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The Chaotic Power of Laughter

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

There is a profound difference between passively accepting Divine presence and Divine commandments, and the ability to actively argue with G-d, point by point, wrestling with Him upon every single thing he imparts. But there is also a cognitive state in which man, empowered with the capacity to see Divine intervention, dialogue with the Divine agent, and present himself physically in front of God, can even laugh at the things done or about to be done by God. The kind of laughter I wish to refer to here is that of Sara in Genesis 18:12, which is a tragic laughter, an outburst of voice and emotions as the individual is brought to confront a situation that is far from comprehensible – Sara’s laughter in Gen. 18:12 and, for that matter, also the laughter of Abraham in Gen. 17:17, is almost that of a joker, that of an individual who sees beyond the regular dynamics of worldly affairs, and confronts all those around him (or her) with that incomprehensible chaotic essence. Alan Watts, a British philosopher of the late 1950s and early 1960s, argued on the joker that:

“The worst kind of criticism is the one who pokes fun… The joker doesn’t out rightly deride things, he is not a slapstick comedian, he gives people the giggles about things they thought were terribly sacred and that is extremely demoralizing…
The Fool’s standpoint is that all social institutions are games. He sees the whole world as game playing. That’s why, when people take their games seriously and take on stern and pious expressions, the Fool gets the giggles, because he knows that it is all a game. Not a ‘mere’ game’ or mere entertainment but it is not frivolous…”

Back to Genesis – until God orders Abraham to circumcise himself, Ishmael, and all the male members of his house, the revelation to the first patriarch is mono-directional, non-semantic, and relegated to the intellectual sphere. God tells Abraham to leave Haran, and he does – that is the end of it. But when Abraham is circumcised, at the end of Genesis 17, he sees angels, he converses with them, and when he discovers that one of them is on his way to destroy Sedom and Amora, he even argues with God.

(Gen. 18:16-25) The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off. Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide [המכסה אני מאברהם] from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocents within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

God will not, or maybe no longer can, hide from Abraham what he wishes to do – and hiding is done by covering up, by masking. We could speculate on why God uses a form of rhetorical question to state the obvious, but that would entail not addressing the real issue at stake here, which is the fact that Abraham is walking with God, that Abraham is accompanying the angels and is unwilling to leave things unsaid. Abraham is cognitively empowered to inquire – the hiding is still possible, but Abraham now has a sense of what’s going on. So something has changed in Abraham with his circumcision – in fact chapter 18 places his circumcision at the center of our attention and of the narrative.

“The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.”

What is the relationship between circumcision and cognition? As the Sfat Emet puts it, the immediate consequence of Adam’s want of knowledge was that he felt embarrassment (ויתבוששו) and thus has to dress, cover / hide his intimate parts – God punishes Adam and Eve, dresses them ” garments of skins,” and then exiles them from the Garden of Eden: with the circumcision imparted on Abraham, the (fore)skin imposed on Adam is taken off, empowering the individual to acquire a higher cognitive state, freed, so to speak, from the chains of the lapsarian punishment. Circumcised Abraham is able to see, talk, argue, and lift his eyes to see beyond the obvious – Sara, on the other hand, already sees. She sees without the need of circumcision. When Sara speaks and orders Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael, God tells Abraham to “Listen to her voice” – Sara’s words are rooted in her sight, he capacity to see what really needs to be done. But when God tells Abraham that Sara is going to give birth to a child, at her post-menopausal age, she laughs – but she does so not as an expression of ridicule to God, but, I think, as an instinctive expression of wonder at the incomprehensible course of affairs. And rather than excuse herself vis-à-vis God, saying “No, I did not laugh!” I would have liked her to say “Yes, I laughed, as a way to celebrate Your Glory, and mysterious ways; I laughed because I am wonder-struck at all this; I laughed because this chaos is your doing.” So, apparently it is possible to laugh at God… What does laughter stand for here? What is it doing in the context of a portion of the Torah which deals with questions of cognition and faith?

Laughter is, in this context, a messy reaction to incomprehensible things. The chaotic nature of Divine intervention causes a disturbance in the orderly course of events, and faces human beings with the absence of logics – God will punish the innocent with the guilty, no matter if there 50, 60 or 100 righteous people in the midst of a sinful collective. The Divine will not distinguish – it is the human agent, Abraham, to impose on the course of events a clear distinction between innocent and guilty. Divine chaos destroys humanity in Noah’s generation, it confuses the one language of humankind into a messy conglomerate of different idioms, it descends to Sedom and Amora and obliterates the two sinful cities and only after Abraham intervenes does it become clear that God would have killed the innocent with the (in all three events the Torah describes God as “descending” to intervene). God chaotically causes an old woman to give birth to a child, and gives the cognitive tools to Abraham and Sara to see that incomprehensible and bubbling essence, a core of unforeseeable confusion behind the apparent veneer of order and causality. The examples keep popping up – but the bottom line is that the serious stance vis-à-vis God’s actions, words, and interventions, is quite far from Abraham’s example, and even more that of his son Yitzhak, who’s name in Hebrew means “He who will laugh.” The illogical, unprecedented and absolutely unacceptable order given by God to Abraham to sacrifice his son is not simply a trial, a very problematic way to see if Abraham is loyal or not to Him – the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” as it is better known in the West, is a moment of chaotic Divine intervention, and it is only up to the two individuals who see the meaning of that intervention, to actually ascend the mountain and bring themselves as close as they can to God – the laughter of Sara, the laughter of Abraham, and the very essence of Isaac / Yitzhak, provide us with a paradigm of respectful laughter, of an outrageous and at times tragic “Yawp,” to use Walt Whitman’s term, an expression of cognitive dismay vis-à-vis chaos.

God is not order – God is disorder of the most entropic and lethal kind. Encountering that chaos when unprepared is lethal – see, for example Nadav and Avihu. Men require an orderly framework in order to live, perform, name, produce art, write books –when men encounter chaos, that very disorder that disrupts plans, and the orderly course of events, the best reaction may be laughter: a painful, deep and intimate laughter, with which one can try to relate to and accept the incomprehensibleness of Divine will.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.