookies, with the cookie crumbs still encircling his mouth.
After the Lord allows Satan to test the just man Job, his friends try to convince him of his sinfulness, calling for Job’s repentance. Refusing to acknowledge the lie, Job doesn’t insist upon his virtue as much as he makes recourse to a kind of “holy sarcasm” with his accusers. Here is his droll reply: “Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you!” (Job 12:2). How many times have I suppressed the impulse to hurl such a delicious barb to the many who use two of the most annoying words in the English language: “You should….” (But then I wonder how many times I would have been on the receiving end of the same javelin.)
The Psalms are passionate in every way. Psalm 69 is a lament, but it includes this—I think amusing—phrase: “Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards” (Psalm 69:12). Now that’s a funny image! Imagine a pub on a Saturday night with jolly but inebriated patrons singing songs about the local pastor. I would be honored—then again, maybe not. Why not rather compose drinking songs about our presidential candidates and, if “offended,” recommend they pray Psalm 69?
The good Lord Himself is revealed to have his own gentle “sarcasm” with Job. Job—whose innocent suffering eventually finds the answer in the innocent sufferings in Christ—questions the Lord and receives this response: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4). Game. Set. Match.
A final example: In the Gospel, Jesus is on His way through the apostate territory of Samaria. “But the people there refused to welcome Him, because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them…” Later in the Gospel Jesus refers to James and John, without explanation, as the “Sons of Thunder.” In view of their really rather hilarious impulse to call down lightning to destroy their enemies—an impulse that is all too easy to claim as our own—perhaps we have explanation enough, and with considerable humor.
In my parish bulletin, I like to contrast the hot-button issues of the day with Church teaching, an exercise that can get pretty grim. So I reserve a small section for jokes. On one occasion I published a few “Jewish Mother Jokes.” Example: Jewish mother telegram to daughter: “Begin worrying. Details to follow.” I don’t care who you are, that’s funny. (“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Mt. 6:34)). The next week I received an irate letter from a parishioner who, though Catholic, considered the jokes “insensitive.” I called the Jewish husband of a parishioner and asked if he was offended. He responded with Jewish humor of his own: “Yes. The jokes are too old.”
Right. Some of the jokes are as old as the Bible. And noticing and delighting in the Scriptural humor can lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s word (to say nothing of a healthy antidote to the prevailing silliness of political correctness).
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