Missing the Joke — and the Message

The lack of a sense of humor may not totally disqualify one from being a good teacher, but in, as they say, my humble opinion, it comes close.

I had recent occasion to watch the recorded presentation of an Israeli professor who seemed, regrettably, humor-impaired. That he exhibited no sense of cleverness wasn’t so terrible. That he failed, though, to even recognize humor – in this case a poignant pun – was.

The lecturer was soberly providing his audience what it had come to hear, namely a scholarly assault on the contemporary “Ultra-Orthodox” world and its leaders. And, as has become de rigueur, in his effort to portray the charedi world as hopelessly close-minded, he invoked the famous dictum of the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) that “chadash assur min haTorah” – “what is new is forbidden by the Torah.” But he presented it as some sort of absurdly pilpulistic application, not seeming to realize – or, certainly, not communicating – that it was, in fact, ingenious wordplay.

The Chasam Sofer, venerated by Orthodox Jews to this day, was a strong opponent of the nascent Reform movement of his day, which had begun to attract adherents in his native Austria-Hungary and beyond. It was his influence and determination that kept the Reform movement out of Pressburg, the city he served as rabbi for more than three decades. And it was his determination to preserve what we today call Jewish “Orthodoxy”– namely, commitment to the entirety of classical Judaism – that impelled him to humorously hijack the “what is new is forbidden” phrase.

The phrase’s original context is the Biblical prohibition of consuming the “new grain” of each Jewish year until the second day of Passover, when the Omer sacrifice was brought. Rabbi Schreiber employed the phrase as a pun (oh, what injury we do to a joke by explaining it!), to express his entirely unrelated-to-agriculture feeling that even a seemingly innocuous innovation to Jewish life – “what is new” – must be regarded with skepticism, and scrutinized to ensure that it will not prove an inadvertent step in a bad direction.

Some innovation-minded Jews, including some who are fully committed to halacha, find the Chasam Sofer’s approach discomfiting. What they don’t seem to appreciate is that he was not, in fact, offering a blanket rejection of all that is “new” for all time, as people like the humor-compromised professor profess. To begin with, the revered Torah leader of his generation was confronting an immediate and formidable challenge to the mesorah, or Jewish religious tradition, a movement that rejected its very theological foundation. And so, even minor changes in liturgy or synagogue practices represented – at least to a deeply perceptive mind –a potential Trojan Horse. Or, perhaps a better metaphor, a slippery slope.

And secondly, he was not saying that every change in Jewish life or practice is dangerous. The fact that sermons are delivered from Orthodox synagogue pulpits in English, that there are schools and seminaries for Orthodox girls and women, that organized efforts exist to encourage Orthodox Jews to reach out to their non-Orthodox fellow Jews all reflect that fact that what is “new” is sometimes not only permitted but necessary.

What allows the novel to be embraced by Orthodoxy, though, is the considered judgment of the most experienced and learned religious leaders of the Orthodox world. That Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sermonized in German, that the Chofetz Chaim endorsed the Bais Yaakov movement, that “outreach” was characterized as a Jewish obligation by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, all demonstrate that the Chasam Sofer’s pun was not intended to promote some sort of spiritual Luddism.

What it was intended to do was to sensitize his generation to the existence, and danger, of slippery slopes, a recognition our own times require of us no less.

In truth, at least with regard to secular beliefs, most American Jews readily understand that small departures from a path can eventually lead to larger, more disturbing, deviations. Any “new” idea, for instance, that that would ever-so-slightly modify First Amendment rights in the United States, like freedom of speech or religion, is rightfully seen as a threat to those high ideals. Not to mention that every teacher – and parent – knows that there are times when making a small allowance can be an invitation to anarchy, when giving an inch begets the loss of a yard, or a mile.

Yes, of course, there are limits to what sort of Jewish “newnesses” should be regarded as wrong. There are many great jokes – speaking of humor – that we charedim tell among ourselves about taking stringencies or “the way it has always been done” too far.

But as a wise man (or wise guy; I think it was me) once said: Just because elephants don’t fly doesn’t mean birds don’t exist. Excessive insistence on fealty to the way things have always been is unwise. But so is pursuing, without the blessings of true Jewish leaders, shiny, happy innovations whose trajectories we cannot know. That was what the Chasam Sofer meant, and expressed in an amusingly creative way.

It’s unfortunate that the Israeli professor wasn’t able to recognize a joke – or the possibility that a venerated Jewish sage might be more prescient than he.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

You can read this essay and other essays and musings here.

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