During chol hamoed pesach my husband and I usually include a theatre or cinema visit amongst our activities. A particular highlight in 2019 was seeing my first live performance of “Fiddler on the Roof”. Apart from the quality of the production itself, we enjoyed swapping home-made pesach goodies with the rabbinic couple sitting next to us. The collective intake of breath from all the Jews in the audience when a real challah appeared on stage for the Friday night scene made the experience almost as memorable as the off-Broadway production we attended with our son a few weeks later, “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish”.
(Image by Kelly Newcomer from Pixabay)
Obviously, no such delights are available to us during our second pandemic Passover. I decided instead, to create our own “Freedom Film Festival”, and appealed to my film buff friends on social media to suggest suitable titles. The first, obvious question, that came back was “what genre do you like?” Scarred by some past mistakes in choosing suitable entertainment (our first outing after my husband’s year of mourning for his late father was to a David Baddiel “work in progress” comedy gig, the themes of which turned out to be the death of Baddiel’s mother and his father’s dementia), I suggested that a bit of light comedy would not go amiss, but I was more interested in the theme of the films (freedom) than the genre.
Nominations duly came in (more are welcome in the comments below), and I started researching the suggested titles. I decided that anything that was both available on Netflix, and sounded funny, would move to the top of the list. Coincidentally, at the same time that I was working on my list of funny freedom films for the festival, my academic research led me to an interesting passage about the deep link between humour and freedom.
Humour, according to Rabbi Sacks zt’l, is “the oldest form of cognitive therapy”. R. Sacks explains that cognitive therapy, founded by Aaron Beck, is based on the idea that our thoughts, including barely conscious thoughts, determine our reactions to events. By becoming more aware of these thoughts, and challenging them, we can reframe our perceptions and transform our reactions. Similarly, the work of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, provides tools for overcoming “learned helplessness” and becoming more optimistic. According to Rabbi Sacks, Beck and Seligman shared an important understanding: freedom is the ability to redefine our situation. And humour, particularly Jewish humour, is a supreme expression of this ability:
“Jewish humour in particular lives in its ability, at the last moment, to get us to see things differently, to reframe (no coincidence that Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of Jewish background, said that ‘a philosophical work could be written entirely in the form of jokes’). Humour gives us a way out from what, until the last line, seemed an impossible situation. What we can laugh at, we can rise above. Humour is an assertion of humanity in the face of dehumanizing influences. It is a way of breaking the grip of fears that would otherwise hold us captive. It is, in its way, one of the supreme expressions of human freedom in the Beck, Seligman sense: freedom as the ability to redefine our situation. Those who can laugh at fate, redeem it from tragedy. One who rejects his enemy’s interpretation of events cannot be made a victim. Psychologically, he or she remains free. Humour is first cousin to hope.” (To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, p. 186)
I have written elsewhere about R. Sacks’ suggestion that a new Mussar could be developed, drawing on cognitive therapy and positive psychology in tandem with Jewish sources. This is an idea I hope to explore further. For now, I am happy to have found this reminder of the link between freedom and humour.
May we all enjoy a good laugh during the season of freedom.
Postscript: Rabbi Sacks illustrates this discussion of humour with reference to Emanuel Levinas’s essay “Name of a Dog”, in which Levinas recounts his experiences as a Jewish prisoner of war. Although both the Nazi officers and the residents of the neighbouring villages treated the prisoners as less than human, a stray dog, affectionately known as “Bobby”, befriended the inmates, accompanying them to and from their work each morning and evening. Bobby, Levinas tells us, recognised the humanity of the inmates at a time when the people around them did not. As such he was, Levinas writes, “the last Kantian in Nazi Germany”. Rabbi Sacks adds that this was “a philosopher’s joke, but enough to keep [Levinas] sane.” (p. 187)