Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When Jon Stewart left his post tonight he left behind a legacy of fake reporting real news with an eye toward the absurdity of our political process and other significant influences on our world. He also brought to an end sixteen years of providing an idiosyncratic voice for questions of faith.
Jon Stewart is of course a Jewish man, something he sometimes jokes about being able to hide but more often revels in our people’s more exaggerated features including being hairy, being short, and all sounding a lot like Yoda on helium. His public exploration of Jewish tradition itself is pretty much limited to how Chanukah’s rationale is just slow burning oil and how Easter’s colorful chocolate bunnies outclass the seder plate’s dry cracker and horseradish au natural. However, when it comes to the role of religion itself, Jon Stewart has more to offer and his approach to faith complements his more general outlook as an unreconstructed optimist in human possibility if not human nature.
Jon Stewart is quite insistent that he is no more or less than a comedian. Certainly he makes no claim to be a public intellectual on faith or any other topic. However one of the chief roles that he plays is to be informed enough, or become informed enough, to hold a standard of accuracy to the narrative put forward by others with influence. Whether in satirical pieces or face to face, Jon Stewart often managed to expose some of the more toxic assumptions, usually to the benefit of more vulnerable or less powerful individuals. And matters of faith was no exception.
In a conversation with Bill Maher, Jon Stewart shared with his guest the perception that the religious beliefs of our country were an outlier compared to other Western nations. However, unlike the avowedly anti-religious Maher, for Stewart religious belief is not particularly toxic or distressing compared to other ideological systems. In his words from a different interview:
Religion makes sense to me. I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled….When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t.
One way to understand religion is as an imposition of meaning on the world, which could be for good or for ill. However the role of religion that Jon Stewart points toward is something else: a way of reminding us that no ideology, whether expounded from a pulpit or behind a desk, should trump the real needs of others.
In this Jon Stewart wields a hammer. Not that kind of hammer. There have certainly been harder hitting comedians than Jon Stewart and despite the ridiculous hyperbole of headlines claiming that he “destroys” his comedic targets, The Daily Show is pretty mild. The hammer I have in mind is the one that is found in the subtitle to Friederich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols — Philosophizing with a Hammer. That hammer, as is often missed, was not a massive weapon used to destroy, but a small mallet like a tuning fork used to test what has depth and what is hollow. The purpose of being a thinker is to make sure that what we value has substance and to expose the emptiness that often lies beneath what we venerate or even worship. And Jon Stewart did that with humor.
And that hammer and that humor was also wielded by a young Abraham in his father’s idol shop according to a famous rabbinic story. He broke apart all the hollow vessels made of wood and stone except the largest and placed the mallet in its hands. When his father came home he was furious, but Abraham insisted that the deed had been done by the biggest statue. When his father looked at him like he was crazy Abraham looked back and said “if its bulls#!t, why do you worship it?” Or words to that effect. Jon Stewart deserves thanks for taking up this hammer and sparing no targets, sacred or profane.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)