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Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
April 2, 2004


Religion Without Humor Is Blasphemy
Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein

Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel
Memphis, TN

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

My inspiration for today’s sermon, comes from the first places in Scripture where the word "laughter" appears, Genesis 18 & 21:

“The guests visiting Abraham said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he replied, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘"Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I in truth bear child, old as I am?'” Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen 18:9-14) The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him [at age 90], the name of Isaac. And when Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” The Word of the Lord.

Years ago, while leading a women’s bible study group at Temple, I shared these biblical verses to demonstrate that it’s never too late to have kids. I shared with these women how Sarah gave birth to Isaac at age 90. And I will never forget the response of the ladies I was teaching. One cried out, “Rabbi, good for Sarah!”

In her new book on Judaism, Levinas, and the Feminine, author Claire Katz and theologian Rachel Adler direct our attention to the context in which we find Sarah’s laughter in Genesis. “Sarah has just been told that she will give birth to a child, and that this child will yield many nations. Upon hearing this news, Sarah laughs. And she laughs not simply because she is told that she will give birth at the age of ninety. She laughs because she also understands what it will mean to give birth to the child.” Keep in mind, there’s no immaculate conception in Judaism. Which means that Sarah must first conceive the child, and to do that, Professor Rachel Adler observes, Sarah, at the age of ninety, realizes “that the old man and I are going to do it again!”

As revealed in the biblical text, specifically the literal meaning of the Hebrew word ednah, pleasure, Sarah’s thoughts move from having Isaac, to the pleasures and the absurdity in conceiving him. Friends, this isn’t a stretch. Don’t tell the biblical literalists because this may throw them, but laughter in the bible, from the Hebrew word, tzahak, as in Yitzhak, Isaac, is often associated with sex. In Genesis 8, “The king of the Philistines sees Isaac mitzahek, “playing” with his wife. In Genesis 39:17, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph, “that Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house, he came to me l’tzahek bi [to dally with me].” And the use of tzahak, laughter, continues in Exodus 32:6 in connection with the story of the Golden Calf where the people “sat down to eat and drink and then rose l’tzahek, to make merry.” This led the classical biblical commentators to envision an orgy based on the literal meaning of the word.

So, the traditional focus on Sarah’s laughter in this story centers, as I did in that side comment to our women’s bible study group, on the idea that Sarah is overwhelmed, disbelieving at the possibility of conceiving a child at age 90. But this interpretation overlooks Sarah’s reference, in Genesis 18:12 to enjoyment, from the Hebrew word ednah, which connotes sexual pleasure, but which most English translations have toned down from the original Hebrew.

Three chapters later, when Sarah gives birth to a son, Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears about this [especially the women] will laugh with me." (Gen 21:6). "Sarah not only laughs, but even names her child, 'Isaac' [Yitzhak], meaning 'one who laughs.'” Katz notes that Isaac thus becomes the literal embodiment of the sexual pleasure that Sarah experienced with Abraham at ages 90 and 100.

A word about taking the bible literally, it is impossible for two reasons. First, the English translations preachers claim to be the literal word of God, are not always true to the original language of the Bible, Hebrew. All translations are really interpretations, and there are over 400 biblical words known as hapax legomena, whose English translation we don't know. The English you read is a best guess. The second reason why biblical literalism is impossible is because no one takes the entire bible literally. Serpent handling Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia come closest to following the words of Jesus literally in Mark 16. Perhaps you are aware of people who advocate self-mutilation in obedience to Jesus’ words in Mark 9. I'm not. And if we were to execute children who insult their parents as is written in Deuteronomy 21, we’d all be dead. Further, we learn from today’s verses that we have to move beyond the bible’s association of laughter with sex, especially for our more conservative friends who worry--as we all should--about too much sex and violence in popular culture – unless, of course, it’s Mel Gibson’s sadistic portrayal of violence in The Passion of the Christ.

What is clear in the bible we share, is that with Isaac, the age of laughter begins. And as we prepare to enter the holiest and most solemn season of the year in Christian time, God forbid we close the age of laughter which began with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. We need laughter in our lives. It is God's gift to us.

A priest, Pentecostal preacher, and rabbi all served as chaplains to the students of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. They would get together two or three times a week for coffee and to talk shop. One day someone made the comment that preaching to people isn’t really all that hard. A real challenge would be to preach to a bear. One thing led to another they decided to do a seven-day experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it. Seven days later, they’re all together to discuss the experience.

Father Flannery, who has his arm in a sling, is on crutches, and has various bandages, goes first. “Well,” he says, “I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him I began to read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear wanted nothing to do with me and began to slap me around. So I quick grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and, Holy Mary Mother of God, he became as gentle as a lamb. The bishop is coming out next week to give the bear first communion and confirmation.”

Reverend Billy Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, with an arm and both legs in casts, and an IV drip. In his best fire and brimstone oratory, he proclaimed, ‘Well brothers, you know that we don’t sprinkle, so I went out and found me a bear. And then I began to read from God’s Holy Word! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. So I took hold of him and we began to rassle. We rassled down one hill, up another, and down another until we came to a crick. So I quick dunked him and baptized his hairy soul. And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the week in fellowship, feasting on God’s Holy Word, and praising Jesus.”

They both looked down at the rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body cast and traction with IVs and monitors running in and out of him. He was in bad shape. The rabbi looks up and says, “You fellows don’t what trouble is until you try to circumcise one of those devils!”

There is more Jewish humor on circumcision than any other subject, and yet in no way does that take away from the centrality and seriousness of the covenant of circumcision. God instructs the father of monotheism and the first Jew, Abram, “At the age of eight days, every male among you through the generations shall be circumcised. This shall be my everlasting covenant with you.” It is only after this ritual, my friends, that God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “father of many nations.”

Whenever rulers wished to destroy Judaism, their common tactic was to go after the kids. If you stop the kids from being Jewish, then there will be no Jewish future. Rulers who wished to destroy Jewish loyalties and put an end to Judaism ordered that any parent who arranged for their son to be circumcised would be put to death. In fact, that’s how the story of Chanukah most likely began. The story about the lights burning for eight days is a legend, but what we know actually happened is that 165 years before 0, the Greek-Assyrian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanies, declared war on the Jews and proclaimed that all Jewish sons must be left uncircumcised. Jewish parents still continued the ritual in hiding, but one mother, Hannah, and her three sons were discovered, taken by the Greek-Assyrians, and she and her three circumcised Jewish boys who were initiated into the faith of the Jewish people were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem. Hannah and her sons were publicly executed, and this was one of the prime motivating factors which led the Maccabees to rise up and declare the first struggle for religious freedom in the history of humankind. The odds were slim to none that the Maccabees would prevail, but that did not stop them. Had the Maccabees lost, Judaism would have died out 165 years before 0 and Jesus would not have had a Judaism to be born into. So that’s the real link between Chanukah and Christmas. Without the story of Chanukah, Christmas would have never happened. Circumcision motivated the Jewish struggle for religious freedom. It remains the oldest continuous r-i-t-e in the history of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s off limits to Jewish humor. If God can help us bear our tragedies, Judaism teaches, then God can also take our humor! Every death leaves a scar, Elie Wiesel has written, and every time a child laughs, it starts healing. Laughter is healing.

I’ve always believed that God must have a sense of humor. Just look at us. Just look at God’s creation. We Jews, and you Christians engage in predicate theology. You remember that grade school exercise of dividing sentences into subjects and predicates. Predicate theology goes like this. We know what God is by the predicate. We say that God is love. God is forgiveness. God is compassion. By the predicate of those sentences, we affirm that God is forgiving, loving, and compassionate. The caring people of Calvary and Temple, the caring people of every church and synagogue in this city, could not have been created without the existence of a Caring Being with a capital “C.” Seen this way, humor is a gift from God, not only on yesterday’s April Fool’s, but even at life’s most serious times, including Lent. If our minds and hearts are gifts from God, then by God, so is the sense of humor God has implanted within us. And if we are to utilize all the positive gifts that God has given us in this lifetime, then religion without laughter is blasphemy.

God is the creator of laughter that is good, not laughter that mocks, scorns, and shows contempt. Healthy laughter is a universal bond that draws all people closer. The great Jewish thinker Nahum Glatzer wrote In Time and Eternity, “there are men who suffer terrible distress and are unable to tell what they feel in their hearts, and so they go their way and suffer and suffer and suffer. But if they meet one with a laughing smiling face, he can revive them with his joy. And to revive another person is no slight thing.” The rabbis of the first century wrote, just after Jesus’ time, “Make your study of the bible a regular activity, promise little but do much, v’hehvei m’kabeil et kol ha’adam b’seiver panim yafot, and receive all people with a smiling face, a joyful countenance.” The rabbis were speaking of the people you work with, on the street, the folks you will meet after this service whose faces bear a smile instead of a scowl, who face you with joy and not a frown, who get you breathing by laughing healthfully with a joyous remark, pleasant grin, or beaming face.

Laughter, my friends, is healing. Why? Because our need for laughter, like love, is limitless, and it does not diminish even when a loved one dies. Temple Israel covers more than half the Memphis Jewish community. Over 4,000 men, women, and children affiliate with my synagogue, which explains why our lifecycle load is so heavy. We have experienced over 30 deaths since the end of December, and I have found myself in dozens of living rooms consoling families in the wake of their losses. “How can I laugh again, rabbi? How can I love again?” To the families in mourning who ask that I say, “Not now, but eventually, you will laugh again. Someday, you will laugh again.” How can I say that? Because nothing would dishonor your loved one more than protracted sadness. Nothing would dishonor your spouse, parent, sibling, or child more than never smiling, laughing, or loving again. That would be the greatest disservice to your loved one.

When we laugh with each other, not at each other, but with each other, we are reminded of what this Passover/Lenten season teaches, namely, how deeply connected we are to one another even in our uncertain world. What unites us is our being accountable to God, our being objects of God’s concern, our shared belief that every man, woman, and child is precious in God’s eyes.

These days before the Passover story of freedom from slavery for Jews, and the Easter story of Christ’s death and resurrection, these are moments for us to stand together and see our faces in the mirror: these are moments for us to stand together and see each other as partners in faith, partners who see the anguish of humanity and the need for divine guidance; partners in faith who feel the moral imperative to right the wrongs of society as best we can; partners in faith who, in our different paths to the same God, strive to do what is right in the decisions we face and the choices we make. Religion is only worthy if it makes better people, and making better people is our shared task as Christians and Jews. May we never forget that.

I close with the best blessing our people knows, from the Scripture we share in the Book of Numbers 6:24. Y’varechecha… “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s radiance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God always be with you and give you peace.” Amen.

Copyright ©2004 Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein

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