Hasidic Roots, Secular Fruits: “Personal Mysticism” and the Political in a Networked Society


In today’s society, everything seems to be becoming more and more personal. In contrast to the not-so-distant past, less and less of what we do has to do with texts.   And if we read texts, they are in passing. Most of us don’t read novels or books of philosophy for wisdom or personal growth. To be sure, for most millennials it’s a chore. If any of us are “moved,” it is usually by what others say or feel either in person, on facebook or twitter, or through some media or other.   However, that movement needs to be defined: to be sure, it is often emotional or intellectual (at best), not spiritual. If we are moved – and that doesn’t happen too often – few of us see this or that person’s spiritual persona or charisma as inspiring us to change our lives.  Charisma is oftentimes mocked.    And those who are moved by this or that person are deemed…odd.

On Facebook this morning, I ran across this film clip which did its fair share of showing how being inspired or sharing it with others is ridiculous.   It suggests that people who are inspired are either stoned, dumb, or lost.

It’s interesting how, in difficult times, spirituality or religion has a large appeal. Today, despite the lack of great jobs, most of us feel self-important. Wit seems to be our guide through life, not spirituality. And, in truth, people don’t move us as much as an unexpected thing that they say or do. It’s the odd event that intrigues.

From this floating point above humanity, it’s easy for us to mock spirituality. Is there an alternative to this smug kind of nihilism? What is lost if it is deemed ridiculous to be inspired by other people? What happens if the only thing that moves us is the unexpected witty video clip, sound byte, or political intrigue, etc? One wonders if we can, once again, be inspired by other people to become more spiritual rather than fear that we are appearing more ridiculous.   Would that be backwards? Shouldn’t we be guided by wit and not by this or that person? Are we far away from what Moshe Idel – a Kabbalah scholar – calls “personal mysticism”?

In his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem argues that what makes Hasidism special “lies in the fact that mystics who had attained their spiritual aim – who, in Kabbalistic parlance, had discovered the secret of true Devekuth (clinging to G-d) – turned to people with their mystical knowledge, their “Kabbalism become Ethos,” and instead of cherishing as a mystery the most personal of all experiences, undertook to teach its secret to all men of good will”(342).   For Scholem, personal mysticism of the Hasidic variety isn’t “personal” (in the sense of only being mine); it is personal in the sense that it is shared. The secret is not hidden. It is open.

Sharing this secret – person to person – is what maters most. It is not the text of the Kabbalah that, as it did in the Medieval period, inspires the person to experience godliness. Now it is the person that is the carrier of mystery:

The believer no longer need the Kabbalah; he turned its mysteries into reality by fastening upon certain traits which the saint, or Zaddik, whose example he would follow, had placed in the center of his relation to God. Everyone, thus the doctrine ran, must try to become the embodiment of a certain ethical quality. Attributes like piety, service, love, devotion, humility, clemency, trust, even greatness and domination, because in this way enormously real and socially effective. (342)

Playing on Maimonides who saw Moses (in the Guide to the Perplexed) as the ideal person – because he could be intellectually connected to God while being with the people – Scholem argues that this double-ness takes on a mystical aspect with the righteous Hasid:

To live among ordinary men and yet to be alone with God, to speak profane language and yet to draw the strength to live from the source of existence, from the “upper root” of the soul – that is the paradox of which the mystical devotee is able to realize in his life and which makes him the center of the community of men. (343)

Scholem goes so far as to say that his personality displaces the doctrine of the Torah: “The whole development centers around the personality of the Hasidic saint; this is something entirely new. Personality takes the place of doctrine; what is lost in rationality by this change is gained in efficacy.”   The paradox is that he teaches his Hasidim that the love for the simpleton or common man is the “highest religious value.” The paradox is that the men whose “utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of mystical consciousness,” loved simplicity more than complexity. They were the “advocates of the simple and untainted belief in the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value”(346).

In addition to “being” inspired, it was their celebration of the community and its simplicity that made the community experience the paradox in a personal manner. How could, as Larry David might say, a poor shmuck be so special? This realization is what inspired the masses that huddled around the Hasidic Tzadikim of the past to love being Jewish.   What fascinated Scholem most about all of this, however, was the enthusiasm around this personal mysticism.

The closest thing we have to this, today, can be found in the charisma of pop stars or major politicians.   But the fact of the matter is that this enthusiasm is found – as it was with the Hasidim – in the context of community.     In the video clip (above), the spirituality is unfocused because the people on stage are ridiculous. For this reason, the audience’s enthusiasm is also laughable.   If, however, the person on stage is special and is showing that he or she thinks you are special (although you’re really just a poor schmuck) that experience takes on a spiritual aura. And, today, this is what is odd because the communities that are inspired are mediated by culture not religion.   And – as we can see in politics – the devotees of this “personal mysticism” are less interested in doctrine and more interested in being liked by the exemplary leader who smiles at them and makes them feel special.   And – as with a Hasidic Rebbe – he helps them to dream; he makes everyone feel happy about being alive and in a living community that is infused with spirituality.

One person I think of, in this regard, is Bernie – or is it “Birdie”(?) – Sanders. He has had this kind of effect on people. The displacement, I would argue, is theological (in the Hasidic sense).   Echoing Scholem, we can say that his mysticism is his “ethos.” It seems to be displacing – at times – political doctrine.   He really “moves” people to think that they can take part in a radical change of the (American) world and a bifurcation of history.   There is, here, also an element of the messianic and what Scholem might call “messianic activism.” It may be secular but it feels spiritual.  Nonetheless, Larry David is always around the corner to “curb your enthusiasm.”

But enthusiasm can only be curbed…for so long.  While most people find spirituality and organized religion to be laughable, other people really want a Birdie Sanders sticker.   Get it while you can. Time is running out.  Isn’t this fun?


Is It True “You Can’t Reason Someone Out of a Belief They Didn’t Reason Themselves Into?”

Here is a wonderful, personal reflection and argument on faith, cognition, and process by Eric Linus Kaplan who, besides being a writer for Big Bang Theory, is a wonderful philosophical wrier. I love this post’s intimate comical/philosophical moments.

Eric Linus Kaplan

Sometimes I’ve found myself frustrated arguing with people about deep important beliefs.  I’ll come up with what I think is a good argument and they will remain unmoved.  For example I once forwarded to a scientologist the devastating New Yorker piece which showed that a major part of the founding belief of the Church of Scientology — that the founder, L.Ron Hubbard had been injured in a naval battle and cured himself through mind science — was based on a forgery.  His response was “Meh.”

It occurred to me that I was violating the old maxim — you can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into.  People embrace big views — religions and political ones — for reasons having to do primarily with emotion, aesthetic response, and group identification.  If they embrace views like that you are not going to get them out of them…

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Jesus, President Obama & Bernie: The Messianic, American Politics, and a Sense of Humor


Writing on the apostate Jewish Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, Gershom Scholem argued that there are two kinds of messianic ideas: one is restorative and the other is apocalyptic. The latter idea is, for Scholem, the most dangerous because, in imagining the new world that will emerge when the messiah comes, it appeals to a sensibility that is desirous of miracles and things that are unimaginable.   It promises to, as Scholem puts it, destroy or radically alter the course of history.   In this sense,  it appeals to a sensibility that yearns for a violent conclusion to history, a revolutionary sensibility. Since it is so radical it will most likely, according to Scholem, lead to kind of nihilism. Scholem rightly points out that the Rabbis of the Talmud – and Moses Maimonides in particular – suppressed this idea because of its wild appeal to the imagination and its antinomian tendencies. Sabbatai Zevi and the Sabbateans who followed in his wake (and claimed to also be messiahs or harbingers of the messiah) provide him with evidence of how what he calls “messianic activism” is dangerous.   (The most extreme Sabbatian, Jacob Frank suggested that the messiah will come through sin. His disciples followed him into this abyss.)   What is the result of this disappointment?   Scholem argued that, for Judaism, the result was nihilism and lasting damage to what he calls the “substance of Judaism,” which is moral.

In the wake of messianic failure, things get worse, not better.   Reading his prognosis, one may wonder what Scholem would say about radical political movements which took on a messianic tone.   To be sure, he read them in a similar manner. Radicalism which takes on a utopian aura, for Scholem, can, as he says in one text, “tear open an abyss.”   But this can be read in two ways: in terms of whether they are successful or whether they are not. One need only think of the disappointments in the wake of Stalinism and Maoism (mass murder, suppression, the gulag, etc) to see this abyss in its historical reality.   On the other hand, if such messianic-slash-utopian dreams are not successful, the disappointment is more immediate and the frustrations one has with history, politics, and reality will only increase.

I bring the messianic idea up now because it has – since President Obama’s election – crept into and out of American politics. One need only think about how President Obama was likened to a savior by many people in 2008.   Many articles were written on this topic and people in the faith community wondered about the truth of these analogies and whether this “could be it.” To the minds of millions, he could save a lot of communities that were suffering and unite the country. Countless videos, websites, and chatrooms discussed this possibility with fervor and excited anticipation. But, as one can see today, many of these messianic expectations have not been fulfilled. And perhaps this has led – in some way – to the frustration many feel with the government and political system at this time.   Perhaps this has led to a kind of nihilism and has, as Scholem might say, torn open an abyss.

Most recently, utopian messianic yearnings – here and there – seem to be coming back with Bernie Sanders. Late in 2015, The Huffington Post put out a piece about how Jesus would vote and Bernie Sanders is featured as the closest to Jesus of early Christianity. And on February 17th 2016, USA Today featured an article by Stephen Prothero which wonders whether Jesus would vote for Bernie Sanders.   This query has led, in one widely circulated article, to another one (which is implicit in the first) as to how Bernie is like Jesus. In a Reddit thread from ten months ago, hundreds of comments emerged which addressed the possibility that Jesus was a socialist Jew like Bernie Sanders.

When a bird recently appeared on his podium in a rally in Portland, Oregon, people were enthralled and some have suggested that the bird was giving an omen. Although, in this meme, the messianism is displaced onto “mother nature,” it suggests that a choice has been made by a greater power. That Sanders is the one. Trump, in contrast, comes away as the anti-Christ figure (or a character that doesn’t fit into “mother nature’s plan”).  This is apparent in this image and has been suggested in a more than one place (in this or that article, twitter feed, etc).


While there is no full blown messianic movement behind Sanders, the fact of that matter is that there is an enthusiasm which could draw on the messianic idea. I wonder if this is inevitable since the utopian messianic idea is connected to the idea of revolution and radical change.   In hard times, there is a deep desire for radical change. And we are going through hard times now.   Scholem makes sure, in his reading of the Sabbateans, to point out that the condition for the possibility of the apocalyptic messianic idea is historical. The Jews that Sabbatai Zevi appealed to were in dire straights. They wanted radical historical change. The only problem was that they were excluded from history. Their exclusion was so extreme that the belief that things could change so radically – by virtue of one man – would have to be miraculous.   The promise that one man can alter the course history, to be sure, is messianic.   And perhaps that is the allure of politics in America at this moment. People so radically desire change that they yearn for a President who can make things “great again” or ensure that we are all provided for and can live with assurance that we are taking care of each other.

In the face of these kinds of messianic hopes, what we need is a good dose of humor.   By seeing Bernie like Larry David does (in many of his comic skits for SNL) – as a schlemiel – he loses his messianic aura and comes down to earth.   The schlemiel is the everyman; he’s not Jesus.   He may be a “poor schmuck,” as Larry David says, but he is a good person who only wants the best for everyone. And when he says he wants a “revolution,” there is nothing wrong with – as Larry David shows – humoring him.   If we don’t humor him and laugh at attempts to divinize him, we could slip into utopian/apocalyptic yearnings.   The problem is – as it was for many Yiddish writers who turned to the schlemiel – is how to address the disaster of history (with all its attendant problems of poverty, violence, fear, racism, etc) while at the same time retaining a comical distance from fantastic hopes of salvation. They all knew – from their experiences of history – that the seriousness that comes with the utopian and the messianic are dangerous. Perhaps it’s better to just shrug one’s shoulders than to think – with wild hope – that this or that Presidential candidate can save us, alter the course of history, and create a new world (America) unlike any we have seen before.

In dark times, hope is important. But wild hope – with a messianic utopian flavor – may have either an apocalyptic or nihilistic ending.  In America it’s not a question of whether all our dreams can come true but which dreams.   The schlemiel Larry David portrays in his imitation of Bernie Sanders may talk revolution and dream big but he also seems to be happy with the small things.  Perhaps we should be, too.  Because big dreams can sometimes have big consequences.



“Feel the Bird” – Birds, Saints, Rabbis, Animation, and Bernie


During a recent Bernie Sanders rally in Portland, Oregon (March 25, 2016), the crowd went wild when a little bird appeared on his podium. Taken together, the images of the bird, a smiling Bernie Sanders, and an enthusiastic crowd who witness the visitation (coupled with his three big wins against Hillary Clinton) have taken on a kind of messianic aura. The bird, as it were, is taken as a sign. And instead of simply “feeling the Bern,” the crowd was also (as one hashtag puts it) “feeling the bird.”

There is a long history of taking birds as signs. We can find such references throughout the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, Homer, and in magic.   But what is more interesting than spotting a bird at certain events is the relationship of the Saint to the Bird.  The stories around Saint Francis of Asissi (c 1220) and his relationship to birds are well known around the world.   Animals are said to have no fear of him. They would visit him and dwell in his peaceful presence.   (And this, of course, hearkens to Isaiah 11:6, which talks of the wolf and the lamb and other animals lying down with each other – rather than fighting – in the messianic era.)


His “Sermon of the Birds” lauds the birds as blessed by God. He sees birds as model for humankind to envision itself and also a model for serving God through song and praise.

My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.

The image of the bird visiting Bernie on stage certainly draws on this lore and stokes the messianic coals. But we also find lore about man and animal in the Kabbalah, in Hasidic lore, and a book (which both address) called the “Chapter of Song.”   Although there are many disputes over the origins of the Chapter of Song, there is agreement on the fact that it was published in 1576, in Venice, as an illuminated manuscript. But before being published, it was mentioned in many different places in the 12th and in the 13th centuries.   It had great appeal to mystics and allusions to a book of songs to animals can be found in the Midrash and the Talmud. They accompany what is called (after the first chapter of Ezekiel) “merkavah (chariot) mysticism.” Ezekiel’s chariot includes different animals that, in some way, have symbolic relationships with divinity.  In addition, Isaiah also refers to angels as wild animals and suggests such relationships. These relationships may be downplayed by the Rabbis in the Talmud and in the medieval period, but they were of great interest to the Kabbalists.

Kabbalists like Rabbi Isaac Luria and Moses Cordovero discuss the book and suggest that there are correlations between animals and the higher spheres. The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, also discuss the relationship of man to animal and of the animal to God. Learning the language of birds and frogs – by way of listening closely to them – takes on a mystical meaning for them and even finds its way into several Hasidic meditations.

Zvi Mark – in his book on Rabbi Nachman, Mysticism and Madness – points out how there is a significant difference between the Kabbalists and the Hasidim regarding these songs. And this difference has to do with moving from the text (meditating on and singing the songs, which the Kabbalists do) to creating a relationship with animals (and ritualizing it).

The widespread custom of kabbalists and others of reading daily the text of the Chapter of Song, which opens with the description of the frog’s song and praises to God, is transformed into a custom of taking a daily walk alongside swamps and pools of water in an attempt to hear the song of the frogs. They (went)….in order to literally…hear the frogs croak in an attempt to ascertain from them how song and praise raise to God. (113)

But the fact of the matter is that animals are all over Hasidic lore and can be found in the Talmud and Midrash. Animals intervene in human affairs and are often thought to be messengers of God (like angels).   In Jewish mysticism they have symbolic meaning but in Hasidic stories actual animals are – from time to time – thought to be giving a unique message or a saving grace to this or that person.

In Yiddish literature and in the art of Marc Chagal, we see this Hasidic notion of a relationship between man and animals enlarged and secularized.   Shalom Aleichem’s Motl loves his calf while Chagal has countless paintings that pair humans with chickens, crows, and cats in a kind of mystical aura.

Given this, the idea that a bird or frog would have a mystical effect on an audience is not by any means so far fetched. And it is not simply a mystical idea that is owned by this or that religion or sect. To be sure, it is mainstream. Through animation, the idea that animals and humans are on the same level, can communicate, and can experience something almost or actually divine went mainstream. I’ll end with s clip of this kind of…animism. The animation – which takes animals as subjects – illustrates how Americans are enchanted by a secular kind of popular messianism.  It is communicated by or through human-like animated animal figures.   Through animation, the fine line between man and animal is effaced.  In the 1920s and 30s, it takes on an American kind of aura.  We’ve been “feeling the bird,” so to speak, for quite a while.







He Died on Purim: On Garry Shandling, Smallness, Self-Deprecation & The Meta-Schlemiel


The running joke that Garry Shandling used to make is that – although he was a guest host on The Tonight Show several times and had his own TV show on HBO (The Larry Sanders Show) – no one ever heard of him.   He referred to his stardom in terms of its opposite. Instead of making him likeable and famous, it didn’t change a thing.   Despite the fact that he is famous, he can’t stop thinking of his smallness and non-existence.   He did this all, so to speak, within a space that he created which was oriented toward making the public into a kind of Jewish family.   It was his smallness and his insecurity about fame, which he shared with us, that, to be sure, makes his comedy so Jewish.   He can’t seem to be liked, but we tell him he’s wrong. We like him but on the stage, his character and his characters tell us that we’re wrong. Its this irony, which is present in many a Jewish household, that makes his performances so endearing.

I’d like to share a few clips and my thoughts on them which touch on this double-take on smallness and greatness.

On the Tonight Show (1981), Shandling tells many jokes relating to small things: family, animals, being single, and babies. He points out how he is a single guy and discusses his odd view of babies. Shandler (comically) discloses how little he knows about children but, at the same time, he is one. He can’t seem to be independent.

Shandling betrays his smallness when he talks about having a dog. His venture into understanding why dogs move their legs in the evening while sleeping makes him wonder about the meaning of a dog’s dream. Is the dog a bachelor like him? Is he in flight?

Touching on the family, he discusses his father walking around half naked or eating too much. Like many a Jewish father who has eaten too much, Shandling tells us about how he unzips his pants and how, one day, they fell off in a restaurant in front of the family and people in the restaurant.   This family shaming keeps him, in some way, linked to his family and somehow stunts him from being a “man.”

He ends his monologue by recalling an experience he had with his dad at Disneyland.   He can’t get the songs he hears from his day at the amusement park…out of his head. He is still, in other words, caught up in his childhood experiences and memories – the small things that make up our interior life.

On another occasion of Gary Shandling guest hosting “The Tonight Show,” he starts off his opening monologue noting how small he is.

“The Tonight Show has had many guests. I’m not Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, I’m not Bill Cosby….I’m not Betty White…alright I’m Betty White….Ok…Its good to be back here and face this…pressure….”

The self-deprecation in this opening has a brilliant punch line.   He tells a joke about the World Series happening in NYC while they are taping in LA. But the show, since it is taped and earlier, won’t get to NYC for another few hours and after the game. Its daylight savings time so…he says “I actually don’t really exist now. I want to congratulate both Boston and New York….from a human standpoint I sort of hope the Mets win.”

In another appearance for the Tonight Show, he turns back to the routine on being a sexual schlemiel:

I went out with some friends to a restaurant and a waitress came on to me and she said, “would you like desert,” and you know they don’t say that to everybody. And so I talk to her, we go out, I pick her up at her house and she’s wearing a leopard skin top….and this leopard had huge boobs.

To make himself small and childlike he notes how, on the date, he accidently orders from the kid’s menu (“Captain Andy’s Toddler Platter”) “because its not always clearly separated.”

From here he turns to the topic of sexual foreplay and tells a joke about oysters, oiling up the other person, and asks himself: “am I doing this right?” He plays on the schlemiel’s sexual innocence. Unlike a “real man,” the schlemiel is stuck in his family-like existence.  He doesn’t know how to have sex: “It’s good for a woman to express her needs in bed….and this woman said, ‘Get off me! Now I know what you like.’

Shandling tells us that women are so disappointed by having sex with him that they, so to speak, want their money back. “I have a grocery store camera in my room. Because the girl might steal something after being disappointed.”

“I make love with my eyes open because I don’t trust women” who might steal something as a compensation for his unsatisfying sexual performance.

Johnny Carson discusses the topic of marriage with him reinforcing the sexual schlemiel image that Shandling is developing.

“I don’t think I would have sex with lots of women (if I got married), I don’t have a lot of sex now.”

In “Gary Shandling, Alone in Las Vegas” ( 1984) there are more sexual schlemiel jokes. In fact the pilot opens with one.

On phone with “Patty,” his “girlfriend,” we hear the conversation that betrays the fact that he wants to appear as if he isn’t a sexual schlemiel:

“Can you bring a boyfriend?!”

“Will you come for money?”

The twist is that “I” will be alone in Las Vegas can “you” (the viewer) come?  This is a moment of the meta-schlemiel.  We know that he may not get “lucky” with women, but we like him.  Like many a child-like schlemiel, he’s endearing but not sexy.

There is an endless play of wanting sex but not getting it – but when it happens, its short.

A prostitute visits Shandling in his Las Vegas hotel and says, “When you want to grow up and ride the range…give me a call.”

Sanders responds, “I haven’t gone horseback riding since I was a kid.”

The regression to childhood is, once again, prominent.

There is one sexual failure joke after another. In the second episode, there are great takes with Joan Rivers that speak to the sexual issue.

In the first scene, Joan says she knows Gary’s knock because it’s “whimpy” (2:22)

Rivers says that Gary is good looking, successful, funny, but there is something about him that women aren’t attracted to.

What is that something? Is it the fact that he is a schlemiel?

He acts as if he’s happy with his likeability and that there is nothing wrong. But that’s the twist: we know its not. He is not sexually, “big,” he’s small, childlike, innocent, un-knowing.

In the Larry Sanders Show – Season 1, episode 11- we see a return to the “likeability” theme with all its attendant insecurities.

Richard Simmons shows up. He is, as we all know, a figure of self-confidence. He comes on to the set and lends support to Hank, Sander’s co-host – who is losing weight. Sander’s is the most doubtful but he isn’t aggressive.   However, there are notes.

He is concerned about ratings (6m) and ponders the advantages of quantity over quality. How can he sell out and get higher ratings? Is it worth doing what Arsenio Hall does? He wonders (7:30m) if he is “likeable”

At home we see he is self-conscious with his wife and needs her support: “I’m a nice guy honey, right?”

Her: “In your own way you’re likeable.” (8m)

“People watch your show (partly) because you’re an asshole. We’ve talked about this”(9m).

Is the kind schlemiel really aggressive or is everyone else?

Although he is “great,” he feels small and Insecure.  He tells us that that “I want to try that focus group” (its a “likeability issue”).

Richard Simmons -the image of self-confidence  pops in (16m) – and provides contrast. But when the focus group analyzes his show (17m-19m) they talk about his body parts, who would be better to invite, etc. They don’t seem to be interested in Sanders. But the fact of the matter is that he has a show on TV with good ratings. The ratings, however, are not the best. He isn’t known by everybody. And that’s the subplot: he’s really an ordinary guy – nothing special – a schlemiel.

He tells a joke disclosing how little he thinks others think of him: “twenty people would say they like me, and I’m telling you that seventeen of them are lying…two of them have severe emotional problems, and one of them thinks I’m Larry King.”

His manager: “The sooner you start liking yourself, you won’t care what other people think.”

Sanders: “Then I guess I’m totally fucked.”

The final punch line of this episode happens when a Richard Simmons look alike shows up in the back of the show and says he likes Sanders. He tells Sanders who – in turn – tells a joke, but he doesn’t get it and thinks he’s being made fun of. And in the end, even the one guy who really likes him thinks he’s an asshole.

There is a great interview between Shandling and Bob Costas where he talks about how he decided to do “stand up” after his car accident. The choice: “life is short…would you rather be sitting in front of your typewriter writing sitcoms (he was writing for Sanford and Son etc) or do stand up?”

He is just as self-deprecating here as he is elsewhere. He really is frustrated with what he thinks is his inability to truly entertain people. (“I don’t think I’ve reached my potential in standup” -3min.)

He tells Costas that he would think that he should give the audience its money back for a bad night of comedy. The punch line: “when I want to give back the money, however, their gone “(4:42).

“I felt guilty about being paid.”

He admits that he gets “rusty” (5:13) but, “on the other hand, I get bad at it when I do it too often. I get into formulas….Its a fine line between working too much and working too little.”   His balance is to stay creative but what makes his comedy relevant is the fact that it is geared toward making the viewer comfortable with his discomfort. It has, as I mentioned above, the feel of a Jewish family.

With Costas, Shandling talks about how he makes guests comfortable on this show. He tells us that he “senses” the interviewed and cues into them: “Once the interviewer can sense the perspective of the interviewed, things can get worked out.” He doesn’t know the perspective; like a person attuned to hospitality, he feels it.

Regarding Shandling’s career, Costas asks a good question: “What would you have become if you didn’t get your show?”

I love how Shandling muses on the possibility. It speaks to his sense of how TV may be in contradiction to everyday life and one must be careful with desiring to be seen on the screen. “I have a fear that if I was on television every night…you know…I have a saying that the only thing odder than being on TV everything is wanting to be on TV every night.”

Shandling doesn’t want to create a “false veneer.” And he didn’t. His comedy speaks not only to his private insecurities about being “big,” it also speaks to his sense of being small and being a part of a family. His discomforts about bigness are ours. His failings are close to our own. And they have a very Jewish flavor to them since they remind us that smallness is something that we can’t run away from. In fact, it may be redemptive to see the small man’s names in the lights while (in reality) he’s still small.

Shandling died on Purim a time when the small man and the small people become victors. But, as many Jews know from history, this greatness of the Jewish people is always something that comes and goes with time.  Jewish history following the Purim event tells that sad tale.  The acute awareness that Purim was a unique moment in history is like Shandling’s acute awareness that his stardom was a once in a lifetime thing. It was unique. But it can’t be for real. It’s the one thing he can’t come to terms with. After all, how could anyone like me? The irony of his question is that he knows better than any of us that….no matter how much of a schmuck you are or appear to be…you, Gary Shandling, are still a part of a small…comic family.  You are endearing to us although you may not be endearing and rejected by many characters on your show.  The schlemiel you gave us was a meta-schlemiel.   He may be small, but in our memory he is big.

May your memory be for a blessing!

On Buber, the “Paradox of Humility” & “The Proof of Uniqueness”


Living in a world that is getting bigger and bigger, one feels as if one is becoming smaller and smaller. This realization can lead one to feel anonymous and depressed. Feeling unique or special, it seems, is the only antidote. But is this the right way to think?

The tug and pull of anonymity and uniqueness spurs a kind of manic-depression that has become endemic in a “connected” society.   If you aren’t seen, you don’t exist. This way of thinking will push many to be obsessed with being seen, but not so much in public as on social networks.

People can’t stand being small.

But perhaps that smallness is big when it is relational. This is what Martin Buber suggests in his reading of humility in Hasidism.   There is nothing new here. The tension between the individual and the community is paramount.

The paradox of humility consists in holding together being unique and singular yet, at the same time, being a “part” of a larger community.   And this spans two relations: between God and man, on the one hand, and man and man, on the other.

Citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Buber makes the case for uniqueness.

Uniqueness is thus the essential good of man that is given to him to unfold. And just this is the meaning of the return (to God), that his uniqueness may become ever more pure and complete; and that in each new life the one who has returned may stand in ever more untroubled and undisturbed incomparability. For pure uniqueness and pure perfection are one, and he who has becoming so entirely individual that no otherness any longer has power of him or place in him has completed the journey and is redeemed and rests in God. (52, Hasidism and Modern Man)

While this sounds all fine and good, Buber tells us that this kind of uniqueness isn’t proven; rather, “the uniqueness of man proves itself in his life with others”(53).     Uniqueness gives one the possibility of being able to give something of oneself to the other, which suggests that if one doesn’t embrace uniqueness one has nothing to give:

The more unique a man really is, so much more can he give to the other and so much the more will he give him. And this is his one sorrow, that is giving is limited to the one who takes. (53)

The “mystery of humility” occurs when one realizes that the more unique his or her relationship with God is, the more he or she realizes that “there stirs him the community of existence.” This doesn’t make sense since, as many mystics show, being alone and unique with God (as one sees in the erotic meditations in the Zohar) are the goal of contemplation and theosophy.   Citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Buber points out that this erotic relation between man and God is personalized. By equating the meeting of one man with another to a kind of birth or “generation,” Rabbi Nachman is suggesting a displacement of the unique erotic relation in the Zohar:

Every man has a light over him, and when the souls of two men meet, the two lights join each other and from them there goes forth one light. And this is called generation.

For Hasidism, becoming small doesn’t mean – as it does in Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik in his essays on humility – becoming so despondent that one “forgets that he can bring an overflowing blessing through his words and actions”(53).   Rabbi Nachman of Breslav calls this kind of smallness or humility “impure humility.”

Commenting on this notion, Buber says that “he is truly humble who feels the other as himself and himself in the other.”  For Buber this is a key distinction that Rabbi Nachman is making. While the “haughty man” does not know himself and must “contrast” or “compare” himself with others in order to know how great he is, the truly humble person doesn’t lift himself above others or compare himself with others.

The haughty person is, for Rabbi Nachman, tortured:

The soul of the haughty lives without product or essence; it flutters and toils and is not blessed…..He who measures and weighs becomes empty and unreal like measure and weight. (54)

Rabbi Nachman suggests that the haughty man may be crushed by reality and can, perhaps, become humble. But this is not true humility.   This comes from the humble man who is able to retain uniqueness by being…simple and small. He doesn’t make or will himself to be small:

But the humble man has the “drawing power”….The humility which is meant here is no willed and practiced virtue. It is nothing but an inner being, feeling, and expressing.   Nowhere in it is there a compulsion, nowhere a self-humbling, a self-restraining, a self-resolve. It is indivisible as the glance of a child and simple as a child’s speech. (55)

What makes the humble man humble is the attention to small things. He trusts things and makes everything personal.   Buber suggests a kind of phenomenological receptivity that is humbling:

The humble man lives in each being and knows each being’s manner and virtue….For him, the colors of the world to not blend with one another, rather each soul stands before him in the majesty of its particular existence. (55)

Buber calls this “living with the other” and equates it with “justice” and “love.” The simpleton is the model for this kind of humility. Since he suspends judgment and takes to each being in the “majesty of its particular existence,” he is the “proof of uniqueness.”

The man who presumes too much is the man who contrasts himself with others, who sees himself as higher than the humblest of things, who rules with measure and weights and pronounces judgment. (54)

And it is this suspension that, in a salvational sense, helps. Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka’s work, suggests this kind of help when he says that Kafka’s “only certainty” was that a “fool can help.”   From the perspective of the sophisticate, the humble man is a fool and the help he offers is meaningless. However, Buber, by way of Rabbi Nachman, argues that the humble man’s drive to help the other is the “artery of existence”(58).   Good deeds “save one from death.”   But intention is all. One should not help out of pity but out of love.   And this love is fostered, first and foremost, by learning how to love small things.

The humble man is “devoted to the multitude” and “collected in his uniqueness.”  Buber notes that he is at home in the world and greets every small thing as special. Moreover, he has neither “fear of the before or after” nor desire. He doesn’t expect anything.   These same words could be used to describe Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character which served, as Ruth Wisse and David Roskies argue, as the basis for much of the Yiddish literary project.

For a Yiddish writer like I.L. Peretz this acceptance of smallness and the world, this non-willing, is a big problem. He insisted that if Jews don’t think big, they will be squashed.   Politics demands expediency, vision, and will.   The love of the small – in this view – needs to be displaced by its opposite. The proof of humility, for Peretz, is failure; it is different from the proof of success which would be equated with the founding of a Jewish State, socialism, a workers movement, etc.   For Peretz, there is no “paradox of humility.” To be sure, it’s a Jewish problem.

Unfortunately, we seem to be forced into a corner. If Judaism, as Buber and Rabbi Nachman suggest, is about small things and doesn’t involve desire or hope, how could it be political? And how could Moses, the “most humble man on earth”(Numbers 12:3), be a leader? How could the two be reconciled?

Buber’s answer can be found in his essay “Biblical Leadership.” There he argues that, in the Torah (Bible), we find a lot of failure.   The fact that Moses accepts failure makes him humble:

The Bible knows nothing of this intrinsic value of success. On the contrary, when it announces a successful deed, it is duty bound to announce in complete detail the failure involved in the success. When we consider the history of Moses, we see how much failure is mingle in the one great successful action, so much so that when we set the individual events that make up his history side by side, we see that his life consists of one failure after another, through which runs the thread of success. (143).

Perhaps the “paradox of humility” is different.   In being successful, a humble leader must always remember that his success is permeated by failure and that he should never become haughty.

Even though a religious Jew may anticipate the fulfillment of the covenant, this anticipation is challenged by the failures of Jewish history. Perhaps the schlemiel’s trust of all things and the humility that attend it may emerge from an acute sense of history and failure. If history and politics are all about winning, success, and the biggest things, perhaps the schlemiel and even Moses himself remind us that history doesn’t, in the end, trump the smallness of the world and what we can give to the other. Perhaps the schlemiel teaches us that – because the “majesty of the particular” and smallness will never go away – the proof of humility is greater than the proof of history.

Failure is more prominent than success because small things always get in the way of who we are or want to be.   But in seeing the small things we can see one another and we can help. If we think big, however, we may not see the person in front of us. The proof of humility is right in front of us. But history and its drive for success may prompt us to miss this. For history, there is no “paradox of humility.” But if, as Peretz warns, you focus on this paradox you may do more to harm humanity than to help it.   Perhaps there is a third path, which Buber seems to suggest in his reading of Moses. Let’s call it micro-politics. It would be permeated with failure and would always opt for smallness.   It would think of success but not on a grand scale – since it’s the small things that matter most.  But is such a politics possible?  If there is a political vision of success, can there be any room for failure?  If there is desire for a different world and it comes by way of my action or inaction, how can there be a “paradox of humility” let alone a “proof of uniqueness”?


Schlemiel Theory in the Canadian Jewish News!


I was recently interviewed by The Canadian Jewish News (an illustrious and widely read publication in Canada which serves the Jewish community throughout Canada).   The journalist, Jonathan Dick asked me about my background, academic work, schlemiel project, blogging, and unabashed love for and identification with this comic character.

Here is the interview.

I want to thank The Canadian Jewish News for digging into what’s behind the blog, the character, and my interest in it.  It is a great honor.  I am humbled and overjoyed that they are bringing Schlemiel Theory to the Canadian public!


The Author of Schlemiel Theory, Menachem Feuer

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Kafka, Writing, and the Apocalyptic


Apocalyptic disaster is and has been a preoccupation with many great writers and artists. Apocalypse is also a grave concern for prophets and prophesies that span Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern Religions. Oftentimes the apocalyptic is described as something that is not only revelatory and miraculous but also destructive. As I have pointed out elsewhere, a French Avant Garde playwright, actor, and poet like Antonin Artaud, was deeply interested in how the release of destructive energies was not simply a tragic affair. In fact, he argues that the Marx Brothers – in their first film, a comedy, Animal Crackers (1930)– released destructive energies.   Comedy, if it is relevant, is ultimately apocalyptic.   In the wake of destruction, Artaud claims that we can see our bodies and movements in new and vital ways. Although this operation “destroys the mind,” Artaud claims that a new kind of intelligence emerges which is musical and poetic.    He is enthralled with it and finds such a comic-slash-apocalyptic moment in the Marx Brothers to be mystical and inspiring.

Artaud was not alone in his artistic interest in the apocalyptic. In a diary entry from January 27, 1922, we learn that Kafka felt a “strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort…in writing.”   But in a letter to Max Brod on July 5, 1922, the “dangerous” element of the element overshadows the “saving comfort of writing.”   Instead of lifting him up, writing plunges him down.

Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in these nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine….at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only of this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me.

Kafka’s reflections on writing bear a fascinating resemblance to what Gershom Scholem calls the messianic idea. In his essay on the “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Gershom Scholem discusses two aspects of the Messianic Idea: one is restorative while the other is apocalyptic.   It is the latter aspect which, according to Scholem, was suppressed by the Rabbis for millennia. And in the Middle Ages, Maimonides leaves it out of his famous account of the messianic (in the Mishna Torah).

Scholem sees the Apocalyptic idea as holding a destructive “anarchic element.” He describes it in terms of its threat to Jewish law (halakhah) since, as a part of this idea, there is a notion of a “new Torah” that will emerge. Although the Rabbis interpret this as meaning that new secrets will be revealed, they do not think, in any way, that the mitzvoth (commandments) or halakhah will be altered.

Playing on this, Scholem plays the devils advocate and images what kinds of thoughts might go through someone’s head who entertains the apocalyptic idea of a new Torah:

A positive commandment or a prohibition could scarcely still be the same when it no longer had for its object the separation of good and evil to which man was called, but rather arose from the Messianic spontaneity of human freedom purely flowing forth. Since by its nature this freedom realizes only the good, it has no need for all those “fences” (on Rabbinic law) and restrictions with which the Halakhah was surrounded in order to secure it from temptations of evil. At this point there arises the possibility of a turning from the restorative conception of the final re-establishment of the reigning of law to a utopian view in which restrictive traits will no longer be determinative and decisive, but be replaced by certain as yet totally unpredictable traits which will reveal entirely new aspects of free fulfillment. Thus an anarchic element enters Messianic utopianism. (20-21).

Scholem claims that the allure of the apocalyptic element is not only to be understood in terms of the freedom it will release, it should also be seen for its power: it will, in his words, “destroy history.” And by history, he means something that is thought to be made by and for humans. (In terms of Judaism this looms large because the “winners,” as Scholem’s good friend Walter Benjamin notes, write history. Jews were, for millennia, excluded from history. Hence, the appeal to destroy it.) The miraculous element – equated with God’s power to decide – will bring humanity and its self-image to its knees and vindicate the Jewish people. Scholem – echoing the person who revels in the apocalyptic – finds this to be very exciting.

The person who took the Apocalyptic to its limit and caused generations to push it away with both hands was the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.   Writing on him in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem describes what he elsewhere calls Zevi’s “messianic activism.” This had a major influence on those who followed in his wake such as Jacob Frank. He created a kind of nihilistic imperative the called for a descent into evil for all Jews.

The radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with the passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission. Rather did they hold that as the end draws nearer this paradox necessarily becomes universal. The action of the Messiah sets an example and to follow it is a duty. The consequences that flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of a voluntary Marrranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.   IN varying theoretical guises the apostles of nihilism preached the doctrine of the existence o spheres in which the process of Tikkun can no longer be advanced by pious acts: Evil must be fought with evil…..I am referring to the fatal, yet at the same time deeply fascinating doctrine of the holiness of sin….That in the religious nihilism of Sabbatianism, which during the eighteenth century proved so dangerous to the most precious possession of Judaism, its moral substance. (315)

As Scholem notes above, the descent into evil is “dangerous” because it threatens the “moral substance” which informs Judaism.   Although radical energies may be released in this descent, the sacrifice is too great. Kafka, it seems, was aware of this. Through the descent into evil – which he equates with writing “at night” – Kafka feared the worst.

Scholem poses the Sabbatinian obsession with the Apocalyptic as a nihilistic commandment of sorts. Strangely enough, Kafka also felt as if there was a commandment to write. But when he writes of this commandment he doesn’t quite understand it because he was confused about what writing actually meant. (We also see this, above, in his January 27, 1922 diary entry.)  But in his letter to Brod it seems that he knows what it accomplishes. He can’t seem to decide on its Apocalyptic meaning.  Like Kierkegaard’s depiction of Abraham, Kafka doesn’t know if writing rises him up or brings him down. Is the commandment to write coming from Satan or God?  Will his writing release demons or will it, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka, help?

It all depends on how one sees the stakes. If, as Scholem suggests, the release of these energies implies the destruction of the “moral substance” of Judaism and the destruction of the law, perhaps one should think again. Will aesthetics – if it is apocalyptic – always come into conflict with ethics? Or is this – since it is “diabolical” – a conflict with faith? Kafka and Scholem were fascinated with these questions since, as Jews and Jewish thinkers who were fascinated with the mystical,  they both knew that Judaism’s concern for law and morality are at stake.   Why, after all, would the Rabbis tread so carefully around the apocalyptic imaginings of the prophets?

Bodily Discoveries: On the Marx Brothers & Antonin Artaud’s Redefinition of Humor


Antonin Artaud was a French actor, playwright, and poet who was (and is) most well known for his book The Theater and its Double – written in the 1930s – and the concept of the “Theater of Cruelty.”   The play was widely read and amply discussed in Europe and the United States by people interested in new forms of Avant Garde theater.   (Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and many other European thinkers have written many brilliant essays on his work.) What I – like many others – find so striking about his work is its intense awareness of the physical body.   Theater, for Artaud, emerges more out of the body than out of the mind. The mind’s acute awareness of the body is necessary if what he called the “theater of cruelty” is to be affective.   Strangely enough, this turn to the element of cruelty (bodily pain, which he calls “metaphysical”) has its roots in comedy.

One of the main inspirations for Artaud’s theater project (and for his awareness of physicality) was the Marx Brothers. He discusses this influence in a few different places in The Theater and its Double:

In one of the Marx Brother’s films, a man who thinks he is about to embrace a woman puts his arms around a cow, which moos. And through a conjunction of circumstances which would take too long to relate, this moo, at this moment, takes on an intellectual dignity equal to that of any woman’s cry.

A situation of this kind, which is possible in the cinema, is no less possible in the theater as it is today. One would not have to do much – for example, replace the cow with an animated puppet monster endowed with speech, or with a man dressed as an animal – to rediscover the secret of an objective poetry based on humor which the theater renounced and abandoned to the Music Hall, and which Cinema later adopted. (236, Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings)

In a section devoted solely to the Marx Brothers, Artaud claims that Animal Crackers (1930) – one of the first films by the Marx Brothers – “liberated” a “special magic which the customary relationships between images do not usually reveal, and if there is a distinct poetic level of the mind that can be called Surrealism, Animal Crackers belongs to it”(240).

To explain this magic, Artaud muses that the “poetic quality of a film like Animal Crackers might correspond to the definition of humor, if this word had not long since lost its meaning of total liberation, of the destruction of the reality of the mind”(240). By “total liberation” and the “destruction of the mind,” Artaud is suggesting that humor – of the Marx Brothers’ variety – is the liberation of the body which Artaud sees as enslaved by the mind.   He is also suggesting – with the use of the words “destruction of the mind” – that humor is violent. This kind of violence – paralleling the film – is utterly “unique.”

In order to understand the powerful, total, definitive, absolute originality…of a film like Animal Crackers, and at times a film like Monkey Business, one would have to add to the notion of humor the notion of something disturbing and tragic, a fatality (neither fortunate or unfortunate, but difficult to express) which slips behind it, like the revelation of a dreadful illness on a profile of absolute beauty. (240)

Even though Artaud sees a kind of violent humor in the Marx Brother’s films, he doesn’t see the destruction of the mind as total. Their films allow for a “kind of intellectual freedom” and for a kind of movement that is “poetic.”

In Animal Crackers when a woman suddenly falls over backward on a sofa with her legs in the air and for a split second shows us everything we might want to see, when a man suddenly grabs a woman in a drawing room, does a few dance steps with her, and slaps her on the behind in time with the music, a kind of intellectual freedom is exercised in which the unconscious of each character, repressed by customs and conventions, avenges itself and our unconscious at the same time.   But in Monkey Business when a man wanted by the police grabs a beautiful woman and dancers with her, poetically, with a kind of serious pursuit of charm and grace of attitude, here the claim made on our sensibility seems double, and demonstrates all that is poetic and perhaps even revolutionary in the jokes of the Marx Brothers. (241)

Although this comic playfulness seems light, Artaud illustrates the violent side of this film when he argues that the “music of deliverance” we find in the films “sufficiently indicates the dangerous side of all these funny jokes, and shows that when the poetic spirit is exercised, it always moves toward a kind of seething anarchy, a total breakdown of reality by poetry”(241). The “music” or “poetry” of their humor is meant to breakdown the mind and reality and release suppressed energies. And this, for Artaud, is what makes it a template for the “Theater of Cruelty.” It is double: seemingly light and innocent but ultimately dangerous. But he revels in this. To be sure, he finds the anarchic element of their films to be vitalizing and enervating. Their films – through what he calls “vibrations” – physically awaken Artaud’s mind.

The triumph of all this is in the kind of exaltation, both visual and auditory, that all these events acquire in the half light, in the degree of vibration they achieve and in the kind of powerful disturbance that their total effect ultimately produces on the mind. (242)

This “total effect,” which is destructive and liberating, belongs to what Artaud would call humor.   In many ways the doubling that Artaud discusses has a nihilistic aspect since the liberation it suggests – while “poetic” and “musical” – must destroy not just the mind but also the world if the energy he speaks of is to “escape.”  What makes the Marx Brothers very interesting is that the world that they destroy is still in tact. Correcting Artaud, I’d say that the world is not annihilated but – as Heidegger might say – nihilated. It is not the same world from before. It is different but it is not as tragic as Artaud would have us believe. Shaking up the world is another way of waking everyone up. And that is what the Marx Brothers did.   But this has the effect of – and on this point Artaud is correct – enlivening it. The point – as Artaud well knew – is to pay close attention to what kinds of life are being circulated and how. The humor of the Marx Brothers – with its fast movements and unexpected transitions – gives us a sense of how powerful wit can be in a world that has become too customary and familiar.

Wit helps to take the world out of its thoughts and to throw it back into its body. And this thrown-ness back into the world elicits a kind of surprise or what I would call a bodily discovery.    Through the films of the Marx Brothers, Artaud – and the world he lived in – was able to make some bodily discoveries.   The question, however, is whether this discovery was of our “cinematic body” of our actual bodies.  Where, after all, does our world begin or end.  Perhaps the two have become contiguous.   Either way, if you are surprised by their humor, you’ll literally (bodily) feel it. And on that point, Artaud is spot on.



Attention Anti-Semitic Trolls: As a Jew, I Have a Right and Responsibility to Address Jewishness and Comedy!


I have written several blog posts on the comedian Louis CK that look into his Jewish jokes, his relationship to things Jewish, and his attitude toward Jewishness. In response to my first query into his Jewishness (July 11, 2013), I recently (just this morning) received a comment by an anti-Semitic troll:

Who cares what Jews think in the first place? They make up less then a percent of the American population. Louis C.K. Does not need them to like him to win over the people.

It’s not the first comment I have received from angry people who don’t like me discussing Louis CK’s Jewish jokes or his Jewishness. I don’t regret or rescind anything I have written. Each of my queries into things that are Jewish is based on legitimate concerns and questions. The only thing I will change about what I have said is to acknowledge that his father is Jewish and is Orthodox.    Nonetheless, the disturbing nature of some of his Jewish jokes remains.

What interests me most is not whether he is a “self-hating” Jew or if he – in dissociation from Jewishness – has become sick of Jews. He is too intelligent for that kind of garbage. As a comedian he takes a lot of risks and many of them pay off.

However, some of these jokes appeal to an audience that is anti-Semitic. And when I see people dropping comments about how my reading of these jokes –as a Jewish cultural and literary critic – is invalid because Jews make up a small fraction of the population, then it becomes apparent that these jokes do create and have created an anti-Semitic problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with Jews telling jokes about Jews that are biting. See, for instance, what I have written on Shalom Auslander, Philip Roth., or Bruce Jay Friedman. Jewish comedy pokes fun at Jews and Jewishness in order to make Jewishness more self-critical and flexible.   Jews need to laugh at themselves. And this kind of laughter is an antidote to the tragic seriousness that comes with suffering anti-Semitism for centuries.   As Ruth Wisse and others have argued, Jewish humor helps Jews to survive the travails of history.

Lawrence Epstein notes in his book, The Haunted Smile, how American Jews used comedy in order to not just address these travails but to also find a place in America. Through laughter, a whole generation of Jews carved a space in American culture and were able to gain acceptance.   The idea was to, as Epstein says, “avert anger.”

The problem with some of Louis CK’s Jewish jokes is that while they play with the place of Jewishness and the American understanding of Jewishness that playfulness sometimes triggers people – like the anti-Semitic troll I mentioned above- to think of Jews in a perverted manner (which only affirms stereotypes that they already have). When Jewish humor allows for this kind of thing to happen (which is another way of saying that a form of anti-Semitism might be warranted – those damn Jews are sick, etc) then as a Jewish American literary and cultural critic, it is my responsibility to speak up.

The fact of the matter is that this troll – like so many others – can’t accept the power of critique. It speaks to anyone who has a mind and a conscience. In America, whether this troll likes it or not, more and more people are interested in minority cultures. America is made up of minority cultures. And each minority culture can and should speak about how it depicts itself and is depicted by others.   The worse thing that can happen to a minority is that the majority culture won’t listen to its views and forsakes them. Fortunately, that’s not happening. And if an anti-Semitic troll doesn’t like that, that’s too bad. His comical hero – who to his mind is trashing the Jews and giving his anti-Semitism a basis – is fallible. Sometimes his jokes are problematic.

And if anyone is the master of acknowledging and openly presenting the ridiculousness of being human, that is Louis CK. He speaks his mind and doesn’t hide his misery, anxiety, and finitude. He would be the first person to call himself an asshole – and he does so on a regular basis. The problem is that this troll and many like him can’t do the same. They lack the honesty and courage to do so. And that’s a damn shame.   Insisting on one’s power is the anti-thesis of comedy.

My favorite kind of Jewish comedy is the kind that deflates and makes things small that are thought to be larger than life. And to take a sacred cow as a target.  It’s humbling while being at the same time offensive and even sad.    Self-deprecation is something Louis CK does very well. But sometimes he targets people and ideas while leaving self-deprecation behind and when that target is Jewish, I’m there to gauge the damage.  It is my right and responsibly to do so!