Monday, December 15, 2008

Jewish Humor: Movements of Judaism

Judaism is made up of different movements, different branches that approach Jewish law and history differently. Here is my favorite joke illustrating the differences between the movements. I like this one because I think hits all three movements equally and fairly, whereas some other jokes of this nature seem to hit one movement more than the other.
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According to American Lung Association, about 1 in 8 smokers die from lung cancer. The question arose, is smoking equivalent to suicide, and therefore a violation of Jewish law? The question was posed to representatives of each of the major movements of American Judaism: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

The Reform rabbis considered the question and concluded... Yes, smoking is equivalent to suicide, and is a violation of Jewish law. From now on, all Reform Jews will have to make an informed choice about whether or not to smoke.

The Conservative rabbis considered the question and concluded:
Yes, smoking is equivalent to suicide, and is a violation of Jewish law. From now on, all Conservative rabbis will stop smoking. Members of their congregations will do whatever they wish.

The Orthodox rabbis considered the question and concluded:
Yes, smoking is equivalent to suicide, and is a violation of Jewish law. From now on, all Orthodox Jews who want to smoke will have to sell their lungs to a gentile.
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The Reform punchline pokes fun at the Reform movement's emphasis on personal choice. If everyone ultimately just does what they feel like, then Jewish "law" isn't really law, and it's a bit silly to even debate what the law is in that movement.

The Orthodox punchline pokes fun at Orthodoxy's propensity for finding loopholes in the law, and selling things is one technique used to create loopholes. For example, within Orthodoxy, it is a routine practice to sell one's chametz (leavened goods) to a gentile on Passover while physically keeping the chametz in your own cabinets to avoid "owning" leaven. Orthodoxy says that it is prohibited to neuter your pets, but some people get around that rule by selling their pets to a gentile, having the gentile neuter the pets, then buying the pet back for the original sale price plus the cost of the neutering.

The Conservative punchline is perhaps the one most likely to get complaints. The Conservative movement claims to respect Jewish law with a few amendments, and the rabbis certainly follow the rules of the movement, but the reality is that many members of many Conservative congregations don't even attempt to follow the law any more than members of Reform congregations do. Of course, many members of Conservative congregations don't like to hear that, particularly not from someone they consider to be ... not Conservative (though I've been a member of a Conservative congregation for nearly a decade now).

Perhaps a better punchline for the Conservative version would be this:
The Conservative rabbis considered the question and passed a resolution saying that smoking is equivalent to suicide, and is a violation of Jewish law, and Jews may not smoke. They also passed a resolution saying that smoking is not equivalent to suicide, is not a violation of Jewish law, and Jews may smoke if they choose to do so. Rabbis of each congregation will decide which of these resolutions their congregation will follow.

As we saw when the Conservative movement addressed the question of homosexuality recently, the Conservative movement can pass resolutions without a majority vote, so it is possible for the movement to simultaneously pass contradictory resolutions. With the homosexuality question, the movement passed a resolution allowing ordination of gay rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies... but they simultaneously passed a resolution against gay rabbis and a resolution against gay marriages. Local rabbis can choose which resolution to follow.

Here is another joke that has fun with the differences between movements, although many people don't see this joke as equally poking fun at both sides:
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A Conservative Jewish man living in Anchorage Alaska bought himself a new Mercedes. He wanted a rabbi to say a brachah (blessing) over it, but there were only two rabbis in town: one Lubavitch (Chasidic Orthodox) and one Reform. He went first to the Lubavitcher rabbi. "Rabbi," he asked, "Can you say a brachah for my Mercedes?" The rabbi said, "I'd be happy to, my son, but tell me: what's a Mercedes?" He said "never mind," and decided to try the Reform rabbi.

"Rabbi," he said to the Reform rabbi, "Can you say a brachah for my Mercedes?" The rabbi said, "I'd be happy to, my son, but tell me: what's a brachah?"
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Most Reform Jews can see that this is taking a swipe at their movement, claiming that their rabbis don't even know what a blessing is. But what they usually fail to see is that it is also taking a swipe at the Orthodox: claiming that they are so out of touch with the real world that they wouldn't even know what a Mercedes is (a ridiculous notion, since many Chasidic rabbis do indeed drive very fancy cars!). (and yes, it's true that there are only two synagogues in Anchorage, Lubavitch and Reform!)

2 comments:

morningstar said...

Great! The best jokes reveal a bit of truth, and teach us something.

Nathan said...

This may be out of your realm of experience, but I'm hoping I can be directed to someone who can help. I read somewhere that there was a sect of judaism that would read the torah until they found something that they needed to practice better, and they would stop there and spend the rest of the day on that one concept. I don't believe it was modern, but I don't know. I thought since this was a FAQ blog, I might find some help. Thanks!