Ask two Jewish individuals to define Jewish humour, and you will probably get three definitions. If not more.
So what can we say about the humour of the Jewish people? First and foremost, Jewish humour snickers in the face of authority. This tendency dates back to the first recorded laughter in the scriptural tradition: in Genesis 18:12, when the mother of the Jewish people, Sarah, laughs at the notion, delivered by divine messenger, that she will conceive a child in her dotage. Sarah’s laughter is, in effect, a minor rebellion against God. And so, the subversive tradition of Jewish humour began.
Thousands of years later, in the 19th and especially 20th centuries, Jewish humour perpetuated this trend by tittering across all sacred boundaries – inside the faith, and outside. Practitioners of such transgressive Jewish humour include Franz Kafka, whose darkly comic stories ridicule the all-powerful bureaucracies of the modern state; more recently, Jon Stewart, a television show host, spends his time cutting up most the American religious and political landscape.
But there is a more indefinable quality to Jewish humour. The Jewish faith has a unique view on its own theology and the way it shapes the lives of all Jewish people. As befits a community to which religion was so important, much humour centres on the relationship of Judaism to the individual and the community. Judaism has managed, like no other monotheism, to achieve a certain kind of relativism – a state in which one is not afraid to parody the faith, its culture and community – whether one is a staunch believer or not.
Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the Shul for morning services.
“I thought we had agreed there was no God,” he said.
“Yes, what does that have to do with it?” replied the other.
The vast differences in the Jewish faith are also a cause for some relativistic humour on behalf of the Jewish people.
At an Orthodox Jewish wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. At a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Reconstructionist wedding, the rabbi and her wife are both pregnant.