In Defense of Sarcasm

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On Friday, Shira Schmidt took Eytan Kobre to task for his earlier post “deriding the Conservative movement’s current quandry.” Her view is that help, understanding and a “life-preserver” are preferable to derision or a patronizing attitude.

While it is always difficult to argue against a more gentle approach, I nonetheless see a place for sarcasm in an article like Eytan’s. The Conservative movement is having an ever-so-serious discussion that obviously boils down to when, not if, it will place modern Western values ahead of the eternal Torah, all the while attempting to wrap the discussion in “Halachic” terms. When presented with something plainly ridiculous, sometimes it is right to rise to the challenge. “Ridiculous” is “deserving or inspiring ridicule;” what’s wrong with being inspired?

An unseemly form of ridicule would be to simply call them ignorant fools, and leave it at that. To offer a real-world parallel, there are those who dismissed Rabbi Adlerstein’s sensitive discussion of homosexuals and homosexuality by calling him a homophobe. Anyone who bothered to read his articles knows otherwise, but believe me, there are those out there who stopped reading at the headline and imagined they knew what he had to say. That is ill-advised and adds nothing to the discussion, regardless of which side you take or wish to critique.

Not so, Eytan Kobre’s acerbic pen. To take the first of his comments by example:

Now, what a strange thing for [Rabbi Perry] Rank to say. What could possibly have led him to believe that his colleagues would accord the same weightiness to “a rule of the Torah” as they would a decision of the law committee?

This is a very good question! Via the law committee, they have waived a number of Torah laws, putting the former ahead of the latter. They did lift the ban on kohein–divorcee marriage, though I didn’t hear about the mamzer-non mamzer one. Concerning the Conservative “teshuvah” permitting driving to shul on Shabbos, Rabbi Simcha Roth, a distinguished member of the Conservative “Masorti” movement’s Halacha committee in Israel, called it “untenable sub specie halachah.” So even the Conservatives themselves are mocking the law committee.

Take this sort of “Halachic position” seriously, and you are accused of “apologetics” — and it takes pages and pages to address. Furthermore, it grants entirely undue credence to a position with all the relevance to Halacha of Flat Earth Society findings to modern-day geology. The very idea that the Holy One, Blessed be He, who created Time, wrote the Torah not knowing that humans could have “monogamous homosexual relationships” — that has no place at the table of genuine Jewish scholarship.

Sometimes a sarcastic remark makes the same point much more briefly, and is much more fitting as well. There are any number of opinions that something need not literally rise to idolatry in order to warrant the treatment of Megilla 25b — because the ideas are so foreign to that prescribed by the Torah, that it is entirely appropriate and reasonable to treat them with scorn. In this case, the people looking to “jump ship” are probably thinking many of the same thoughts, and are quite happy to see someone saying the things they are thinking.

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21 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    …a time to mill and a time to observe?

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “To every thing there is a Season”

    they are especially good at blueback salmon

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “To every thing there is a season…”

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    YM – “Sometimes a sarcastic remark makes the same point much more briefly, and is much more fitting as well”
    JR = “Sarcasm is usually best avoided because it tends not to be very effective”

    I think the only way to settle a dispute between YM and JR is to ask AS

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “why would anyone think that sarcasm in this case does not fit into the sanctioned category of “leizanusa shel avodah zarah”

    so you should be willing to withdraw the sarscam pending a halachic ruling on whether Conservative is avoda zarah …

  6. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Sarcasm is usually best avoided because it tends not to be very effective. That, however, presents a challenge when dealing with the Conservative Movement’s “halachic” discussions of sanctifying homosexual relationships, etc. Even a straightforward presentation of their deliberations can appear sarcastic. When Elliot Dorff, for instance, writes that the Torah prohibition extends only to one specific act, but not to loving relationships between people of the same gender, one wonders if he is coming from another planet. “All know why the kallah goes to the chuppah,” and I presume the same is true of those loving relationships he wishes to bless.

    As a halachic matter, why would anyone think that sarcasm in this case does not fit into the sanctioned category of “leizanusa shel avodah zarah.”

  7. Bob Miller says:

    DovBer,
    The Democrats “speak lies to power”, so they are not exempt from criticism, despite their low condition, which is largely self-inflicted.

  8. Sholom says:

    I, too, have had posts screened out for sarcasm. The message we seem to be getting is that sarcasm is OK if it is directed at those with whom we disagree.

  9. DovBear says:

    With respect to Bob Miller, I believe that sarcasm is only appropriate when you are attacking your own group, or when you are the weaker party, attacking a more powerful group. It is especially inappropriate when the victim of your sarcasm is someone who might, instead benefit from your polite influence.

    There’s something unseemly when the Republican Party, which controls all three branches of government, disparages the democrats; precisely because the Democrats have no power, it appears plucky when the mockery flows the other way.

    If Eytan believes that the Conservative movement is a dominant force in Judaism, his sarcasm is acceptable to me, but if this is what he believes I don’t understand the triumphant tone, which as others have noted, frequently finds its way into his writing. If Conservative Judaism is, indeed, down with a wasting disease as Eytan’s other writings suggest, they deserve our sympathy, and we should be using a tone that welcomes it’s adherents into our camp. Not one that drives them away.

  10. mycroft says:

    “We all know that the motives of those who want to change the laws of the Torah are not Leshaim Shamayim”

    Only God is bochen kliyut valev. Obviously, I believe that Conservative Judaism is mistaken. If they don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah-why follow any of it?
    Whethermany Conservative Rabbis may be an apikorus is irrelevant-we don’t know any individuals motives. It is fair to argue that Conservative Judaism may have caused harm to klall Israel-but it does not mean that what is what was intended or intended by current Conservative movement leaders.

  11. Yaakov Menken says:

    DovBear, Bob Miller’s five questions are a worthwhile standard (as is the one suggested on your blog about criticizing ideas rather than people). The comments that I squelched from “Jewish Observer” and mycroft, for example, were too cryptic, too “internal” to Orthodox politics to be understood by most readers, and/or off-topic. When the implied criticism is germane and a valid point would be made making the same argument in a more straightforward fashion, I don’t think sarcasm is off-base.

    You also seem to have misinterpreted my comment as representing the Conservative position; as Eytan said, however, they say this is a reinterpretation, not that G-d actually got it wrong. Nonetheless, l’fi ha’emes, in accordance with the Truth, we know that our Mesorah on the meaning of the verse is unchallenged as jdub and CWY have stated. There is a clear differentiation in the Oral Law between that which the Rabbis worked to understand and interpret, vs. that which was clearly part of Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai, concerning which there is no debate. To get this concept to the table of Halachic discourse, one must accept the thought that HKB”H B’chvodo V’Atzmo, G-d Himself, got it wrong (chalila).

    Menachem, the Conservative movement is pursuing this issue right now. I hardly see any of this as “smacking them while they’re down.” They would be the first to deny any insinuation that they are, in any way, “down.” The situation is reversed all the time, and the Orthodox community fails to scream at all, much less bloody murder. What we find objectionable — and would, in any direction — is misrepresentation of facts or opinions. Regrettably, this is found all the time as well.

  12. Yisrael Moshe says:

    There is a famous Jewish adage “One measure of Laytzunus can destroy 100 measures of Mussar.

    My Rebbe said that this idea works both ways. If Laytzanus can undue the intended effect of 100 positive yet serious teachings, than it can expose the silliness of negative traits and ideologies.

    The parallel is as follows: it could take 100 serious arguments to refute the conservative ideology. However, one intelligent sarcastic quip can turn the empty ideology on its head.

    In Yeshiva, we will discuss, argue, refute with much energy the difficult Pisukim and statements of Chazal. We have to, because we are trying to discern the true will of the Ribbono Shel Olam.

    We all know that the motives of those who want to change the laws of the Torah are not Leshaim Shamayim. This can be exposed thru intelligent humor even better than thru 100 measures of intelligent discussion and logical refutation, which will ultimately provide the same result.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Hillel,

    It was sort of a warning that someone could start out using sarcasm appropriately but lapse over time into dowdliness.

  14. Menachem Lipkin says:

    I think that the issue is greater than just whether Kobre’s essay was too satirical or sarcastic. I think the issue is, why is this type of attack necessary at all? Is it to allow the audience of Cross-Currents to pound their chests in victory over the “vanquished” conservatives? Is it to win over any non-orthodox Jews who may be hiding in the wings? Clearly there is nothing to be gained by this unseemly type of “smack them while their down” writing. Taking the “high road” is usually the way to go, and it certainly is here and now. You can be darn sure that if the situation were reversed, as it was about 50 years ago, the writers on this blog would be screaming bloody murder if such essays were being written about them.

    In general there appears to be an inappropriate triumphalism seeping into to the writings of the Chareidi front-men, such as Avi Shafran, Jonathan Rosenblum, and some of the writers here on Cross-Currents. I noticed it directed toward the Modern Orthodox/Daati Leumi during and after the disengagement. And lately it’s directed at the non-orthdox movements.

    If ultra-orthodoxy is truly so far ahead, then these attacks are as bone-headed as the Watergate break-in by the Republicans; an unnecessary adventure that can potentially lead to great embarrassment. Further, there is really no justification for such behavior. While orthodoxy may be on the ascendancy now, the sum-total of the Jewish situation in America is pathetic. Ultra-orthodoxy’s advance is coming mainly from a high birth rate and MO defections all while 4 million Jews are in the process of disappearing from the American landscape. Nothing to write home about. Certainly, no cause to crucify those movements, as imperfect as there are, that are holding on to the other 1.5 million affiliated Jews that orthodoxy is not.

    These ups and downs that we’re seeing are just part of the swing of a great pendulum. We may be laughing now, but the tenuousness of the Chareidi socioeconomic structure makes it quite clear that there will be some rocky times down the road. The other movements still have a massive advantage in raw numbers. It doesn’t take a PhD in sociology to see the potential for another huge swing in the non-orthodox favor.

  15. HILLEL says:

    Bob:
    A thoughtful post, as usual.

    Just a quick note: There is a vast difference between a thoughtfully-satirical comment and a chronic cynic, like M. Dowd.

  16. Ruth Goldberg says:

    Judaism is a very balanced religion. It realizes that while love is better, there are appropriate times to hate. It realizes that while peace is better, at times war is necessary. As Shlomo Hamelech stated, everything has its time and place. So does ridicule, and that’s why we are told that ridiculing idolatry is appropriate.

    The article you posted by Jonathan Rosenblum is very revealing. You cannot have an intellectual discussion about a subject that the other party has a strong emotional attachment to. The logical part of their brain has shut down. You have to appeal to their emotions, and often a negative method of doing so, ridicule, will have far more impact than a positive, touchy-feely method. Fear of ridicule is often what makes us behave. It is what makes us buy new fashionable clothes, even if our old ones are in perfect condition. It is what makes us eat like people and not animals. Society probably couldn’t survive without it.

    But, as in everything else, we need balance. Mild sarcasm, I think, especially when based on truth, is OK. Nastiness is not. Of course, it depends on the audience. And keeping a proper balance is never easy. I may have to use mild ridicule in training my children to reject values I oppose, but at the same time I want them to respect people who don’t share our values. It takes a lot of thought and care to get right.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    On this topic, I found this in Jay Nordlinger’s column today at National Review Online (excerpted from an earlier interview):

    Mrs. Rumsfeld is a bit of a media maven, and I ask whether she reads the New York Times. Yes, she says, “but faster than I used to.” She likes the Washington Post’s editorials, because they’re “thoughtful, worthwhile, and not knee-jerk.” And does she read Maureen Dowd? “Yes, I do.” And . . . ? “Well, she’s clearly a bright and talented person,” but her mission seems to be ridicule — artful ridicule, with little content or argument. The whole thing is soaked in cynicism. And “there is nothing I like less in a person than cynicism. I hope that [the columnist] is not cynical in the rest of her life. Because, to be cynical 100 percent of the time — that would be sad.”

  18. Bob Miller says:

    When sarcasm for a good cause seems like a good idea, we ought to ask these questions:

    1. Will it improve the morale of people on the correct side (whatever that is) of the issue?
    2. Will it make people on the incorrect side more intransigent or more willing to entertain the correct viewpoint?
    3. Will it have a negative effect on the personality of the sarcastic writer/speaker or on the reader/listener?
    4. Will it keep people with correct ideas from entertaining or accepting incorrect ideas?
    5. Will it generate sympathy for the people criticized?

    These questions can be answered only when the specific people, situation, and principle involved are extremely well-defined. Torah law has much to say about the broad and fine details of permitted and prohibited speech.

    Sarcasm can also backfire badly when the facts are not straight or the language is crude or the allusions are murky or the wit is not witty.

  19. mycroft says:

    If one can ban comments even if accurate because they could be insulting to non-Jews and another time because of not being pro-GWB. Kal vachomer one should not put scarcasm in against other Jews. Insulting ones good faith is not appropriate. Win the discussion in the realm of ideas.

  20. Jewish Observer says:

    “Sometimes a sarcastic remark makes the same point much more briefly, and is much more fitting ”

    Reb Yakov,

    I am getting a real kick of this – you being put in a position to write a shtikel defending sarcasm; this considering the multiple posts of mine you screened out because of sarcasm. I am sure there is a good lomdishe chiluk (talmudic nuanced differentiation) but as we say in learning, sometimes the kasha is better than the terutz (the question resonates better than the answer)

    (how is the sarcasm level of this post?)

    Love (and hugs)

    JO

  21. DovBear says:

    Under the first post about sarcasm I wrote this: Though I am someone who sees sarcasm as his blogging bread and butter, I still must salute Shira Shmidt’s thoughtful, measured, and sensitive post.Though Shira doesn’t present it this way, I agree that those we wish to influence, and welcome and include, should not be afflicted with our withering sarcasm. It’s a lesson the other members of Cross Currents would do well to heed, unless, as, has been suggested, they’ve completely written off irreligious Jews.

    To my surprise it was published and I am very greatful. Having thought the matter over during shabbos, I’d like to add a clarification: Sarcasm is my blogging bread and butter, but generally speaking it’s directed only at my own people (ie: The orthodox community) or people who hold power (the Republicans, and their allies on the religious right.)

    I assumed those Sarah’s criticized held the opposite position, that it is only ok to insult those who are different (ie: “the other”) or those who are weak; on reflection it occured to me that perhaps Eytan Kobre and his defenders imagine that the Conservative Movement is a fair target for mockery because it holds so much sway over Jewish afairs. Is that his justification?

    Also, I must point out that Yaakov Menken has misunderstood the progressing argument. They do not claim that “…the Holy One, Blessed be He, who created Time, wrote the Torah not knowing that humans could have “monogamous homosexual relationships;” rather they claim that God did know this, but that the point was lost on those who interpretted his commandment. The don’t say God made a mistake; they say that man made a mistake. And, as the story of Eliezewr ben Herkanes teaches, a majority of men are entitled to their mistakes, and not even a Bat Kol can correct them