December 14, 2018

Why religion is a laughing matter

Satire and caricature are funny things. The most effective satire makes us laugh — but then it also gives us something to chew on, to think about.  

Not all satire is humorous, however. In the Middle Ages, caricatured figures were generally not intended to be funny, as for example in the Christian sculptural traditions that depicted Jews and heretics with deformed features. That was essentially an early version of hate speech. Satire runs on a spectrum from humor to bitterness to hatred, a range of meanings that can only be deciphered in their cultural context. We learn to figure out what is funny (think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), what is trying to be funny but is really in bad taste (“The Interview”) and what is downright mean (Nazi cartoons of Jews).  

But within this complexity, caricaturing and satirizing religion historically have been even more sensitive. The Protestant Reformation produced humorous and heated satire against Roman Catholicism, and even the pope. Once Protestantism was established in a country, however, satire was censored. Humorous cartoons about political issues came into prominence from the Napoleonic Age onward; but the authority of religion protected what was demarcated as holy. In intensely secular, revolutionary France, prelates could be lampooned, but in America it was more often the “enthusiasts” — the wild sectarians such as Mormons and millenarians — who would appear as the object of caricature. Mainstream religion — decorous, solemn and rational — rarely suffered direct attack until the late 20th century.

Why have we not been able to laugh at religion? Underneath it all, are we afraid to take religion lightly? That a wrathful deity might put up with all kinds of other crimes against humanity, life and even lack of devotion to Himself, but not with being laughed at? Would the creator of humanity, who made the world completely good, regret creating a laughing being more than a murderous one? This would be an ironic theological outcome for Western religions. Not that Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or Hinduism are known for rollicking laugh-fests.

Oddly enough, given its minority status, Judaism seems to be the religion that has produced a larger repertoire of humorous religious satire. The tradition that supposedly invented the absolutist, jealous, wrathful God also produced a people that considers religion pretty funny? That is pretty funny, but true. Jokes about rabbis abound, as well as about Jewish practices such as the Passover matzah and bitter herbs, circumcision, conversion and bar mitzvah, not to mention theological topics such as God, Satan and death. Such jokes are even recited from the pulpits of quite religious congregations. Are Jews secret atheists? Is this revenge?

No. Jewish humor comes from the Jewish tradition of destabilizing structures of power — which is the source of both revolutionary ideology in the sociopolitical realm and humorous satire. From biblical times, our texts recount the overthrow of ancient worldviews that believed in child sacrifice, the rights of the first-born, divine humans, divine rights of kings and dynastic rule. They limit the power of owners over slaves, of husbands and fathers over women, even of humans over animas with the laws of the Sabbath.  

But humor can go deeper, liberating the mind. The Exodus story is in part a satire on Pharaoh who believes himself a god. While he was issuing decrees and whips were lashing the Israelites, women outsmarted him. The midrash tells us of the midwives who said, “We can’t kill the Hebrew boys as they emerge from the womb — the women deliver their babies so fast we can’t get there in time.” Really! And if you believe that, I’ll sell you a bridge over the Nile. Worse yet, modern children’s songs about the Ten Plagues make Pharaoh a laughingstock, a helpless victim of forces he thinks he controls. 

The story of Balaam and his talking donkey in the book of Numbers is a parody of a prophet who thinks he can outsmart the deity and get rich. The tale of Elijah competing with the prophets of Baal in the book of Kings is a hilarious caricature. The book of Esther satirizes the power of villains and foolish kings. The book of Jonah has plenty of irony: Really, Jonah, you think you can run away from an infinite God? The strange ending to that story could almost be a cartoon: You feel sorry for the plant that died, but not for the thousands of people of Nineveh who would have died if they had not repented? And so many cattle?   

Our problem today is that too much of religion has not fulfilled its promise as a disruptive, liberating force. It is another bastion of structural stability and entrenched power. Ironies of divine behavior are interpreted as warnings and punishments. The force of humor is repressed by being associated with arrogance: Religious authorities proclaim it sinful to satirize views of God, religion or its representatives. But, isn’t the arrogant shoe on the other foot?

Religion in most traditions is no laughing matter because it is defined as nonmatter, as “spiritual,” as on a higher level than we benighted humans. But for Judaism, everything human is, simply, human. Everything natural is, simply, nature. There are visible and invisible worlds, but “God” is not defined by any of their terminologies. So everything, including our religions, is subject to critique.  

Humor — as satire, as caricature — is a Jewish way of subverting idolatry. But the best humor comes not with bitterness or revolutionary zeal. It comes with love, or at least appreciation, for the precarious and tender efforts of human and divine partners to be in relationship.  

One of the cartoons that supposedly angered Islamic radicals depicted the founder of Islam, holding his head in his hands and saying, “It’s so hard to be loved by idiots.” The cartoon could have been one of God as the old bearded man in the sky, looking down on His human creations. It must be hard for Him, too, to be loved by those idiosyncratic creatures who forget what He is all about.


Tamar Frankiel is president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a scholar of comparative religion.