Accepting Absurdity

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

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"I see," says the student. "It is a little more compli­cated than I thought, but I can do this. Please test me again."

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

In surprise the student answers, "Just as you said, the one with the clean face washes."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the dirty face observes his companion looking at him and mak­ing ready to wash his face. 'Ah ha,' he thinks. 'He must see a dirty face, and it's mine.' And so the one with the dirty face washes."

"It is even more complicated than I yet realized," says the student, "but now I do understand. Please test me once more."

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

"Now I know the answer," says the student. "The one with the dirty face washes, just as I thought in the beginning, but for a different reason."

"Wrong," says the scholar. "If two men go down a chimney, how can only one have a dirty face? Go and study. When you know Jewish logic, come back."

It is the essence of this tradition that these debates, these arguments--let us call it "this study"--goes on and on. Of course, resolutions are found, consensus develops, and not ev­eryone's opinion is of equal weight. But there is no systematic finality. In a word, there is no Pope. (Perhaps this is why there are few Jesuit standup comics.)

A person in this tradition does not only learn and memorize the conclusions reached, al­though he must do some of that. Rather, he joins this study: He argues, debates, contests, criticizes, and learns; and he does not stop. It is possible to be so consumed by this study that one loses one's bearings.

A Humorous Interlude

"Why should 'eretz' [the Hebrew word for 'land'] be spelled with a gimmel [the Hebrew letter that makes a hard 'g' sound, which is not found in 'eretz']?"

"A gimmel? It isn't."

"Why shouldn't 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

"Why should 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

"That's what I'm asking you--Why should 'eretz' be spelled with a gimmel?"

Criticism, Internal & External

So much for this study, which I am taking as a tradition somehow standing behind the abiding characteristic of at least some Jewish humor, namely the fascination with language and logic.

This is a kind of Jewish style, and I offer it as a partial elaboration of the second point, the one about the characteris­tic form of Jewish humor. My first point was that Jewish humor has often been the humor of outsiders. The two points do go together, I think. When one has this tradition of incessant questioning and criticizing, then when one finds oneself an outsider, one will deploy these techniques of criticizing and questioning when examining what is inside.

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Ted Cohen

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