Accepting Absurdity

How Jews' focus on language and texts set the stage for the "crazy reasoning" of Jewish humor

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Reprinted with permission from Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (University of Chicago Press). 

I have often heard and read that it is an important fact about the genesis of Jewish humor in America that its prac­titioners and its first audience were bilingual. And so they were, many of them coming to America already knowing Yid­dish and perhaps Polish or Russian or German, and then learn­ing English.

But something like that was true of all immigrant groups except those from Britain. There has to be something else, something added to the concern with language. I do not minimize the importance of this bilingualism. Nothing is as likely to draw one's attention to the fascinations of language as undertaking to learn another language. (It is a commonplace that many of us American native English-speakers first realized anything significant about English syntax and semantics when we first tried learning another language.)

But practitioners of Jewish humor must have been drawing on something else, and that something else led to the crazy reasoning so often present.

Talmudic Study

I think the something else must be the Jewish tradition (or traditions) of reasoning and argument developed in the study of Jewish texts. Here we have centuries of inference from prin­ciples, attempts to locate principles for conclusions already at hand, the selective citation of authority, the subversion of au­thority--all of this almost always presented as sequences of argument. Sometimes the arguments are deductive, sometimes dialectical, sometimes by analogy sometimes in terms of meta­phors.

jewish absurd humorAt times this practice has been so continuous and so intense that it has needed to burst its own bonds in displays of self-parody. Something of a commentary is this story:

A young man applies to study with a Talmudic scholar. The scholar rejects him, saying, "Before you can study Talmud, you must know Jewish logic."

"But I already know logic," protests the student,

"Aristotelian syllogisms, truth-functional logic, predi­cate logic, set theory everything."

"That's not Jewish logic," replies the scholar, but the student persists, and so the scholar offers to give him a test to determine whether he is prepared.

"Here is the question," says the scholar. "Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"

"That's easy," says the student, "the one with the dirty face."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the clean face looks at the other one, sees a dirty face, and thinks his must also be dirty, and so the one with the clean face washes."

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Ted Cohen

Ted Cohen is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago.