Segal: Let there be laughs
The religionists behind Arizona’s mercifully vetoed anti-gay bill perpetuate the common perception that religious people are judgmental and joyless. They lead us to believe that religion cares more about condemning than celebrating and that religious leaders would rather enforce rules than embrace joy. Unfortunately, this image of religion bears some truth. Somewhere along the line, we confused religiosity with unsmiling solemnity.
In his book “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” the Rev. James Martin recounts that Groucho Marx was once approached by a priest in full religious garb. The priest rushed over excitedly and said, “Thank you, Groucho, for bringing so much joy and laughter into people’s lives!” Groucho replied, “Thank you for taking so much joy and laughter out of them.” No doubt, this joke rings true for many people.
The excessive seriousness of religion betrays an insecurity on the part of religious people and an irony about religion. Humor, particularly irreverence, tends to critique the status quo. It can be destabilizing, and it has a nose for hypocrisy. People in positions of power, with a vested interest in established authority, fear the challenging influence of humor.
The irony is that religion is supposed to be countercultural. The religious impulse is supposed to transcend the seductiveness of earthly power, to keep us attuned to our humble place in the universe by acquainting us with an infinite power far beyond our own.
To that end, humor can be a great ally. What better way to curb a swelling ego than a self-deprecating laugh? How better to remind us of our limitations than to shine the light of comedy on them?
Laughter also can bring light to dark places. From the macrocosm of a people’s oppression or persecution, to the microcosm of an individual’s illness or grief, jokes can shore up psychological defenses. Comedy can make an enemy seem small or a hurdle surmountable.
The approaching Jewish holiday of Purim captures this productive link between laughter and spirit. It is rooted in the biblical Book of Esther, which tells a story from the Jewish community of Persia about 2,500 years ago, when a powerful enemy arose to manipulate the king and try to annihilate the Jews. Spoiler alert: Queen Esther wins over the king, and the Jews fight back and defeat their enemies. At the end of the day, the body count outdoes a Quentin Tarantino film.
Fun stuff, right? Jewish tradition evolved to replay the dark Purim story each year with satire and laughter. Ridiculous costumes help. In contemporary American practice, congregations dramatize the story by putting on plays, often rewriting words to popular songs. You can experience ours at 5 p.m. on March 15 at the Aspen Chapel. It features an enthusiastic and talented volunteer cast and songs by pop divas like Madonna, Tina Turner, Beyonce and Cher. And we’re trying something new for us this year: drag.
The point of this ritualized humor is twofold: to belittle our enemies and to poke fun at ourselves — and to blow off some steam as a community while we’re at it. Sometimes a healthy response to a difficult truth is to find our way to joking about it and therein find control over it and a new perspective from which to process it.
Humor isn’t always the answer, of course. Timing is everything, and some experiences in the fullness of a human life deserve solemnity or action, not jest. As Jack Handy wrote, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” It’s important to know those serious moments when we encounter them.
Overall, religious communities and humanity would be better served if we let irreverence and humor have a seat at the table of spiritual experience. If we were quicker to laugh at ourselves than to get defensive, if we were more willing to joke with others than to judge them we would have more integrity as religious people and deeper fulfillment as human beings.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, likes to say of religious worship, “There’s no rule that it has to be boring.” I’m looking forward to a day when this wisdom is common sense rather than unorthodox. In the meantime, have you heard any good jokes lately?
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blog spot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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