Is the Jewish Religion a Laughing Matter?
Jewish comedians have gently poked fun at their own religion— or their own doubts about the existence of God—for a long time. In Woody Allen’s movie, Broadway Danny Rose, Danny has the following conversation with his love interest, Tina:
Tina: Who’s got time for guilt?
Danny: What are you talking about? Guilt is important. It’s important to feel guilty. Otherwise, you’re capable of terrible things. It’s very important to be guilty. I’m guilty all the time, and I never did anything. My rabbi, Rabbi Perlstein, used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.
Tina: You believe in God?
Danny: No, but I’m guilty over it.1
These days, however, some influential Jewish comics are not only guilt free but are making a living off of their irreverent perspective. Comments like “Anyone who believes in God is meshugge” are intended to get a laugh. Okay, I’ll name some of the comics I have in mind—Bill Maher, Larry Charles and Larry David. They would not characterize themselves as skeptics; perhaps they would leave the remote possibility open that there is a God. However, they are cynics who look for reasons not to believe.
The Snarky Jewish Cynic
Maher was raised a Catholic. But during his teen years, he learned that his mother had never attended church with his Irish Catholic father and the rest of the family because she was Jewish! Maher began his career as a standup comic and went on to develop Politically Incorrect, a celebrity guest political talk show that aired on both Comedy Central and ABC. Since 2003 he has hosted a similar program on HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher. On both shows, Maher revels in ridiculing others and in patronizing anyone who expresses faith in God. As one movie critic notes, Maher “made his name lambasting every bastion of good, moral taste.”2
Maher brings this same dismissive, mean-spirited approach to the documentary movie Religulous (a combination of the words “religion” and “ridiculous”), in which he conducts interviews with people from a wide variety of religious perspectives.
“What I am saying,” Maher told The Jewish Journal, “is if you are religious at all, you are an extremist.”3 Judaism doesn’t get a free pass: “I think the Jews, although certainly less warlike than the Christians and the Muslims, are no less crazy. You know, there’s just some crazy stuff they believe and do, and a lot of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). A lot of really cuckoo stuff there in Jerusalem. I think Judaism in America, except for the very Orthodox, is much more just cultural.”4
The only Judaism Maher can accept is a cultural kind that excludes God. Regarding the Ten Commandments, Maher offers, “It’s really not a wise list of ten.” He views the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as one who “wipes people out randomly and should not serve as anyone’s ethic[al] role model.”5 In Religulous, Maher says that Moses is “cuckoo” because, according to the Bible, he spoke with God in the burning bush.
The Insecure Jewish Cynic
Like Maher, Larry Charles, who directed Religulous, started as a stand-up comic in the 1970s. When Larry David got together with Jerry Seinfeld to create Seinfeld, he hired Charles to write for what would become one of the most successful American television shows in history. And again, when David moved on to produce Curb Your Enthusiasm for HBO, he snagged Charles to direct that show.
Charles, born in Brooklyn, gave some insight into his feelings about religion:
My parents . . . wanted me to just go to Hebrew school, get bar mitzvahed, get the money and get out! But I was actually very drawn to the metaphysical questions. And of course I couldn’t find anybody to answer them or even engage me in it. The rabbis just shut down that discourse, my parents weren’t really interested in it. But the questions continued to plague me and they still plague me today.6
Regarding their collaboration on Religulous, Maher says of Charles, “We agreed on religion. We couldn’t have really done this if we had differing views. And I don’t think we ever really had any space between what we believed.”7
Like Maher, Charles says the answers are not to be found in the Scriptures: “Judaism is deeply ingrained in me, but I’m definitely not a believer in the Bible. I can’t accept that.”8
The Belligerent Jewish Cynic
Charles says that when he met Larry David, who is also from Jewish lower-middle-class Brooklyn, “We spoke the same language—we were like brothers from different mothers.”9
They certainly speak the same language regarding religion.
When asked about poking fun at religion in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David says, “Religion should be made fun of. It’s quite ridiculous, isn’t it? I mean, think how people spend their lives. They have no idea; they go around as if this is a fact. It is so insane, you know. If I really believed that stuff I would keep it to myself in case people thought I was out of my mind!”10
As The Jewish Journal notes, “‘Curb'” has succeeded in offending every variety of Jew, from the assimilated to the observant.11 In one episode, Larry pretends to be an Orthodox Jew in order to convince the kidney bank director (who is an Orthodox Jew) to arrange a transplant for Larry’s friend—just so Larry won’t have to donate his own kidney! Journalist Arye Dworken found the episode “not only unfunny but also wildly inaccurate. David not only makes fun of his own religion, he also makes up half of its customs, thereby misinforming unfamiliar viewers.”12
The Cynic’s Worldview
These cynical comics resign themselves to the position of “‘We don’t know’ and ‘We don’t really care,’ and you’re never going to know what happens in the afterworld till you die.”13 Comedians in general—and maybe Jewish comedians even more so—have a keen awareness of the absurdities of life. Perhaps this leads them to doubt the existence of God. On Larry David’s “MySpace” page, he lists “discrepancies” among his interests. Joking about the ambiguity and uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death is one way of dealing with it.
Not content to state their own belief (or lack thereof), they feel the need to label anyone who believes in God as ignorant. But the Hebrew Scriptures teach that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7)—not ignorance. Those same Scriptures state, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). As the late biblical scholar Louis Goldberg wrote, “Today’s worldly-wise generation can calculate the path of a missile but cannot point the empty heart toward the path to the knowledge of God.”14 We suffer from information overload and spiritual deprivation.
These cynics claim that no reasonable person can believe in the Bible. They say that accounts like that of Jonah living inside a big fish are impossible fairly tales. They consider anything beyond their own understanding as “nonsense.” But the most critical “nonsense” they dismiss is the very first line of the Hebrew Scriptures, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). If they could believe that one sentence, everything else would fall in place. The other supernatural events they discount pale in comparison to the miracle of creation.
The irony of three Jewish comics denying the God of the Bible is that the very existence of our Jewish people is evidence that God exists! The prophet Jeremiah wrote:
This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
So, if the sun, moon, and stars disappear, so will we. How else can we explain the survival of our people, given the history of the Hamans, Hitlers and Hamas terrorists who have dedicated themselves to our destruction?
The Cynics Have a Point
In one sense, I have to agree with these comics: religion, in terms of what mankind has done with it, can be comical, sad, and scary. Certainly many wars have been fought in the name of religion. Cults have formed around magnetic personalities who have led their followers to lifetime emotional scarring and even to a pointless death. Religious leaders have misinterpreted the Bible and added legalistic rules that they say their adherents must follow in order to attain heaven.
On the other hand, is it so surprising that people have made a mess of what God teaches in the Bible? Though we are made in the image of God, we are all tarnished with an inability to keep his laws, a condition the Bible calls sin. The Scriptures say we inherited this condition from the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God. We may want to dismiss this account as a fable, but the evidence is right before our eyes and in our hearts: we all fail to live up to the moral standards we find in God’s Word. In fact, even if we have never picked up a Bible, we all seem to know when we have done something wrong.
Psychologist Pauline Holmes writes:
The law God gave to Moses is written in the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as the Torah. It articulates what humans already know at an unconscious level, although not at the same level of specificity. Reading the law shows us why we have always felt uncomfortable about certain thoughts and actions. This knowledge is not acquired through Bible study. Rather, the Bible brings this innate knowledge up to the level of consciousness.15
Why does the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” appear not only in the New Testament but also in the Talmud, with its almost identical counterparts in Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Brahmanism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism?16 The reason is that God has put the moral law in our hearts.
Is God an Underachiever?
Humor is great. God is not the cosmic killjoy. But when comedians make light of God and life and death, it may be a way of avoiding issues that make us all a bit uncomfortable.
Broadway Danny Rose is right: guilt is good. It is good when it reminds us that we have fallen short of God’s righteousness. It is especially good when that recognition causes us to call out to God for his forgiveness.
We sense deep inside that we have violated that moral code and are incapable of keeping it. And we innately know that there must be a penalty for those violations. If God had left us in that position of certain doom, we would have to agree with Woody Allen’s cynical view of the universe: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.”17 Rabbi Harold Kushner made that view popular in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He believes in God, but one with limited power.
But God did not underachieve. The Hebrew Scriptures say, “He has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). If God has done that, doesn’t it make sense that he would also give us the way to eternity? He has made a way for us to be forgiven for our failure to keep his moral code. It is through the only man who ever kept that moral code perfectly, the one who died in our place so that, simply by believing in him, we can be assured of an eternity with God.
And that’s no laughing matter.
- Woody Allen, Three Films of Woody Allen: Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), pp. 223-224.
- Brad A. Greenberg, “Bill Maher Gets Downright ‘Religulous,'” The Jewish Journal, September 24, 2008.
- “The Real Bill,” interview of Bill Maher by Kelly Carlin- McCall, Irish-America Magazine, October/November 2008, http://www.irishabroad.com/irishworld/irishamericamag/octnov08/features/ bill-maher-octnov08.asp. (discontinued)
- Elizabeth Gettelman, “The Mojo Interview: Bill Maher,” Mother Jones, September/October 2008, http://www.motherjones.com/ interview/2008/09/media-pick-beyond-belief.html.
- “A Conversation about the Film ‘Religulous,'” interview with Larry Charles and Bill Maher, by Charlie Rose, http://www. charlierose.com/view/interview/9304.
- John Leland, “Cameras Roll and Faith Hasn’t a Prayer,” The New York Times, September 26, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/28/movies/28lela.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3&partner=r ssnyt&emc=rss.
- James Kaplan, “Angry Middle-Aged Man: Is Larry David funnier than everybody else, or just more annoying?” The New Yorker, January 19, 2004, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/01/19/ 040119fa_fact?currentPage=9.
- “TimesTalks with Larry David,” interview by Bill Carter, The New York Times, February 6, 2006, http://www.atheistnation.net/video/?video/01509/atheist/larry-david-on-religion. (discontinued)
- Tom Teicholz, “Larry David Died for our Sins,” The Jewish Journal, December 22, 2005, http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/larry_david_died_for_our_sins_20051223.
- Arye Dworken, “Milk Products and Larry David: Bad for the Jews?” November 21, 2005, http://www.bringbacksincerity.blogspot.com/2005/11/milk-products-and-larry-david-bad-for.html.
- Louis Goldberg, Savoring the Wisdom of Proverbs (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), p. 5.
- Pauline Holmes, Hell and Madness; Grace and Sanity: The True Biblical Basis for Mental Health (Berkeley, CA: Ransom Press, 1992), p. 76.
- Harold J. Berman, “Law and Logos,” DePaul Law Review, Volume 44:143, 1994, http://www.argobooks.org/berman/law-and-logos.html.
- Woody Allen, http://www.basicjokes.com/dquotes.php?aid=136.
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.