Sunday, March 6, 2011

Healthy Humor or Inappropriate Mockery?

During the eighteen months or so surrounding the controversial ban over three of my books, an enormous amount of satire appeared. But is such humor always, sometimes, or even ever appropriate? This is a question that needs to be considered by people engaging in any sort of Adar humor. I can think of arguments in both directions.

1. Laughing is a healthy way to relieve tension.

Many people were immensely stressed by the ban on my books, which placed them in a religious crisis. Being able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation helped them; it is a medical fact that humor relieves stress in several ways. On a personal note, I will add that I myself was under immense psychological and emotional strain; nobody can imagine what it was like (with the possible exception of Rabbi Nosson Kamenetzky). I can look back on that episode now with a wry smile, but for 18 months I was a complete wreck. But at the time, being able to laugh at some of the satire that was generated certainly helped me get through it.

2. Humor is often a way to make powerful points.

From Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart, people have used satire as a very effective way to make a point.

3. The targets of the jokes often deserve to be laughed at.

Rabbis have a responsibility to act and speak in a responsible, intelligent way that does not show Torah Judaism in a poor light. If someone uses their podium at a major conference to say that "these same scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened sixty-five million years ago – ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two weeks' time!" perhaps they deserve to be satirized. If a rabbi writes a public letter that includes false and defamatory personal slurs against his ideological opponents, maybe he deserves to be mocked, and such mockery will dissuade others from engaging in similar behavior.

4. What's the big deal? It's just harmless fun.

This is a common argument, but there are usually more consequences than the person realizes.

These are the arguments in favor of satire. But on the other hand...

1. Satire is rarely entertaining for the target.

Ona'as devarim, the sin of hurting someone's feelings, is a very serious matter.

2. Poking fun at figures in authority, even if they deserve it, harms the very concept of authority in general.

The mockery of former President George W. Bush by his ideological opponents had the unintended effect of lowering the status of the presidency of the United States - with negative consequences for President Barak Obama. Mocking rabbinic leaders can harm the very concept of rabbinic authority.

3. Humor can sometimes be a way to avoid having reasoned arguments.

I once attended a yeshivah where the Rosh Yeshivah would endlessly use sarcasm to mock positions that he disagreed with, to great effectiveness. But this concealed the fact that he really didn't have any cogent , defensible arguments against those positions.

4. Mocking others is often a crude and unhealthy way to boost one's ego.

The justifications for satire that I listed above are often just a smokescreen of rationalizations. The person issuing the satire is often motivated by a desire to have others laugh at his cleverness, and thereby feel respected or appreciated. He convinced himself that he is pursuing a noble social or intellectual goal, but in reality he is just filling his own emotional needs in a very unhealthy way - building himself up by putting others down. The same can be true for those entertaining themselves with the satire issued by others.

5. The facelessness and often anonymity of the internet prevents a person from properly evaluating the consequences of their actions.

If nobody knows how you are, it's easy to shed that which would ordinarily restrain you. And even if you're not anonymous, the impersonal nature of online communications often means that one does not properly evaluate the consequences of what one writes.

6. Engaging in sustained mockery is a way to avoid being constructive.

It's all too easy to criticize and mock other people and their ideas. It's much more difficult to construct one's own ideology and successfully develop it and transmit it. Sustained mockery of others, put forward as "constructive criticism," can be a way of blinding oneself to the fact that one is not actually interested in being constructive oneself.

I plan to post some examples of different humor, for entertainment and evaluation!


  1. When you do it in an artificial bubble of a moderated blog, you can easily have the illusion that you make sense. In addition to the risk of this echo chamber effect there is also the danger that someone could do it to you and really make sense. Also if it is done just to mock it makes the mocker all too often look too stupid to make an actual argument.

  2. Humor? Humour. Don't forget your Mancunian roots.

  3. I didn't read the article yet, but I think videos such as youtube yeshiva bocher says over a vort are a disgrace and increase sinat chinam among Am Yisrael, whether or not the message of the video is true.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan Comments:

    The late Milton Himmelfarb used to say "A sneer is not a refutation."

  5. A system which desires to be respected and be protected from the offensive jibes of an opposition needs to provide some forum for that opposition to engage in its attacks in such a way as to allow it to feel legitimated. This is one of the strengths of liberal democracy where even the opposition is accepted as part of the system. The Haredi rabbinate in your case did no such thing. Thus it can only blame itself when the opposition went “out of control” and became “disrespectful.”

  6. I can only speak for my self. The humor (KrimBagel, etc,) opened a dialog on the issue with my students and may have saved me from actual כעס and שנא on this issue. Although I can imagine it could have done the opposite for others.

    It’s like the Drasha linking נח’s window or jewel to him being an objective צדיק or a relative צדיק. If he was an objective צדיק he would have clear window to see through, and take מוסר whereas if he was a relative צדיק he wasn’t allowed to gaze at the suffering because he’d feel גאוה. This is similar to לוט not being allowed to look at סדום and conversely יונה waiting outside the נינוה to see “what will be in the city.”

  7. I would suggest Rabbi you forget about mockery as a topic for some of your posts. Set an example for bloggers. In college they teach you not to use most if not all blogs. Make your blog an exception.

  8. I can look back on that episode now with a wry smile, but for 18 months I was a complete wreck.

    What happened magically after 18 months which made the whole crisis disappear?

  9. "The mockery of former President George W. Bush by his ideological opponents had the unintended effect of lowering the status of the presidency of the United States - with negative consequences for President Barak Obama. Mocking rabbinic leaders can harm the very concept of rabbinic authority."

    Off topic but as one who could be accussed of leaning politically conservative since a young age, I'm inclined to believe that the derision of President Clinton (as you note, even if "deserved") exasperated to mocking of the second President Bush.

    BTW I like the "reaction" feature, but the extreme either or is a little bit of a mockery.

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