Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Stephen Colbert in Congress: Would the Talmud Approve?

In Uncategorized on September 29, 2010 at 7:46 am

When I served a stint as the Orthodox rabbinic advisor at Harvard Hillel, I was taken to task by one of the more influential board members for making  what she deemed inappropriate jocular digressions during my weekly shabbat lessons. These speeches were given after prayers and kiddush so that people could stay or leave without having to walk out and embarrass the speaker.  She tried to mollify me with compliments, that I obviously “knew my stuff”, but that she often took offense at the jokes and this distracted her from the points I was trying to make. She even gave me a copy of a sermon she had given at Memorial Church (the official church of Harvard) to show me what a proper “sermon” would look like.  This was a long time ago, and even though I regret the answer I gave because it did not serve my interest in the long run, I still admire the young firebrand that impetuously responded, “Do you think God is more offended at my jokes or at you for driving to Shule every shabbos. After all, it’s hard to find a punishment in the Torah for jokes, but according to that same book, what you do is a capital offense.” I was a little aggravated and I made an enemy unnecessarily.  She may even have had a point, but it is not sacrilege to use humor even biting humor to make a point, or even to engage an audience so that your point will be given appropriate attention.

This is what Stephen Colbert did in Congress. He entered the hallowed halls in character, only to set the audience up for the moment when he ceased to be his reactionary doppelganger and become an outraged citizen arguing on behalf of “the least of our brothers”–those who are invited in to pick our vegetables while being told they are not welcome and can be thrown out at any time. I found his testimony funny, arresting, poignant and powerful.

Great satire makes us laugh because the ironies and absurdities it highlights are in fact real.  When we respond with laughter, we have understood the message viscerally. We repeat it to our friends, and we have internalized it using both the cognitive and intuitive parts of our brains.  Colbert hit all those notes in a mere five minute presentation before Congress.

It is instructive that so many Congressman, pundits, and columnists Ruth Marcus and Jonah Goldberg were not amused.  In the Talmud, it is taught that:

“Rabba opened his class with a humorous anecdote in order to open the hearts of his students and he would finish by inspiring awe and deep learning.” (Shabbat 30b)

There is a fine line between being funny in order to make a point and being funny for the sake of ridicule.  Rabbinic tradition does not like those who “aggrandize themselves at the expense of others.” In fact, they are singled out as being particularly despicable.  Many saw this as a publicity stunt for Colbert made at the expense of a “sacred” institution.  I don’t agree. Congress and their pundit allies should take themselves a little less seriously, and pay more attention to what Colbert had to say. He was funny, but what he had to say wasn’t only a laughing matter.

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