Latznu: Popular Culture and the Disciples of Amalek
"Come worship at the altar of evil in this
depraved exhibition of unabashed comedy...Featuring the most offensive comics
currently outside prison walls..."
(Promotion for the "Nasty Show" at the "Just for Laughs" comedy festival)
"We have scorned, we have made a mockery of serious matters. We have joked about serious matters. We have ridiculed honest and dedicated people. We have tried to find a springboard for humor in every topic. By doing so we have made repentance very difficult, both for ourselves and the people entertained by our witticisms, for as the Sages taught, one jest can repulse a hundred admonitions."
(Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor, explanation of "Vidui", confession)
In the days when disagreeing with the government could be fatal, humor provided the means for people to discuss important issues, to raise social consciousness, without putting one's head in a noose. There are many great satirical artists, from Aristophanes and Moliere, to Lewis Carroll and George Orwell. In contemporary democracies, the most common reaction to politics is disdain or apathy. The medium of humor allows one to deliver a political message that would otherwise not interest the vast majority of people.
In the 1960's and 70's young people rebelled against what they considered the stale values of their parents. They looked at the evil in the world, and marched to make it a better place. At the American Democratic Convention in 1968, when the Chicago police rioted against anti-war demonstrators, the news cameras filmed the protesters chanting, "The whole world is watching."
When the television program "Saturday Night Live" hit the airways in 1975, the Vietnam War was ending. The media-savvy protestors moved off the street into the studio. Saturday Night Live was a ground-breaking show, which mocked the "establishment". The original comedians of SNL generated an entertainment revolution. The medium that wouldn't show Elvis Presley's hips leaped past boundaries of convention, allowing adventurous comedians to skewer society in the late night hours. Politics, rock and roll, and glorified immorality were the mainstays of SNL.
Not coincidentally, Saturday Night Live was a commercial success, attracting trendy young audiences, with tremendous purchasing power. The network executives and accountants saw the great financial benefits of being hip, cool, and sarcastic. As the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter wrote, when talk show host David Frost told radical hippie leader Abbie Hoffman "we have to pause for a commercial break," the radical hippie revolution was over.
What was initially hip, over time became trite. The boundaries of good taste crossed by Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and friends had to be pushed further back, so newer comedians could have something to violate. Now we have TV shows with humor consisting of toilet activities. In "cutting edge" live performances, comedians do things that they would have been jailed for not too long ago. Whole series of movies glorify the stupidity of their central characters.
For years, counterculture newspapers published Matt Groening's comic strip "Life in Hell" -- a nihilistic series about a few alienated and unhappy creatures. When approached by a TV producer to base a comedy on the series, Groening was afraid of losing control of his "Life in Hell" characters. Not wanting however to miss an opportunity, he developed a new set of personae for TV, the family known as "The Simpsons." The Executive Producer for the Simpsons, Mike Scully, has stated that in order to write for the show, one must have "a healthy disrespect for everything Americans hold dear." Within a short time of its appearance on prime time, the Simpsons was a phenomenal success, having made over a billion dollars for the Fox Television. The Simpsons is one of the things that Americans hold dear.
Saturday Night Live is a reincarnation of the "Ed Sullivan show". The Simpsons are a modern "Father Knows Best." Each has its own rules of behavior. Thirty years ago television was bound by a strict code of what was permissible, by a restrictive definition of right and wrong. Today, there are also restrictions, such as saying that some things are wrong. When Marge Simpson starts a campaign against a violent children's television show, she ends up having to defend a Michelangelo statue against censorship. The lesson is that any restrictions or limits, are wrong. A cartoon cat having its head blown off is equated to renaissance art.
When Groening's creation, Homer, says, "Always make fun of those different from you," who is being satirized? What important message is being given to the families who made Groening rich? What culture are Homer, Bart, et al 'countering'?
George Carlin was a radical comedian decades ago. Today, with his long gray hair tied in a neat ponytail, and every second sentence containing at least one four-letter word, he is bland. Spicing humor with obscenity is now as daring as putting salt on french fries.
One can be funny without being mean. Bill Cosby revived the sit-com genre from a long period of dormancy with a show that was entertaining and funny, without humiliating its characters or dealing with their sex lives. His show boldly crossed boundaries by its depiction of a middle class black family, without any stereotypes or apologies.
Traditional Jewish humor mocked fools, the self-righteous, the Czar or the anti-Semite. Mostly, the Jews laughed lightly at their own foibles, or the difficulties of survival in a hostile, economically and morally backward world.
Nathan Ausabel, in his monumental "Treasury of Jewish Folklore" gives Jewish humor a large part of the credit for our survival as a people.
"Despite the tragedy of their historic experiences, Jews have always been life-affirming or they could not possibly have survived the ordeals they had to go through as a people... The therapy of gaiety and laughter was as necessary to them as the very air they breathed. Neither persecution, nor grief, nor the poverty of their dank ghetto-prisons could keep Jews from laughing."
Humor has a definite place in the Jewish tradition. The Talmudic sage Rava introduced all his lectures with "milta debedicha," words of humor, to open up his students. Although abstention from sarcasm is considered praiseworthy, the Gemara occasionally uses sarcasm to make a point.
Humor is not the same as mockery. The Gemara says that except for mockery of 'avoda zara', idol worship, all mockery is assur, is forbidden. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that the idea behind mockery is stripping away the value of something important. Avoda zara is the opposite, giving meaning to something worthless. Thus mocking avoda zara restores it to its proper place.
And what does it mean that it is "assur?" The word is generically translated as "forbidden", but in fact means "shackled." Every morning in brachot we refer to G-d as "matir assurim," who "frees the shackled." From a kabalistic perspective, when something is assur, it is shackled to the dark side, shackled to evil. Saying that mockery is shackled to evil is virtually repeating the words of the Just For Laughs Festival cited above. They however, are using this as a promotional tool.
After the miracles in Egypt, after crossing the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Jews entering the desert were on a spiritual high. G-d's active role in the world was blatantly evident, for all to see. The importance of spirituality, of holiness was clear. G-d's love for the Jewish people was physically manifest.
Along came Amelek, and said "G-d's relationship with Israel, G-d's active role in the world, holiness, they're no big deal." Amalek attacked Israel, physically and spiritually; their self-appointed role was to chill Israel's fervor for all that is significant. Amalek tried to strip away the value of everything that is important. According to Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin, they wanted to keep Bnai Yisrael from receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Our Sages consider Amalek to be the ultimate in mockery, the ultimate "letz." We are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us, and to eradicate them from amongst us.
The "counterculture" treasured by media accountants is a mockery. All the hip, cool, stupid or sarcastic people we see on television or movies, they are the "establishment". "Counterculture" means not following the masses, it means doing what is right, appreciating what truly deserves respect. In an upside down world, Shabbos, Mikvah, Kashrus are counterculture. Treating others with respect, holding on to morality, these are truly subversive to a consumer culture that says 'anything goes,' or 'you are what you buy.'
The Torah rebukes those who fail to serve G-d with joy. One should be happy, one should make jokes, one can even be sarcastic. But avoid the 'letz', avoid the mockery. Value what is meaningful.
Rabbi Sorotskin explains the verse in the Torah "Hashem maintains a war against Amalek, generation in and generation out:" G-d could have wiped out Amalek with one word. Rabbi Sorotskin comments that "G-d created the world intent on letting the power that is Satan tempt man to do evil in G-d's eyes. This will continue until the world achieves perfection."
Do you want to make the world a better place? Don't be a follower of Amalek. Shabbos, Mikvah, Kashrus, and Torah may not be as tempting as corporate "counterculture" entertainment, but are much better measures towards tikun olam, fixing the problems of the world.