Book Review: 'God Laughed'

The Friedman husband-and-wife team has managed to produce a rich and rewarding book.

God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor (photo credit: PR)
God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor
(photo credit: PR)
Yet another study of Jewish humor? The shelves don’t chuckle; they threaten to buckle.
But wait, there’s good news (and bad news, but that comes later). The good news is that, despite their sober-minded professions (he’s a professor of business at Brooklyn College, she’s a professor of statistics at New York’s Baruch College), the Friedman husband and wife team has managed to produce a rich and rewarding book on Jewish jocularity.
Just a few bumps on the way to the funny bone. The Friedmans’ opening and closing chapters are obligatory discussions of such unrewarding questions as is there a specific Jewish humor and, if so, what distinguishes it and where does it come from. I call these questions unrewarding because they have already been thrashed to death by everyone from Sigmund Freud to Woody Allen, in learned journals and at international conferences sponsored by Jewish humor societies. It appears there are as many “explanations” of Jewish humor as there are Jews, and so, like the dithering rabbi in the old joke, I declare everyone is right.
Then there’s that title. I’m not convinced that God laughs; being omniscient, he must know all the punchlines before they are delivered. Not a few scholars, moreover, have argued that the Bible is devoid of humor, and just as many view the Talmudic rabbis as a uniformly cheerless lot. But, as our foreparents and sages were human beings, they at least must have been exposed to humor, if not always enamored of it.
Indeed, like after-dinner speakers, some Talmudic rabbis were noted for starting their lessons with a little levity, and others inserted jokes midway to rouse drowsy students. But other rabbis frowned upon joking, maintaining that, in view of the destruction of the Temple, Jews who indulged in laughter would have no place in the afterlife.
In any case, the strength of God Laughed comes in the 14 chapters between those opening and closing analytical essays. It’s here that the Friedmans look for prototypes and archetypes of humor in the Bible and the Talmud. And they discover humor just about everywhere they look Of course, all of this depends on how one defines humor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Friedmans define humor rather broadly, claiming such territory as irony, sarcasm, wordplay, satire, exaggeration, hyperbole, puns, acrostics, riddles, allegories, parables, fables, and absurdities. To be sure, not every instance in these categories is necessarily funny.
On absurdity: In regard to the prohibition against plowing a field with an ox and a donkey yoked together, Rechaba asked, “What is the law if someone drives his wagon using a goat and a fish?” Absurd? Sure. Funny? Well, it got a laugh out of me. So too did this one: “Rabbi Achadboi b. Ami asked Rabbi Sheshet: “What is the law if one commits intercourse with oneself?” Pardon me, but I’m not going there.
Or consider this: While Rabbi Zera held that one should not laugh until the coming of the Messiah, Rabbi Yirmiyah was determined to make the rebbe laugh. “A baby pigeon that is found within 50 cubits of a coop belongs to the coop’s owner. If it is found outside the fifty cubits, then it belongs to the finder. Rabbi Yirmiyah asked: ‘If one foot of the pigeon is within the fifty cubits and one foot is outside, to whom does it belong?’” Not only did Rabbi Zera not laugh, he had Rabbi Yirmiyah suspended from the academy (Hmm, shades of my own truncated religious education ...).
All of the above only suggests that not everyone will find humor in the same places, which is no revelation. What is revelatory is how well the Friedmans know their subject. They not only provide scores of examples from the sacred Jewish sources, they spice the proceedings with an abundance of contemporary Jewish jokes (and believe me, they include countless classics). They also provide a fine bibliography, appendices of dates in Jewish history and the periods of the Talmudic sages and classic commentators, a general index, and even an index of jokes and punchlines.
My nigglings aside, the book had me smiling throughout. Bottom punchline: God Laughed is good news indeed. In truth, the only bad news comes in this joke: “The recently deceased friend appears to his living friend, a great lover of baseball, in a dream and tells him he has good news and bad news for him. The good news is that there is baseball in the next world. The bad news is that he will be playing shortstop the following day.”