Accepting Absurdity

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

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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.