When I was a kid, my family's basic rule for synagog selections was, Not too orthodox, and walking distance. That was in Chicago, in a neighborhood to start with and a neighborhood in an area with a fair number of Jews. I now live in Port Hueneme, California, and my choices of synagog are the highly Orthdox Chabad in Oxnard and two Reform congregations — all of which require a drive. Cabad being very Orthodox, one viable choice is a nice temple in Ventura: rather upscale for me, and reached from my place through a gantlet of Ventura County traffic-enforcement cameras, with two-second yellow lights. (Shortly after arriving in the county, I got caught by one and ended up paying something like $600 in fines and costs: my first moving violation ticket since I was a teenager; recently I made sure not to enter the intersection at the photo-enforced yellow light — and got rear-ended by a nice guy who I'm pretty sure wasn't tailgaiting.)
The third synagog is a relatively new temple in Camarillo, California,
reachable by backroads that are innocent of traffic cameras and freeway
traffic issues. Sometimes, though, there are farm vehicles or other
causes of delay, so I allow myself plenty of time when I go for services
and usually arrive early.
Sometimes really early.
So I've gotten to read through a fair number of the "Meditations" in
the prayer book. Most of them are the standard sort of either pious or
challenging readings, but two I found interesting and want, briefly, to
The first is a little story from the Talmud, where some sage or other
was walking in the local market and ran into the Elijah — a Prophet long
departed, although not necessarily dead (2 Kings 2.8-11). The rabbi
asked Elijah if he, Elijah, spotted anyone in the market who'd earned
eternal life; Elijah saw no one who measured up until two guys arrived,
and Elijah pointed them out as having earned paradise. Intrigued and
excited, the rabbi asked these two "What do you do?" — Judaism is into
behavior more than belief — and they answer in terms of their
occupation. They're jesters. They make sad people laugh, they say, and
they think laughter helps quarreling people make peace.
Okay, "Blessed are the peace-makers," as an earlier rabbi said, and
cheering up sad people fits into traditional ideas about acts of
loving-kindness. Still, what I choose to meditate on is more generally
"Occupation: Foole," and the guy my friend Dan and I refer to as "the
Blessed George," i.e., George Carlin. Indeed, in The Church of Dan — Dan performs weddings and funerals — Carlin is a saint.
I don't think Elijah would approve of Carlin, but the more
intellectually sophisticated, but equally ill-tempered, Prophets might.
Carlin could make sad people sadder as well as happier, and especially
as he grew older and crankier, he certainly came not bearing peace but,
figuratively speaking, a sword. Carlin and his predecessors like Lenny Bruce, and his many successors, was an "all-licensed fool," the court jester as the one who could mock the king, except, of course, Lenny Bruce's license wasn't
recognized in a number of US legal jurisdictions. More exactly, these
ungentlefolk are tentatively and reluctantly licensed by society to
speak truth to power and mock their audiences.
Like some ministers, tenured professors, and upstart journalists,
comedians are licensed (tenuously) to deliver unpopular messages: except
that more people listen to comedians; and rendered tolerable by
laughter, the satiric-comic message is more likely to get through.