Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prayer-Book Meditation 1: Elijah Meets Carlin (16 Sept. 2013)

         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.

            Boringly 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 talk about.

            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. 

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