Can Comedy Be Kosher?

I just read a provocative article on Orthodox Jews in comedy in Tablet Magazine.

According to the author’s self-description: “Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.”

Lambert writes for “But Judaism goes much further than most faiths in specifying the limits of proper speech. It’s not just that Jews are enjoined to avoid nivul peh—obscene speech—by authorities like Maimonides, who taught that “we must not imitate the songs and tales of ignorant and lascivious people” (Songs and Tales of Ignorant and Lascivious People would actually be a pretty good title for a comedy podcast). Beyond that, according to the rules laid out by Israel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, in the 19th century, a pious Jew shouldn’t speak negatively about the skills of a tradesperson, shouldn’t make derisive hand gestures, shouldn’t speak negatively about Jews of any kind, shouldn’t ridicule an ignoramus.”

This is not an accurate summary of Judaism’s teachings on speech. A glance at the Hebrew Bible finds many examples of frank and direct talk about the sex lives of specific persons. The Song of Songs is one long erotic song. The Talmud overflows with explicit sex talk about specific persons and it is filled with denunciation of the ignoramus (the “am haaretz” aka the people of the land).

Lambert’s summary of Judaism’s position on speech is silly. The Chofetz Chaim does not embody Judaism’s approach to speech, rather, he gives a far-out and non-representative take by using aggadata (stories) as halacha (law) and his most famous sefer (book) “Chofetz Chaim” was widely mocked when it came out. Only ignorant Jews regard it as a binding compilation of Judaism’s laws of speech.

There are so many different opinions within Judaism on what is lashon hara that the concept is not much use except to condemn people we don’t like.

Unfortunately, the Chofetz Chaim is widely influential in Orthodox life regarding speech, more influential than any other rabbi, but only the ignorant regarding him as representative of Judaism’s teachings on proper speech. It is fascinating to see how this book has become so influential when it is so silly. Because we live in an era of extremes, I suppose, and this is the most extreme approach to proper speech possible in Judaism.

Here is how the Chofetz Chaim is described by his son: “Father had no personal friendships with anyone all the days of his life.” That’s not the type of person you want setting the laws of speech.

Lambert writes:

A common trope in ultra-Orthodox women’s comedy, for one example, is the overblown paean to the “goyta”—the non-Jewish cleaning woman who makes life bearable for a Jewish homemaker—in which the laughs derive from the intensity of the affection of the Jewish woman for her little “shikse.” In Forster’s Yiddish version of this routine, the putative humor is intensified by the goyta’s obtuseness. As Forster puts it, in the song’s chorus, the goyta doesn’t know the difference between milkhiks and flayshiks, but she works like a horse and comes cheap. Imagine the non-Jewish equivalent—a rich Protestant singing a love song to her Filipino cleaning lady—and you have a sense of how tasteless this material comes across. Even if Forster, like Lebovits, has rabbinic approval, when she reaches for laughs she can’t help but produce mockery that could easily be judged as a case of lashon hara.

Yes, and Josh Lambert’s writing here could easily be judged as a case of somebody who should go study before he publishes.

There’s no mitzva against tastelessness or bigotry or racism in Judaism. These are sins in the leftist worldview, but not in Torah. No great rabbi has published a sefer against racism. In all of Torah, you will never find a commandment against racism and bigotry. Mocking non-Jews is no violation of the laws against “lashon hara.” In fact, it is the defacto Jewish approach when the goyim won’t hurt you for it.

The Chofetz Chaim was a European Orthodox rabbi who lived at the turn of the last century. According to Wikipedia: “Yisrael Meir (Kagan) Poupko (Dziatłava, 1838 – Radun’, 1933), known popularly as The Chofetz Chaim, was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi of the Musar movement, a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life. His surname, Poupko, is not widely known.”

The rabbi’s most famous book is known as the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life) and it is against gossip. Like many leading rabbis, Yisrael Meir became known by the name of his leading publication.

In his first lecture on R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk for Torah in Motion, history professor Marc B. Shapiro says:

The Mishna Brura (the most influential commentary today on daily Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jews compiled by the Chofetz Chaim) only became canonical in the last 30 years.

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk attacked the Chofetz Chaim at a rabbinic meeting in 1910. R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said the meeting was only for congregational rabbis.

Various rabbis made fun of the book Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish is said to have made fun of the Chofetz Chaim book on gossip. “Even if these stories are not accurate, that they are told in the yeshiva world shows that this is an ethos that great rabbis shared.”

Chazon Ish said the Chofetz Chaim did not know what he was talking about in this book.

According to his critics, the Chofetz Chaim created halacha (Jewish law) out of mussar (ethical exhortations, frequently extreme). That he took aggadic (stories) things and turned them into halacha. That he took ethical statements and turned them into Jewish law.

“I don’t know today if anyone would have the courage to say something like that [to make these criticisms of the Chofetz Chaim book].”

[Marc Shapiro emails to correct my flawed early version of this blog post: “I was asked what the Chazon Ish thought of the book called Chofetz Chaim, which is a book about Lashon Hara. That is what the Chazon Ish is said not to have liked, not the person known as the Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish thought the world of the person the Chofetz Chaim, and also his book Mishneh Berurah. But he wasn’t such a fan of the BOOK Chofetz Chaim.”]

According to the Chofetz Chaim, no gossip is permitted, even between husband and wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought differently.

Today, the Chofetz Chaim is the last word in these matters and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have the temerity to tell yeshiva students that they don’t have to listen to the Chofetz Chaim, that’s a bit difficult in the yeshiva world today and so they removed it [from a haredi publication of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach].

According to Rabbi Jacob Emden, you could say Lashon Hara (gossip) about anyone who was your enemy. I guess this is a justification for all the Lashon Hara he tells in his own books.

There are all sorts of heterim (permissions) for Lashon Hara. The Meiri says that if you say it publicly, it is not Lashon Hara. There are all sorts of views out there by great rabbis. Then the Chofetz Chaim codified Judaism’s teachings on gossip and made it appear as though Judaism had a universal prohibition on speaking ill of others.

If you read the writings of the great rabbis, almost all of these gadolim violate the laws of the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life). Of course, these great rabbis do not think they are saying Lashon Hara. They believe the target of their enmity deserves it. If their target is doing bad things, then they deserve.

It’s depressing. For many of these rabbis, it’s just a personal weakness, though none of them would admit it. They’d say they are exposing hypocrites as the Talmud commands.

Marc B. Shapiro said in a 2008 lecture for Torah in Motion on “The Lives of the Gedolim”:

“If you read my blogs, you’ll see that I am a relentless exposer of the fraudulence not just in the chareidi world but in the Modern Orthodox world. It all needs to be exposed. But that doesn’t mean that every simple person needs to know… As Rav Kook says, if they come into our world and try to affect us with their fraudulent stories, it needs to be exposed. But if they want to live by these bubbemeisers (old wives tales), that’s a way of life. I’m like Rabbi Slifkin in this regard. Only if it threatens to interfere in the wider community.

“It’s hard to know what lashon hara (gossip) is. You don’t really know what lashon hara is. I have read many letters of gedolim and they are full of negative comments about other rabbis, which you would say is lashon hara. As anyone knows, they badmouth them all the time. If you asked the rav, he would say it is not lashon hara. The Torah says you have to expose chanafim (hypocrites, flatterers).

(“The admonition to expose hypocrites is stated in Yoma 86b where it is derived from [the legal category of] Chillul HaShem,” emails Marc in reply to my question.)

“We are supposed to expose hypocrisy. I would say that if you asked all these rabbonim who say terrible things about other ones and were great talmidei chachamim, if you asked them, they would say it is not lashon hara, but he’s a fraud and I have to expose him. It could be that he’s not a fraud and that it’s just a personal dispute.

“I don’t think it’s lashon hara to talk about a dispute that the whole world knew about and it was in all the newspapers… If a certain rav did a bad thing. There’s a rav, not a gadol of the first calibre but of the second calibre, but he had a child out of wedlock when he was about 17 and in yeshiva. About 20 years ago, one of the Israeli newspapers exposed him and published the birth certificate. I think that’s a terrible breach of privacy. He made a mistake when he was young. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. I would never expose something like that. If I knew about it, I would probably choose not to write about him because how could you write about him and not talk about it?

“If there was a case like this where he abandoned the girl and wanted nothing to do with them and then he became a big scholar, a Talmud Chacham, a posek, I don’t think that’s lashon hara. This would be an example of exposing the hypocrites.”

“I try to balance Jewish values with secular values. As a secular historian, you go into a grave and dig up the body if you need to. They dug up Zachary Taylor’s body to see if he was poisoned. I would have no problem as a secular historian if I was writing about a figure like Einstein, but among gedolim, I do not do that. I can honestly say that I’ve never had to make that choice with Rabbi Yaakov Jechiel Weinberg. I would rather not write about somebody than have to cover something like that up… Certain great rabbinic figures, I would treat differently than other figures. If that is not in correspondence with historical [analysis], what are they going to do? Take my tenure away? Life is not only about historical craft.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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