Rabbi Bob Alper said religion isn’t funny enough.
One man in the Talmud named Raba used to begin his lessons with a joke because it relaxed students, while allowing them to take in the important message that followed.
“Two men were walking down the street; one had a German Shepherd, the other had a Chihuahua,” Alper said. “The guy with the Shepherd said, ‘Look, there’s a very good sale going on here in the department store. Let’s go in.’ The guy with the Chihuahua said, ‘Well, we can’t. We have our dogs.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got your sunglasses, right?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, let’s put them on.’ The guy with the Shepherd went into the store; guy with the Chihuahua went into the store. The guard stopped him, and he said, ‘Sir, you can’t bring that dog into the store.’ He said, ‘Well, this is my seeing eye dog.’ The guard said, ‘A Chihuahua?’ And he said, ‘What? They gave me a Chihuahua?’
Alper, an author, stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh Peace tour, continued Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “Defining ‘Religion’ (You’ll Be Surprised) and Making It Meaningful through Humor.”
Alper began by explaining two different definitions of religion — Wikipedia’s and his own. First, he reviewed Wikipedia’s definition of religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.” Alper said that this definition would work if there weren’t people in the world who were religious, but didn’t believe in a “superhuman controlling power.”
“I subscribed to a different definition of religion when I learned from my rabbinical school professor and thesis adviser, Rabbi Alvin Rinus,” Alper said. “Dr. Rinus defines religion as ‘a response to finitude.’ ”
Because all people are finite, but their desires are infinite, Alper said the way these two ideas are reconciled is what religion truly is. It’s simple and inclusive, he said.
“One of my philosophy professors at Lehigh University used to say, ‘Whether you will philosophize or won’t philosophize, you must philosophize all people, even if they are not aware,’ ” Alper said. “One can equally suggest that all people respond to finitude in one way or another. All people are religious and it’s clarifying to add that while by this definition, all people are religious, not all people are ritualistic.”
While some are religious and ritualistic, and others are simply religious, Alper said, for everyone, contemplating one’s limited life can be frustrating and confusing, not to mention scary. But Alper believes he has solutions for the annoyance of such a concept: creative life-cycle events and the enhanced use of humor.
“One of the most successful enterprises of all organized religions is their ability to help people confront transitional moments in their lives,” Alper said. “Birth rituals, weddings and funerals — these touch us; they draw us in; they speak to our hearts. The rituals surrounding these moments help us cope with life-altering times.”
Another transitional moment Alper discussed was when kids leave home for college or begin living their own lives. Alper described the moment his son, Zack, left for college.
“It’s a time that literally begs for a life-cycle event, a life-cycle ceremony to smooth the deeply intense transition for a child and particularly for the parents,” Alper said.
With such life-cycle events, Alper asked where humor fits in. The response? Nearly everywhere.
“One example: In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve delivered a vast number of children’s sermonettes, and you know which one people remember most?” Alper asked. “Hands down, it was Rosh Hashanah 1978.”
Alper had just adopted a kitten named Pounce de León. He brought Pounce to the family services for Rosh Hashanah. At one point, Alper carried Pounce out onto the pulpit.
“With my free hand, I picked up the shofar, a ram’s horn that’s used during the New Year holiday,” Alper said, “And I asked, ‘OK, how many of you think that this kitten can play the shofar?’ ”
Alper said the crowd burst into laughter, and he was able to begin the new year on a good note before he started to talk about more serious things. But importantly, out of the countless sermonettes Alper has done over the years, the 1978 one sticks out because it was funny.
“Maya Angelou observed, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ ” Alper said. “Laughter makes people feel good. … It’s healing, uplifting. There’s an intensely spiritual aspect to laughter. … It’s much more than entertainment. Laughter is life-giving; it’s life-affirming.”
The way the teacher Raba used humor to invite students in, to help relax them, Alper does, as well. For example, Alper once opened a Rosh Hashanah sermon with the joke: “For the past two weeks, my wife and son were in Peru on vacation. I stayed home to write sermons and prepare for the High Holy Days. You’re welcome.”
“Clearly all of us need to put more and more laughter into our lives at all times, and having a good sense of humor means you can smile and laugh easily, that you are a person who values lightness and fun,” Alper said. “It means you can see more than one side of an issue, evaluating the proverbial glass as being half-full, rather than half-empty.”
Not only is laughter good in general, Alper said laughter can help people confront their finitude.
In one of Alper’s creative life-cycle events, his wife, Sherry, retired and sold her building where she was a practicing psychotherapist. On the day of the property transfer, Sherry’s friends and colleagues gathered in the empty building because Sherry had an important impact on all of them. And they now had to accept that she was retiring.
“From the moment they enter, whether a first visit or part of many years of therapy, they felt safe in Sherry’s presence, valued, even protected because their sadness is understood and then the work begins on how to diminish the pain,” Alper said. “When we also confront our finitude, humor has an important place in what are, by my definition, also religious events.”
Alper explained that through difficult events in his family members’ lives, humor has been essential. Alper himself was attacked by a pitbull while on his scooter last year. He woke up in a hospital with a broken pelvis, broken scapula, 10 broken ribs, multiple abrasions and a brain bleed.
With such serious injuries, he had to cancel an appearance on the “Tamron Hall Show.” Two days after he was admitted to the hospital, flowers arrived with a card signed by the TV producer reading, “Some people will do anything not to appear on the ‘Tamron Hall Show.’ ”
“And despite my pain, my anxiety, despite my ruminating about what could have been about my own brush with death, my own finitude, despite all I was enduring, when I read that card, I laughed,” Alper said. “I laughed despite 10 broken ribs. I laughed. What an amazing, healing feeling. I laughed, and know I’ll never forget that.”
Sherry Alper has also dealt with health difficulties. She had to have spinal surgery and afterward, was advised to wear a neck brace for four weeks. She was in great pain and miserable, Alper said.
“One day, I began telling people that Sherry was ordered to wear the collar so that she wouldn’t bite her tail,” Alper said. “And, she smiled. She even laughed, and she did something totally out of character; she asked me to take her photo and, along with the caption about biting her tail, put it up on Facebook.”
Humor is powerful, Alper said. Laughter is precious and allows for people to forget about the pain of their lives, both physical and spiritual.
“Truly, everyone we ever meet, everyone we ever meet, is carrying some kind of burden, whether great or just manageable,” Alper said. “Years ago, the young daughter of a couple in my congregation died. After a few months had passed, it seemed appropriate and I recommended that they attend a meeting of compassionate friends, a support group for people whose children have died, and I’ll never forget what the wife reported later. She was surprised and encouraged when she noticed that some of the attendees at the meeting were actually laughing on occasion, because that was one of the parts of her life that she thought had been ripped away from her forever.”