Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Sarcastic Rabbis

[Post I'm thinking about: How personal should a blog be? at Jack's Random Thoughts]

In my early dating days – I was maybe 22 or 23, I think - my rebbe wanted to set me up with a girl. He emphasized that she was a very sweet person. I told him I wasn’t sure whether this would be a good idea – after all, I was somewhat sarcastic and sharp-tongued. [Those who knew me back then can stop giggling now.] [Yes, you.]

My rebbe smiled and said something along the lines of, “When I was younger I also thought it was a chachmah [display of wit] to be able to say something sharp. Then I grew out of it.”

This comes to mind because Hosheia 7:5 describes delinquent leaders who put their lot with לוצצים, people who mock and scorn others, rather than take care of their responsibilites. Building on this, Rava said to the sages (Avodah Zarah 18b), “I beg of you, do not mock, lest suffering come upon you.”

Certainly, there is reason to use constructive mockery in highlighting the foolishness of a particularly destructive activity (see Megilah 25b regarding mocking idolatry). But as a general rule, I am with Rava: Mocking anything, dismissing it from consideration and making light of it, is self-destructive on several levels:

• As my rebbe said, sarcastic scorn is not a chachmah; it doesn’t show any particular wit. Anything can be mocked; there’s always room to find something ridiculous in an idea or practice or person, and anyone can do it.

• Sarcasm is lazy, relying on superficial caricature of the opposition instead of reasoned, articulate debate.

• The result of a dismissive attitude is that we fail to take others seriously, even when they have something to teach us.

• Sarcastic humor is contagious and addictive, so that the trait doesn’t remain within a circumscribed area; the same rabbi who delivers a speech mocking his ideological opponents may well find himself mocking his children, or his spouse, or his students in a shiur, or someone who comes to give him constructive criticism.

So I am uncomfortable with “rabbinic comedians,” who are known for making light of their opposition in their schmoozes. I’ve seen it in mussar schmoozes, kiruv seminars, shul derashos and more, and it troubles me. [Please keep specific names out of the Comments section; my omission of those names is not out of ignorance.] Cheap shots play well with the high school and “Gap year” crowds, and with adults who have never “grown out of it,” to use my rebbe’s phrase, but to me it betrays a mind that doesn’t think things through, that doesn’t see the other side, or that needs to resort to cheap humor rather than eloquent argumentation. It also makes me wonder what the speaker is saying about me when I am not present; what sarcastic jokes are aimed in my direction?

In my blog header, I thank my Rebbetzin [who is not the girl my rebbe suggested to me] for making me a Rabbi. This is one of the several reasons behind that line: She continues to teach me, by example, to lose that addiction to sarcasm. One day, I hope, I’ll successfully put the lesson into full-time practice.

1 comment:

  1. There's a time and place for everything- Unfortunately those sharp worded Rabbis would likely be decimated in a debate/shiur - that's why they save it for speeches or other unequal platforms where no one can effectively confront them.
    Joel Rich