The anti-gospel of Lenny, Larry and Sarah: Jewish humor and the desecration of Christendom.

Author:Tanny, Jarrod
Position:Lenny Bruce, Larry David, Sarah Silverman

The legendary Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce is often credited with transforming American entertainment in the early 1960s. His Yiddish-inflected, iconoclastic standup routines shredded the veil of silence that had kept racism, sexuality, drugs, religion and other taboo topics out of the spotlight. Although Bruce was hardly the first comic to draw from the well of Yiddishkeit, none of his predecessors had been so brazen, so vulgar or so unapologetically Jewish in a public sphere that had become more tolerant since World War II, but that still reflected its white Christian heritage. For Bruce, it was an opportunity to provoke discomfort through the exploitation of theology and the ghosts of antisemitism, to flaunt his own Jewish heritage as a Christian heresy, to boast of his personal guilt for a 2,000-year-old crime for which, he quipped, there should rightfully be a statute of limitations. As if on behalf of the Jewish people, Lenny Bruce claimed responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus: "Yes, we did it. I did it.... [And] not only did we kill him, but we're gonna kill him again when he comes back."1 It was an unprecedented act, for he asserted responsibility in public, with more than a touch of irreverent pride, for the very act that had marked the Jew as a criminal, a blasphemer and a demon throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era. Bruce's rebellious shtick of the early 1960s proved to be a trendsetter, and it set the stage, in the ensuing years, for the numerous Jewish comics, writers and film producers who would mine Christian theology and misappropriate its symbols in order to entertain through derision.

Lenny Bruce was a Jewish revolutionary because he expressed his frivolous blasphemy in public, not because it was created on a tabula rasa. The ridicule of Christianity and Jesus has a long genealogy in Jewish discourse, going back to the talmudic era, and, despite the changing historical context, blasphemous tropes from bygone centuries resemble those of today. Blasphemy in a time of Christian theocracy was a deadly serious matter, and the beleaguered Jews of Ashkenaz endured severe repression and periodic violence because of it. However, Jewish "culture had built in strategies of internal resistance to the religious narrative of Christian society," writes modern Jewish historian Elisheva Carlebach, what she calls a "trenchant polemic in the guise of folklore." (2) Modern Jewish entertainers may not be living in fear of marauding crusaders and Cossacks, but they are the heirs to the polemical and parodic folklore of their ancestors, much as modern Europe and America inherited the theological legacy of medieval Christendom. Secularization has reduced the burden--but not the relevance--of Jewish difference.

What is new is the unprecedented security, mobility and confidence American Jewry has enjoyed since the 1950s. Antisemitism has given way to tolerance and, among evangelical Protestants, to philosemitism; the Vatican dismissed the charge of deicide in 1965. Lenny Bruce and the Beat Generation proved that it could be cool to be Jewish. Yet Jewish success is tinged by a collective memory of persecution; the stigma of Christ-killer does not wash away so easily, and this has had a lasting impact on Jewish identity. The writers, filmmakers and comedians of Jewish descent who have excelled in American culture since Bruce's time have been able to be as Jewish in public as they wish, but they have often defined their Jewishness against a history of suffering and through the mock desecration of Christianity's symbols and rituals. Jewish humorists have accepted white Christian America's olive branch, but they are demanding inclusion on their own terms. The comedy of Bruce and his successors, including Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black, illustrates the fundamental place Christianity holds in Jewish humor. It also reveals how Lenny Bruce's unabashed delight in his people's purported collective act of deicide marks a new chapter, but not a new book, in the epic chronicles of Jewish-Christian polemics.

Jews and Christians have lived as uncomfortable neighbors in theological conflict since late antiquity. Although the violent persecution of the Jews was the exception rather than the rule, Christian hegemony meant the imposition of occupational restrictions, constrained mobility, and the persistent branding of the Jews as social pariahs and existential threats. Church doctrine held the Jews collectively responsible for the murder of Jesus and viewed their stubborn unwillingness to accept him as their savior as proof that Christianity had superseded Judaism; Israel had relinquished its chosenness and should rightfully have vanished. As Abraham Geiger pointed out in the 1870s,

The continuation of Judentum in its earlier manner must necessarily appear to Christentum as a decisive protest against the truth.... The tough durability of Judentum serves a knockdown punch to it, a denial of its self-justification. Each Jew's existence bears witness against Christentum's truth. (3) The Jews were not simply the accursed "other"; they were the ancestral remnants of those who begat Christianity yet sabotaged the fulfillment of Christ's divine message.

Lacking a state and having adopted an ideology of exile that eschewed violence and exalted prayer in order to hasten the Messianic age, medieval Jewry sought to cooperate socio-economically with the ruling Christians. But, unlike the Jews who lived under Islam, where pragmatic cooperation was often coupled with a collaborative ethos, the Jews who faced Christendom constructed a discourse of enmity. They had to justify their continued existence and their claim to be the true Israel--to impugn Christianity for having hijacked their religion and having falsely deified one of their own. The Jews, of course, could not flagrantly malign Christianity in public, given that the Christians--without evidence and with little provocation--often indicted (and killed) Jews for blasphemy and, in later centuries, for ritual murder (blood libel), desecration of the host, and the poisoning of wells. (4) The Jewish narrative assault upon Christianity thus occurred in private, surfacing in sacred texts, folkloric tales, proverbs, parody and mock rituals of desecration.

Scholars have pieced together evidence of what Judaic studies specialist Peter Schafer has called "a daring and powerful counter-Gospel to the New Testament," (5) which can be traced back at least to the Babylonian Talmud and which then persisted through the Middle Ages and into nineteenth-century tsarist Russia, where the Jews continued to endure theologically driven repression. (6) Negation of the gospels usually took the form of desecrating Jesus himself, whose alleged divinity was at the heart of Jewish-Christian polemics. As Schafer has shown, the vilification of Jesus in the voluminous Talmud is sparse, and its study may have been confined to the learned, but the Jewish masses had other means of symbolically confronting the disciples of Christ, most significantly through Toledot Yeshu (The Life of Jesus), a cluster of folktales passed down in various incarnations and in multiple languages through the centuries and across the diaspora. (7) Such texts were not merely read; they were often performed in a communal setting, possibly on Christmas Eve--"a type of megillah ... similar to the Book of Esther," as Sarit Kattan Gribetz puts it. (8) The Book of Esther has functioned as both a polemic and a parodic script performed on Purim, where carnivalesque inversion is coupled with fantasies of revenge against the enemies of Israel. (9) Although the canonical enemy on Purim is Haman, numerous accounts suggest that as early as the fifth century, he was conflated with Jesus, and, Gribetz writes, "the celebration of Purim was ... entangled with anti-Christian rituals." (10) According to Elliot Horowitz, in Purimsbpiels in late medieval and early modern Europe, Haman's garments were often emblazoned with an ecclesiastical cross and, in at least two recorded instances, the Jewish revelers "reenacted elements of Christ's passion" as part of their festivities. (11)

Despite the multiplicity of texts and performances spanning centuries, one can speak of a coherent Jewish anti-gospel, insofar as those texts and performances exhibit a common set of tropes and a collective intent to repudiate Christianity by turning the canonical gospels on their heads. The Talmud and various recensions of Toledot Yeshu brand Jesus a heretical Jew of ungodly origins, the bastard child of the depraved Mary, a menstruating whore, or "la zuna" ("the prostitute") according to a Ladino expression, (12) and of a father of uncertain origins named Pandera, often taken to be a Roman soldier. (13) The denial of the virgin birth thus negates the child's divinity, and Yeshu proceeds to live a life of sexual debauchery and the desecration of Judaism through sorcery, for which the Jewish authorities ultimately condemn him. The Babylonian Talmud, writes Schafer, "proudly proclaims [Jewish] responsibility for Jesus' execution.... We are the rightful executioners of a blasphemer and idolater." (14) The rabbinic sages and the authors of Toledot Yeshu were engaged in an existential battle with a deadly adversary and, unlike Lenny Bruce, their unabashed joy in having committed deicide was serious theological business, not an edgy comedy routine intended to stir public debate and sell concert tickets. Yet their narrative was no less satirical, and it was often performed as a carnivalesque ritual. They desecrated Christendom by symbolically defiling Jesus and parodying Christianity's sacred texts.

Such antipathy also found its way into colloquial Yiddish, which branded Jesus "der mamzer" ("the bastard") and--demonstrating the proverbial Yiddish speaker's penchant for wordplay--"Yoshke Pandrek." Pandrek may be a reference to Jesus' alleged Roman...

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