David horrifies a nice Muslim girl

So I’m chatting with a friend of mine here at Drew. She’s a nice, fairly traditional, Muslim girl. I make an offhand comment about God, which I find slightly humorous, so I chuckle to myself.

“You shouldn’t make jokes about God!” she declares. “Why not?” I ask. “You don’t think God has a sense of humor? Have you ever seen a platypus? Or the pit of an avocado?”

This conversation went on for some time.

My point was that God is generally portrayed these days as a kind, loving, righteous personality. God is, essentially, the nicest, best person you could ever meet. And I just refuse to believe that this incredible individual does not have a good sense of humor.

Eventually, she conceded that maybe he does have a sense of humor, but not about himself. “Why not?” I ask her. “God demands respect!” she tells me. I tell her that it’s all well and good to demand respect, but that doesn’t mean you have no sense of humor about yourself.

I could see that this conversation was going nowhere, so I told her this story, which comes to us from the Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b:

If he cut it [the oven] into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of ‘Aknai. Why [the oven of] ‘Aknai? — Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean.

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.

Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’
My friend remained unconvinced. What do you think, blogosphites? Does God like a good joke?

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3 Responses to David horrifies a nice Muslim girl

  1. David September 9, 2008 at 8:58 pm #

    Nice. You’ve come across one of the larger theological gulfs between Judaism and Islam. Namely, that Judaism is not Islam, the Arabic of which means “submission.”

    We’re in covenant. They submit.

    All fine and dandy. But you’ll never convince her.

    That said, though, just because we (generally) are happy to joke about God, does that actually mean that God has a sense of humor? To put it another way, how could God – a non human entity – have a sense of humor in the first place?

    Open up your Rambam brother…

  2. Rich September 9, 2008 at 10:40 pm #

    Sure God has a sense of humor – but when we speak of God having a sense of humor, it is a metaphor, because God is ineffable and incorporeal. It helps us to understand the Platypus and the human condition generally to be able to imagine God having a sense of humor.

  3. davidamwilensky September 10, 2008 at 7:16 am #

    Well said, y’all.