On the eve of Purim, a holiday of costumes and practical jokes, our thoughts turn to humor. The Jewish Week turned to Sam Krause, a Passaic, N.J., veteran of the real estate business (vocation) and stand-up comedy (avocation), who wrote the recent book, “Hey Waiter … There’s God in my Soup: Learning Kabbalah through Humor” (Mass Media Distribution).
Q: Purim, the holiday most associated with humor, is approaching. Do we properly understand the humor of Purim?
A: There is a distinction between humor and folly. One has divine potential, and the other is rooted in the “animal soul.” Purim is a joyous holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people against the schemes of an evil Haman and a gullible King Ahasuerus. Miraculously, our nation was saved, and so our joy knows no bounds.
“Megilat Esther” can also be translated “the revelation of the hidden,” and so, most people celebrate Purim by disguising themselves in costume and following the custom to revel until one cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” Kabbalah explains that the true celebration of the joy of Purim comes from a Godly place in the soul.
We usually don’t use the words Kabbalah and humor in the same sentence. Kabbalah is funny?
No, Kabbalah is not funny. Kabbalah is an ancient discipline dating back over 3,300 years. This deeply esoteric, mystical branch of Judaism has been handed down by word of mouth throughout the generations since the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Kabbalah’s purpose is to assist us in making contact with the Divine. There is a famous metaphor about a parent who must bend down to pick up his child. Through the act of lowering himself, he can then proceed to elevate the child. Similarly, by “lowering” the mind to the “base” realm of humor, it can ultimately be elevated to new heights.
Is yours the first book about Kabbalah and humor?
I believe so. I’ve heard rabbis begin a Torah sermon with a joke, but I’ve never seen an entire joke book that delivers a kabbalistic message. The Talmud speaks of Rabbah, a prominent sage of the Common Era, who started his lectures with something humorous to get his students to laugh. Laughter is an involuntary reflex that transcends reason and lifts us above our physical state, allowing for an unselfconscious connection with something beyond the self. Kabbalah is more easily grasped by a joyful person who is open, available and willing to entertain concepts that don’t necessarily fit a logical paradigm. In this way, jokes can become vehicles through which we can contemplate the divine.
How did you get the idea of approaching Jewish mysticism through the lens of humor?
At a kiddush one Shabbat afternoon, I whispered a joke to the guy sitting next to me about the kabbalistic concept the rabbi was expounding. It was not meant disrespectfully, but my levity earned me a sharp rebuke. I went home and after Shabbat wrote 20 pages of jokes about Kabbalah, then I put them aside and forgot all about them. A few years later, those 20 pages won the interest of Arthur Kurzweil, then on staff at Jason Aronson Publishers, and formed the starting point for my book.
What are the limits, from a Jewish perspective, of humor?
Kabbalah speaks about two souls which occupy the body: the animal soul and the Godly soul. Both souls are locked in battle over control of the moral actions of the body. Everything, including humor, should be exercised with God’s will in mind. The animal soul, which assists the body in managing its physical survival, can be counted on to overstep the line. The Godly soul, on the other hand, has only one purpose: to do God’s bidding and stay within the limits of appropriateness.
“Hey Waiter … There’s God in My Soup!” A pretty irreverent title. Does God find it funny? Do waiters?
Actually the title is quite deferential. It captures perfectly the kabbalistic concept “Ein od milvado” — “there is nothing besides Him.” As a matter of fact, God is not just in my soup — God is my soup. God is all there is. Anything that will bring someone closer to Godliness, in this case, the vehicle of humor, would be considered respectful.