Al Ha VeDa על הא ודא

Whatever I feel like

Friday, November 22, 2002

Laughing Matters

The article I linked to a little while ago is the only article of mine available online in the “Jerusalem Post” archives, which is a shame. It was the less good of the two opinion pieces I wrote for them. Here is the first. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to submit it to a newspaper, if my ex-wife hadn’t been the editor of the Op-Ed page at the time. I was ranting to her about one of the issues of the day and she said, “Why don’t you write me an opinion piece saying that?”

Laughing Matters

In the past Israel Television has had plenty of time for Judaism, as long as it stays in its place. Half an hour of Hasidic music on a Saturday night, or the Chief Rabbis’ blessings at the High Holidays, for example. So Gil Kopatch�s section in Yair Lapid’s “Sogrim Shavua” is a remarkable new departure. Inviting someone known as a stand up comic to discuss the weekly Torah portion on prime time Friday night television — what a welcome innovation.

Kopatch’s style is no less remarkable. His props and flip delivery attract the audience’s attention without negating his obvious commitment to the study of the Torah and rabbinic literature and the seriousness of the lessons he draws. Even someone who doesn’t share Kopatch’s left-wing views should recognize the sincerity with which he said “We will stand by the Jews in Hebron: we are their brothers. But why get bogged down there?”, or “Any parent’s heart would be broken if they lost their 10 year old son.” Too much attention has been focused on whether Abraham invited the Tapuzina model to Isaac’s brit and not enough on the solid content of Kopatch’s talks.

Clothing serious messages in jokes and a slangy style is nothing strange to Jewish tradition. The great Talmudic teacher Rabba used to begin his classes by telling jokes and after all the sages had finished laughing he would pass on his teaching in reverence (Shabbat 30b). The style of ex-chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Torah lessons, said a recent article in Haaretz, was an inspiration for the Gashash Hahiver.

Even Kopatch’s notorious sexual references are actually less explicit than the original sources. “Rashi never said that Noah did a striptease. You made that up yourself,” fumed MK Shlomo Benizri. True enough, but look at what the foremost medieval commentator did say about the story of Ham and Noah in Genesis 9, 22: “Some say that Ham castrated Noah, and some say that he sodomized him”. “Dancing with his willy showing” is mild in comparison.

So why did Shlomo Benizri call for Kopatch to go? Leaving aside the fervor typical of the newly religious and the chutzpah that makes him claim to represent “the whole Jewish people” and the “wider community”, there is a very good reason why a Shas MK should be desperate to see an end to this kind of Torah study.

Benizri sees what a threat to the haredim Kopatch represents. The power of the ultra-orthodox minority in Israel would not be half so strong without the historical attitude of the secular population that Judaism in general and Torah study in particular belong exclusively to the religious, and that secular Jews have no interest and involvement in them, and perhaps even no right to concern themselves with them. So even those who disagree with everything a Shas spokesman says have accepted that spokesman’s claim to be the one authentic voice of Judaism and granted him the right to interpret the Jewish sources for them, instead of opening the Bible and Talmud for themselves.

In the last few years this has begun to change. We see secular and joint secular-religious Batei Midrash springing up on all sides. The in thing in fashionable Tel Aviv circles is a Friday night Talmud class. And this is not part of the return to religion movement, like Uri Zohar or Pupik Arnon twenty years ago. Secular Jews are setting out to repossess Jewish sources without abandoning their own world-view, and without submitting to the party line of this rabbi or the other.

And this is the last thing that Benizri and others like him want. Nothing was more revealing than his patronizing invitation to Kopatch to spend a Shabbat with him and the way he told young visitors to the Knesset on Wednesday to “come and hear me talk about the Torah portion. I can do it in a jolly style too.” This is how someone talks who thinks he holds a monopoly on the truth, someone how thinks that his interpretation of the Torah is right, and Kopatch’s (or yours, or mine) is wrong.

But Judaism has no Authorized Version and no infallible pope. “The Torah has seventy faces,” says the Midrash, and Gil Kopatch, like any other Jew, has every right to find one of the seventy, or even the seventy-first.

The article is full of topical references from Israel in 1996, but it doesn’t seem outdated. Exactly the same attitudes surfaced a few years later when a dance item at Israel’s 50th Independence Day celebrations featured music with a text from the Passover Haggada.

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