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Religious Humor is a Resource, and a Responsibility


A Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi often appear together in a popular genre of jokes. And last week when a real minister, priest, and rabbi got together at the University of Maryland, they told a few jokes. But as violence spawned by a Danish newspaper's caricatures of the prophet Muhammad spread across parts of the Muslim world, they also noted that delicate sensitivities can be aroused when humor and religion mix.

Long before the Danish cartoon controversy exploded, the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland had invited the three pastors to discuss the use of humor in their work.

Orthodox rabbi Elli Fischer, the spiritual leader of the University of Maryland's Hillel Jewish organization, says rabbis and their families are expected to be role models. To lower himself from a pedestal, he often uses humor when he officiates at religious ceremonies, weddings, and even funerals.

Rabbi Fischer emphasizes the connection between the words humor and human. "For at least 1500 years," he told the University of Maryland audience, "rabbis have been making jokes. And for about as long, their jokes haven't really been very funny. That doesn't mean there aren't any funny Jews. There are plenty of funny Jews. They just tend to avoid the rabbinate!"

Jack Carlson, a minister and pastoral counselor in rural Maryland, says the rather sedate nature of his Presbyterian flock prompts him to keep the humor gentle. "Humor can help to ease the way for certain things that need to be said, hard things or difficult things," he notes. "Truth-telling that is sometimes hard to approach or to say aloud, the elephant in the living room syndrome. Everybody knows it's true, but nobody's willing to say it."

Father Bill Byrne is the Catholic chaplain at the university's main campus near Washington, D.C. He says scripted jokes are often forced and unnatural. But, in keeping with his Irish tradition, he loves to tell a good story.

"The basic element of loving somebody is wanting joy for them," Father Byrne says. "And what is more entwined with joy than smiling and laughter? That's what real love is all about. And so, humor and religion are about bringing us to a common place where then we can journey together.

None of the clergymen mentioned the Muhammad cartoon controversy in his presentation. But all weighed in on the matter afterward. Reverend Carlson said he's sure Muslims enjoy a good laugh from time to time, "but they have to define what's humorous for them. And we have to define what's humorous for us. And to me, one of the rules of appropriateness is you don't do humor that is aimed aggressively at somebody if you know that it is going to be taken as offensive. Why would I do that?"

Father Byrne says humor can illustrate a profound point, and can lighten a tense mood. But he says the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad weren't drawn to be humorous. They were cruel satire.

"I like to use humor to break down walls, not build them up," he says. "I don't make fun of people's faiths. I don't find it useful. I don't find it funny. The reaction has been so strong, but the initial action lacks a sensitivity to where we're trying to go as the world. Is that going to build us up, or is that going to break us down?"

Rabbi Fischer acknowledges that for centuries, Jews have been the butt of derisive humor. While he admits to poking fun at his people himself out of what he calls loving kindness, he sees little humor in sarcasm and hate.

As for the furor over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, he says Judaism, too, prohibits depictions of God. "We've been living in Christian countries for a good long while now. And we've gotten over that," he says. "We have not conspired to bomb the Sistine Chapel because it contains a painting of God, even though you wouldn't find that in a Jewish book. We've learned to tolerate it. We've learned to stomach it."

Rabbi Fischer notes that the Israeli Symphony Orchestra makes a point of never playing music by German composer Richard Wagner because Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite whose music was used by the Nazis to prove Aryan superiority. He says Daniel Berenboim, who is the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin State Orchestra insists "'Wagner's music is great. It's beautiful.' And he insists on playing it," Rabbi Fischer says. "And the attitude that I would have toward him would be that as long as there's one [Holocaust] survivor still alive for whom this is going to re-invoke all of those memories, it would be inappropriate."

But Rabbi Fischer and the other speakers made it clear that to turn the world humorless out of fear of offending others would deprive our lives not only of mirthfulness, but also of one of life's best teaching tools.

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