Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

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.


Ramadan ends on September 11th and Muslims are afraid to celebrate.

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2010 at 9:20 am

Today’s Washington Post has a disturbing article that should, once again, give all minorities pause.  The end of Ramadan falls on September 11th and the Muslim community has decided to do the “sensitive” thing and keep their normal festivities low key.  If this consideration were borne completely out of concern for their fellow citizens, I would welcome the sensitivity. However, it is clear that they feel they do not have much choice in the matter.  They are afraid of how it would be seen by their fellow Americans, and they worry about being stabbed, beaten, or their places of worship being burned.

Given the very rational fear of the American Muslim community, the following Midrash from the Petichta of Esther Rabba has an eerie resonance. Look what happened when we chose to go ahead and celebrate Chanukah at an inauspicious time.

In the days of Trajan, may his bones be ground up, his wife gave birth to a son on Tisha B’Av, and all of Israel was in mourning (because of the holiday). The baby died during Chanukah. All of Israel wondered whether they should or should not light candles. They decided to light, “and whatever happens to us will happen.” The people went and spoke slanderously about the Jews to the Emperor’s wife, “These Jews, when you gave birth, they mourned and when now that your child has died, they are lighting candles!” She sent a message to her husband, “Before you conquer the barbarians, come and conquer these Jews who are rebelling against you.  He set sail immediately and figured it would take him ten days to return to Judea, but a wind came and brought him back in five days. When he arrived, he found the Jews learning this verse in the Torah, “God will send a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, like the eagle flies.” (Deuteronomy 32:11) He said to them, “I am the eagle. I thought it would take ten days to reach you, but it only took five days.” His legions surrounded them, and killed them.

One would wish to believe that we Americans had less in common with Trajan and his minions than we seem to. Shame on us.