Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, November 17, 2022
In This Moment: Talkin' Turkey, Talkin' Chappelle
The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored
by Lori and Raph Gilbert in honor of their daughter,
Sarah, becoming a Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat.
In This Moment
There will not be a Shabbat-O-Gram from me next week, barring any urgent need to communicate (please God, no emergencies), so I'm including some Thanksgiving goodies this week. Please note that while services this Shabbat will be held both online and in person as usual, next week, on Thanksgiving weekend, Thursday morning, Friday afternoon & evening and Shabbat morning, we will be Zoom-only. For those nostalgic for a Zoom-only Shabbat service, here's your chance to reminisce. Let's see those crazy virtual backgrounds! Wherever you happen to be, you can join us. The most exotic locale wins a prize. But remember,that's next week!
As for this week, Mazal Tov to Sarah Gilbert and family as she becomes Bat Mitzvah! It's also the final b'mitzvah for her Hebrew School class, so mazal tov to the entire class!
Comedy = Tragedy (- Chappelle) + "The Jews"
Lenny Bruce: Let Me Explain Jewish and Goyish To You
A few years ago, the New Yorker did a parody on thepseudo equation, "Comedy = Tragedy + Time," which is itself a parody traceable back to Steve Allen in the late '50s. But like most parody, this equation contains an element of truth. The truth here is that there is a very fine line separating what is demonstrably funny ( = What makes us laugh) and what is in utterly poor taste (= What gets us mad as hell and causes us to write nasty letters to Adidas). The difference is in fact "time" but not = Enough time has passed that it's not "too soon" to make this joke. Instead, the time element is a matter of timing, which = Don't make a joke about the Jews controlling Hollywood just a week after two celebrities with enormous social media platforms reinforced those hateful tropes in a manner utterly devoid of irony or humor.
Unfortunately, antisemitism continues to dominate public conversation, with the new focus on last weekend's SNL monologue of Dave Chappelle, which, according to Page 6, he swapped in at the last minute. I've supplied links to the monologue and a variety of thoughtful observations in the "Recommended Reading" section below. This is one of those situations where one's visceral response is probably the correct one. If you were troubled by it, you were right to be troubled. And if you didn't think it was a huge deal, you were right to think that too. Chappelle clearly has much to learn about the dangers of buying into antisemitic tropes at a time when so many are believing them and acting on them, even if much of what he said was actually intended to counter the antisemitic narrative. Here's an example from the monologue:
I've been to Hollywood, This is just what I saw: It's a lot of Jews. Like, a lot. (Uncomfortably lengthy pause) But that doesn't mean anything! … There's a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. Doesn't mean they run the place.
Chappelle said he understood how somebody could "adopt the delusion" that Jewish people "run show business."
"It's not a crazy thing to think. But it's a crazy thing to say out loud in a climate like this."
Sure is. But it's crazy to think it too. Now, is it any better when Jon Stewart mocks the same stereotype, as he did with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday? Chappelle was looking to shock and mock but then crossed the line into appearing to endorse that which he was panning. Stewart's mockery went much further, but we've seen how people seem to buy the most absurd conspiracy theories these days. How far does one need to exaggerate in the name of humor when people are seriously buying child sacrifice in pizza parlors?
Someone posited to me this week that ifAll in the Family were to go on the air now, people would think it's a drama, not a comedy, and Archie Bunker would be the hero. The joke would be on us.
Chappelle also used the "N" word, which some say is OK to do if you are talking about your own group, but I don't agree - not at a time when humor and irony are becoming endangered species. I laughed hysterically whenRichard Pryor and Chevy Chase played word association on SNL in the early days, even with Chase, not Pryor, uttering the "N" word. But that was before Charlottesville, Charleston and Pittsburgh. Last week, I cringed more than laughed when Chappelle used the "N" word and when he talked quasi-seriously about how Jews always catch a break. Read the transcript of Chappelle's monologue and you'll see this gem:
You know, the rules of perception. If they're Black, then it's a gang. If they're Italian, it's a mob, but if they're Jewish, it's a coincidence and you should never speak about it.
What's that supposed to mean? That Jews have better lawyers and are somehow safe from discrimination? That when a Jew commits a crime it's not a coincidence that they are Jewish? That there is such an entity called THE Jews, and they're all responsible when one person who happens to be Jewish does something wrong? Am I responsible for Harvey Weinstein or Bernie Madoff? Hey, Dave, I know you were trying to speak out against antisemitism - at least I think that was your intent. But why leave in this gag? Was it just so funny to you that you had to leave it in? You just had to leave in an accusation that Jews work together to avoid collective guilt for crimes? That we conspire? You know, Jews have not been let off easy when it comes to collective guilt. Perhaps you've heard of the New Testament. I know that Blacks and Italians have faced horrific stereotyping, but Popes have had to write books and sign encyclicals to clean up the mess of collective Jewish guilt.
But it was a really cute line, Dave. Definitely worth leaving it in.
Hardy har har...
Now for an opposing view. Perhaps we are getting a little too worked up over a little humor. Comedy is a necessary moral compass, even if at times a messy one. Rob Eshman comments in the Forward that comedy is a different animal and not for the faint of heart. He writes, regarding the much moreover-the-top comedian Ari Shaffir:
There’s a minyan of contemporary comedians who talk about being Jewish in sharp, personal and very funny ways — Elon Gold, Alex Edelman, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, not to mention Howard Stern — but Shaffir doesn’t do a couple of bits; he does a whole Jewish show. Ari Shaffir makes Jackie Mason look like a goy. Sure, Shaffir doesn’t always present Jews in a heroic light. He exaggerates, like Chappelle did, because comedy isn’t MyJewishLearning.com — and fair warning, you may get upset.
The best comedians — Mark Twain, George Carlin, Sarah Silverman, and yes, Dave Chappelle — do indeed serve as “society’s moral compass.” Sometimes that means offending people. But the best response to comedy is not high-horse umbrage; it’s more comedy. To be sure, there are comedians who cross the line. The French performerDieudonne M’bala M’bala, for one, has spoken wistfully of gas chambers while also denying the Holocaust. He’s been fined, jailed and banned. Worse than that? He’s not funny. It’s pretty easy to know an antisemite when you see one.
So I get it. For me, the edgier the comedy the better. I was brought up on Lenny Bruce (the real one, not the watered-down Mrs. Maisel version) and the original National Lampoon Radio Hour. I loved it when, during the oil crisis following the Yom Kippur War, "Danny Schechter the news-dissector" dubbed King Faisal "The Moyl of Oil, the Man Who Cut It Off." Take that, Saudis! I'm a glutton for bris jokes.
I'm not calling for Chappelle to be cancelled or to lose sponsors. I too am uncomfortable with the way corporations like Adidas and the NBA are playing to the pressures of the marketplace rather than having a conscience of their own (and typically responding waaay too late).
Last weekend was neither a five alarm fire nor a big nothing-burger.
It was a squandered opportunity.
Please, Dave, just try to be a little less funny next time. Until the fever breaks.
And maybe that is starting to happen.
For despite Chappelle's antics, I head toward Thanksgiving with a heaping plateful of hope. The biggest losers of last week's election were lies and hate. You can almost feel the fever breaking. The conspiracists are still in positions of power, no doubt. It will take a few election cycles to fully flush them from our midst. But all over America, their message was soundly rejected, by respected members of all parties. We learned last week what we long ago intuited until our faith in the American people was shaken: We learned that the haters are losers.
What happens next week in the dining rooms of America will tell the tale. It will be fascinating to see if Crazy Uncle Joe might have lost a little off his fastball. See if he is still wearing that Kari Lake "Storm the Castle" pin. That will be a clue.
In a certain light, said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the turkey pardon can be seen as a reverse form of kapparot, the Yom Kippur ritual in which a fowl, usually a chicken, is waved over one’s head before being slaughtered and given to the poor to eat. In this case, instead of being sacrificed as a mark of atonement, the turkeys are being given a second chance at life, which is an act of charity. “We should be providing turkey dinners for people who are poor,” said Hammerman, who is author of the book “Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi.” “So this is a reminder not just to be merciful to the animal, but to human beings as well.”
What weird customs we have - both kapparot and this presidential pardoning charade, but if it leads to feeding the hungry, the ends justify the means. Unlike kapparot, which calls to mind the Yom Kippur scapegoat, I don't see the pardoned turkey as carrying off the sins of Americans. And I guess, in the end, that both rituals are relatively harmless and everyone goes home happy - except for the dizzy chicken.
As I wrote a few years ago in a Jewish Week "Jewish Ethicist" column, I wouldn't mind if all turkeys were pardoned. Here is that article:
Q: I’ve heard that turkey may actually not be kosher. Is that true?
A: From a halachic/ethical standpoint, it is 100% kosher. Or not.
The halachic problem, dealt with in excruciating detail in this article from The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, is that, for birds, the Torah offers no identifying features to distinguish kosher from the non-kosher species. It just lists some examples of non kosher birds and expects us to figure out the common denominators, but the list is incomplete. And back in biblical times, the turkey was not yet known.
The Mishnah specifies four ways of determining the kashrut of a bird, including that it not be a bird of prey. A principle behind kosher laws is that “you are what you eat,” and we prefer not to be violent scavengers. On all counts, this resilient but peace loving bird would seem to pass that test. But as a relatively new face on the scene, the turkey has caused confusion and controversy; in the Middle Ages, some major authorities expressed reluctance to add any new birds to their “permitted” list, absent an ancient tradition (mesorah) legitimizing it.
“Do I follow a more general family tradition, which is at variance with conventional Jewish practice, or follow instead the counter-tradition passed down from my own branch of the Heller clan, which is to disregard that restriction? Perhaps, in addition to meat, milk and Passover dishes, I need to purchase a fifth set just for Thanksgiving? Or do I just give up and go to my in-laws?”
But beyond the halachic question, there is an ethical question as to whether turkeys should be eaten at all. Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian. I don’t even eat Tofurkey, which looks like turkey (andif PETA gets its way will soon become the new name of “Turkey, Texas,”). For me on Thanksgiving, “Pass the kugel and green beans!” is just fine – as long as I also get to see the Packers devour the Lions.
Rabbi Marc Soloway writes, “As delicious as that turkey dinner is on Thanksgiving, it is an increasingly ironic way to celebrate freedom and gratitude,” given the fact that almost all of the 45 million turkeys eaten by Americans each Thanksgiving have lived horrible, painful lives.
Jonathan Safran Foer elaborates in “Eating Animals,” his scathing critique of factory farms:
“Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet… Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”
My sympathies were stoked this week when watching the PBS “Nature” program, “My Life as a Turkey,” describing Joe Hutto’s year of parenting a gaggle of wild turkeys he’d raised from birth. He literally learned to talk turkey, and they taught him much more than he taught them.
Turkeys evidently have much to teach all of us about being thankful. They are smarter than many think and, like other animals, they have acomplex emotional life, including expressions of joy, sadness and playfulness. “We do not have a privileged access to reality,” Hutto says, “So many of us live either in the past or the future and betray the moment and in some sense we forget to live our lives. These wild turkeys were reminding me to live my life.”
At my Thanksgiving table this week, where turkey will be consumed, I just might speak of how these tough birds teach us to appreciate each meal, each caring touch and each moment of life, long before the make their acquaintance with theshochet. It’s time for all of us to thank that the “Bird of Courage” that Ben Franklin preferred over the eagle. When the president pardons that lucky turkey at the White House this year, we should demand that he pardon them all. Why should the 99% suffer! It’s time to Occupy the Hen House!
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more moving nature documentary than “My Life as a Turkey.” Watch it and you might just be inclined to change your own family’s tradition – about turkey, and about ethical eating too.
Dave Chappelle didn’t say the harshest things about Jews last week — this comedian did (Forward)- In his routine, the 48-year-old New York-born Shaffir, who left Orthodox Judaism after attending yeshiva, talks about how the Jewish God is obsessed with sex, especially anal sex. He spends a good five minutes mocking Jewish religious rituals around menstruation, followed by 10 minutes on masturbation and a Holocaust joke about pushy Jews. You might argue that Chappelle has a bigger megaphone, but Shaffir’s post has racked up 1 million views in the past two days alone.
Our interfaith Bible study class, based on the book, "The Bible With and Without Jesus" concluded last week. By popular demand, we'll be adding more sessions after the holidays. Stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, you can catch up by watching the last two sessions on YouTube (see below).
Discussion of the Sermon of the Mount, with a particular focus
on "An eye for an eye" and "Turn the other cheek."
The search for Israel’s best hummus (Tablet)A new Israeli book called The Big Hummusiot Guideaims to send hummus lovers on endless culinary adventures across Israel. The book opens with the 10 commandments of hummus, including: Never eat hummus with paprika or cumin sprinkled over it (a bit of cumin inside the paste is fine, but not on top); never eat cold hummus; and eat hummus in the morning—never later than noon (1:30 p.m. at the latest if you woke up late).
Coffee With Rashi-It's easy to forget that Rashi was a medieval person—one who had to trudge from France to Germany on foot to get an education. What he brought back with him changed the Jewish world, forever.
For this week's portion of Hayye Sarah, some of my favorite Parsha Packets. One of my favorite all-time discussions about this portion involved the section where Abraham's servant Eliezer goes out to find a bride for Isaac. I compared Jewish matchmaking services over the ages, from Eliezer to Yenta to J-Date, and came up with this chart. See some more Parsha Packets below.
Reincarnation has a prominent place in Jewish folklore – which means in Jewish theology too. Remember, we have no dogma when it comes to life after death. So we can believe pretty much whatever we want. And many Jews, particularly mystics, strongly believe in reincarnation.
And it all comes back to this week’s portion of Hayye Sarah.
Right at the beginning of the portion it says, “These were the lives of Sarah.” "LIVES" is in the plural. And her 127 years are broken down in a strange way. One hundred years, and twenty years and seven years. It’s as if she had three lives.
In the portion, there seem to be interesting correspondences between Abraham and elements of eastern religions, which some believe alludes to reincarnation. After Sarah’s death, Abraham remarries and has a number of kids with Hindu sounding names, like Yokshan, whose name has the same root letters as Krishna, and a grandchild literally named Shiva – and Abraham’s own name has the same root letters as Brama, another Hindu deity.
The text in 25:5 tells us that "Abraham gave "all that he had" to Isaac. But to the concubine-children who were Abraham's from his later wife Ketura, Abraham gave gifts; then he sent them away ( verse 6), "eastward to the land of the east." The classical commentators wonder, if he had already given "all that he had" to Isaac, what were these gifts that he gave the (soon to be) eastbound children? Rashi surmised, from his 11th century perch in the Rhineland, that he gave them spiritual gifts -- knowledge that they would need them for their journey to the lands of the east. It's possible that this is the common origin of Judaism's and the East's shared belief in reincarnation.
The Kabbalists had a field day with this. But even among mainstream commentators, there is the traditional Jewish belief in a form of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, stemming from the idea that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai. All Souls Day for Jews is therefore Shavuot, and our "trick or treat" bounty is a plate full of blintzes.