In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Abraham and Sarah, the founders of the Jewish people, both die, and the torch is passed to their son Isaac. In Hebrew, Isaac’s name Yitzhak means “laughter” or “he will laugh,” because when Abraham and Sarah learn that Sarah is going to give birth at 90 years old, after many years of struggling with infertility, she laughs.
Not only does the name of our second patriarch mean “laughter,” but according to our tradition, even God laughs! As we read in Psalm 2, “The One enthroned in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:4). In the Talmud, when Rabbi Yehoshua defeats God in an argument by using God’s own words against God, God laughs (Baba Metzia 59b). And everyday in the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, we recite the famous verse which tells us that when the messianic era arrives, our “mouths will be filled with laughter” (Psalm 126:2). Laughter and humor lie at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish.
It is notoriously difficult to pin down a precise definition of Jewish humor. In fact, I think it’s much easier to define Jewish humor by articulating what Jewish humor is not. Jewish humor is not cruel. Jewish humor is not dehumanizing. Jewish humor does not mock the weak or the disenfranchised.
In his book Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say about the Jews, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes: “The challenge confronting the teller of ethnic jokes is to avoid blurring the line that separates insightful, even scathing humor from so-called “jokes” that are really an excuse for expressing hostility and prejudice.” Rabbi Telushkin provides a very simple metric to determine whether or not a joke crosses the line: “If members of the group discussed in the joke do not find it to be funny, it’s probably hostile and should not be told.”
This is why so many of us were disturbed by Dave Chapelle’s tasteless, unfunny monologue this past week on Saturday Night Live. When Chapelle hit upon the classic antiSemitic trope that Jews control the entertainment industry, he crossed the line from witty and insightful to hostile and discriminatory. As our Torah portion teaches, laughter is an essential part of life – especially Jewish life, but it should be laughter rooted in joy and celebration, not hatred and discrimination. As Dave Chappelle proved to the world last week, that kind of laughter simply isn’t funny. Shabbat shalom.