Accepting Absurdity

How Jews' focus on language and texts set the stage for the "crazy reasoning" of Jewish humor

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Reprinted with permission from Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (University of Chicago Press). 

I have often heard and read that it is an important fact about the genesis of Jewish humor in America that its prac­titioners and its first audience were bilingual. And so they were, many of them coming to America already knowing Yid­dish and perhaps Polish or Russian or German, and then learn­ing English.

But something like that was true of all immigrant groups except those from Britain. There has to be something else, something added to the concern with language. I do not minimize the importance of this bilingualism. Nothing is as likely to draw one's attention to the fascinations of language as undertaking to learn another language. (It is a commonplace that many of us American native English-speakers first realized anything significant about English syntax and semantics when we first tried learning another language.)

But practitioners of Jewish humor must have been drawing on something else, and that something else led to the crazy reasoning so often present.

Talmudic Study

I think the something else must be the Jewish tradition (or traditions) of reasoning and argument developed in the study of Jewish texts. Here we have centuries of inference from prin­ciples, attempts to locate principles for conclusions already at hand, the selective citation of authority, the subversion of au­thority--all of this almost always presented as sequences of argument. Sometimes the arguments are deductive, sometimes dialectical, sometimes by analogy sometimes in terms of meta­phors.

jewish absurd humorAt times this practice has been so continuous and so intense that it has needed to burst its own bonds in displays of self-parody. Something of a commentary is this story:

A young man applies to study with a Talmudic scholar. The scholar rejects him, saying, "Before you can study Talmud, you must know Jewish logic."

"But I already know logic," protests the student,

"Aristotelian syllogisms, truth-functional logic, predi­cate logic, set theory everything."

"That's not Jewish logic," replies the scholar, but the student persists, and so the scholar offers to give him a test to determine whether he is prepared.

"Here is the question," says the scholar. "Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"

"That's easy," says the student, "the one with the dirty face."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the clean face looks at the other one, sees a dirty face, and thinks his must also be dirty, and so the one with the clean face washes."

"I see," says the student. "It is a little more compli­cated than I thought, but I can do this. Please test me again."

"All right," sighs the scholar. "Here is the question. Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"

In surprise the student answers, "Just as you said, the one with the clean face washes."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the dirty face observes his companion looking at him and mak­ing ready to wash his face. 'Ah ha,' he thinks. 'He must see a dirty face, and it's mine.' And so the one with the dirty face washes."

"It is even more complicated than I yet realized," says the student, "but now I do understand. Please test me once more."

"Just once more," says the scholar. "Here is the question. Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"

"Now I know the answer," says the student. "The one with the dirty face washes, just as I thought in the beginning, but for a different reason."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "If two men go down a chimney, how can only one have a dirty face? Go and study. When you know Jewish logic, come back."

It is the essence of this tradition that these debates, these arguments--let us call it "this study"--goes on and on. Of course, resolutions are found, consensus develops, and not ev­eryone's opinion is of equal weight. But there is no systematic finality. In a word, there is no Pope. (Perhaps this is why there are few Jesuit standup comics.)

A person in this tradition does not only learn and memorize the conclusions reached, al­though he must do some of that. Rather, he joins this study: He argues, debates, contests, criticizes, and learns; and he does not stop. It is possible to be so consumed by this study that one loses one's bearings.

A Humorous Interlude

"Why should 'eretz' [the Hebrew word for 'land'] be spelled with a gimmel [the Hebrew letter that makes a hard 'g' sound, which is not found in 'eretz']?"

"A gimmel? It isn't."

"Why shouldn't 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

"Why should 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

"That's what I'm asking you--Why should 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

Criticism, Internal & External

So much for this study, which I am taking as a tradition somehow standing behind the abiding characteristic of at least some Jewish humor, namely the fascination with language and logic.

This is a kind of Jewish style, and I offer it as a partial elaboration of the second point, the one about the characteris­tic form of Jewish humor. My first point was that Jewish humor has often been the humor of outsiders. The two points do go together, I think. When one has this tradition of incessant questioning and criticizing, then when one finds oneself an outsider, one will deploy these techniques of criticizing and questioning when examining what is inside.

It is a mistake to take this critical humor as giving a simply negative appraisal of what it seems to be directed at. In fact, it is a double mistake. In the first place, it is not such an entirely negative appraisal. In the second place, it is not directed only at the inside.

Think of the Marx Brothers. (It is almost always worth thinking of the Marx Brothers.) Yes, they are showing the ridiculous aspects of country mansions, of fancy race tracks, of opera (and especially of opera in America), and of all the rest. But Harpo loves most of this stuff, and Groucho is moving rapidly to become an insider. And it is not only the rich matrons and Italian operas that are shown as ridiculous. The Marx Brothers themselves are displaying their own utter and complete ridiculousness.

Jokes directed at oneself and one's own are vital, and fasci­nating. They are a species of subversive joke, but how far can one go in subverting oneself and still be oneself? When the honest but troubled Freud, the smug Marx, and the peevish and puerile Wittgenstein make their negative remarks about Jews, are they being non-Jewish or are they being even more Jewish than ever?

Subversion

Here is a story about the activity of subver­sion meant to register its limits:

Once a perverse young Jewish man in a small village in Poland enjoyed his role as apikoros [heretic, one who rejects tradition]. But after some time annoying his fellow villagers, he decided he needed to expand his talents, and so he took himself off to study with the man he had heard of as "the great apikoros of Warsaw." After arriving in Warsaw he found the man in question and followed him around for many days, observing what he did. Then he approached the man, saying, "I don't see that you are such a great apikoros. You observe the holi­days, you attend shul, you keep a kosher house. I am already a better apikoros than you."

"Oh?" inquired the older man, "what do you do?"

The young man replied proudly, "I sneak treif [nonkosher food] into the butcher shop, I rearrange the pages of the siddur [prayer book], I re-roll the Torah scrolls so that the wrong portions are read. Things like that."

"I see," said the older man. "Let me tell you: I'm an apikoros; you're a goy [non-Jew]."

Let me end this little analysis now, with the hypothesis that what lies behind at least one strand of Jewish humor in America are these two characteristics of the humorists: They have the stance of an outsider, and the soul of a critical stu­dent. A tendency to laugh at absurdity and to traffic in jokes exploiting this tendency are constituents in American laughter generally, I think, and they may well have their own sources there, but surely they have been abetted by the infiltration of Jewish humor.

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Ted Cohen

Ted Cohen is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago.