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Deeper Look At Jewish Humor

Deeper Look At Jewish Humor

When we lose sight of the big picture, humor helps us refocus.

by

In the mundane routine of our everyday lives, there's a potential for us to be pulled down and lose perspective of the "big picture." Humor can be a powerful antidote.

Many great Torah teachers begin their lectures with a joke, since it opens the mind of the listeners. A wealth of modern research presents clear evidence that humor even has the power to heal. A growing number of accounts demonstrate the healing of even serious diseases with the help of laughter therapy.

Let's take a deeper look at some of humor's abilities.

Humor can slice through half-truths and expose patchy logic.

On a transatlantic flight, Rabbi R. discovered through conversation that the man sitting next to him, who was Jewish, was an astrophysicist. Their lively discussion flowed through varied topics, including religion. The man asserted that the importance of Torah can be disconnected from its many intricacies. He said, "I can sum up Judaism in one line: "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you."

Rabbi R. replied, "I can sum up astrophysics in one line: Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are."

Humor can help us not take our foibles too seriously.

A highlight of the Friday evening synagogue service is when the entire congregation stands, turns around, and graciously bows to welcome Shabbat. One comedian tells of his first shul experience: "Friday night services were so beautiful. I especially liked the part when everyone turned around and bowed to me."

Humor as a healing tool.

An entire industry has sprung up of professional therapists serving as "medical clowns." In Israel, a group called "Dream Doctors" are making a real difference in pediatric wards.

Another group of volunteers, known as “mitzvah clowns,” get dressed up and bring happiness to senior homes and children’s hospitals. Think of it as bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) on helium.

Communication Model

How about the emotionally healing aspect of humor? In my experience with matchmaking, I notice that many people seek out the quality of humor in a potential match. Not only is humor a good indicator of intelligence, but people intuit that it has the power to lift us out of the mire and minutiae of life when necessary. It can come to the rescue during a sticky argument and keep us connected to the bigger picture. The ability to laugh at oneself and the inevitable entanglements with one's smallness lends resiliency to a relationship. Okay – and it's more fun.

Humor is a key indicator for a long-lasting marriage.

John Gottman, author of Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work, claims 90% accuracy in predicting – by observing a couple's modes of communication and interaction – whether a marriage will last more than five years or end in divorce. He reports that when humor is used after an argument in an effort to repair the situation, it points to the health of a relationship and is counted among the indicators for a long-lasting marriage.

Small children keep us laughing with their unique take on life. As my son once said to me when we were out on a picnic, "Mommy, I just saw a grasshotpepper!" After practicing her new reading skills on an ad entitled "Looking for apartment," my daughter asked me, "Mommy, how did this person lose his apartment?"

Many parents can relate accounts of how a dose of non-sarcastic humor helped lighten up a communication with a teenager (when not much else did). One of our children seemed to habitually get in a rut, characterized by stubbornness, petulance, and defiance. He was not open to rational discussions, and negotiations fell on deaf ears. My husband asked a rabbi what to do with these vexing episodes. "Tickle him" was his sage advice.

Whether it changed my son's physiological state, created bonding, or simply let him forget what he was uptight about, or all of the above, I don't know – but we don't question magic. Watching father and son both dissolve into laughter seemed like a clever escape route.

Higher Dimensions

Some people are naturally funny, bless them. Yet no one has a monopoly on humor. We can cultivate humor in our life by getting used to its dynamic, which is a dance between the detail and the big picture, especially when the details seem painful, limiting, and blocked off from miraculous possibilities.

Consider the experience of Eben Alexander, an academic neurosurgeon whose own near-death experience (NDE) led him to a strong spiritual outlook based on everything he knew about death and brain function. Several of his NDE descriptions fit with what we know from Torah sources, such as time losing its linear rules, the blending of senses, and other descriptions of contact with a higher dimension. Part of his NDE account beautifully describes how humor pointed him toward this higher realm:

Humor, irony, pathos. I had always thought these were qualities we humans developed to cope with this so often painful and unfair world. And they are. But in addition to being consolations, these qualities are recognitions – brief, flashing, but all-important – of the fact that whatever our struggles and sufferings in the present world are, they can't truly touch the larger, eternal beings we in truth are. Laughter and irony are at heart reminders that we are not prisoners in this world, but voyagers through it.

In the midst of our ordinary day, there exists the inner knowledge of a conceivable reality of an extraordinary nature. This is imprinted on the Jewish soul, hence the Jewish sense for humor. The Jewish character, tenacious and laced with a supernatural quality inherited through our forefather Isaac – whose name Yitzchak comes from the word tzchok, laughter – sustains us and prepares us for the ultimate turnaround.

Now wouldn't that be funny?

June 9, 2015

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