Obama’s Shameful Joke About Special Olympics?

Shmuel Herzfeld is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C www.ostns.org. He writes in the Washington Post:

President Obama was only joking last week when he quipped on Jay Leno’s show that his bowling is "like the Special Olympics or something." To his credit, the President quickly realized that his joke was insensitive and not funny and so he called Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, to apologize.

Did he really need to do that? Is there something wrong with us that we can no longer take a joke?

That’s what Jackie Mason seems to think. After he used the Yiddish slur for a black person — schvartze — in reference to President Obama during a performance in New York On March 12, he refused to apologize for his choice of words. According to the Web site TMZ, Mason said: "I’m an old Jew. I was raised in a Jewish family where ‘schvartze’ was used. It’s not a demeaning word and I’m not going to defend myself."

He might not want to defend himself but Jewish tradition clearly and unequivocally views him as committing a great sin.

The great Jewish scholar, Maimonides (1138-1204), lists 24 types of people who will not gain a share in the World To Come (Laws of Repentance 3:14). This is how he begins his list: "One who makes a [derogatory] nickname for someone else; one who calls someone else by such a nickname; one who publicly embarrasses someone else; one who enjoys seeing another being embarrassed…"

Maimonides is referring to people who regularly act in this manner, but the implication is clear: There is nothing funny about making make fun of someone else or using a nickname which the other person does not care for.

Elsewhere the Talmud says in a homiletic fashion that anyone who shames his fellow man in public is considered to have spilled blood. The rabbis explain that on some level it may be worse for the person who is embarrassed as opposed to murdered because he is now forced to live and relive his embarrassment over and over again.

I happen to know personally a young man with special needs who actively supported Barack Obama for President. When President Obama made his unfortunate remark the young man was terribly crushed.

I had this young man in mind this past Saturday when I invited Tim Shriver to give the sermon in our synagogue on Saturday morning. We are an Orthodox synagogue and a Catholic had never before delivered our sermon. I thought of this young man and the impact of Obama’s words upon him and so I asked Tim to deliver the sermon in the middle of the service and not at the end where it might be perceived as of secondary importance. This is a universal message which transcends a specific religion. And it is a message which we need to remind ourselves of countless times.

…Our challenge in life is to transcend the loneliness that we all feel and remind ourselves and each other that we all have a unique and divine mission in this world. Our loneliness is also part and parcel of our uniqueness; our loneliness is what makes us special before our Maker. We can meet this great challenge with love, warmth, religion, and yes, even humor. But it needs to be a humor that is inclusive, not exclusionary.

So let us all continue to make jokes, but not ones that hurt other people.

I thought all humor hurts people. I thought all humor excludes? What is inclusive humor? It sounds like an oxymoron to me.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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