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Daniel Feldman

Comedy | June 23, 2020

Listen to “Daniel Feldman: Punchlines with Boundaries and Opportunities” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, David sits down with Rabbi Daniel Feldman, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and an author, to discuss the role of comedy in Jewish thought and practice.

We usually think of learning Torah as something serious, and of comedy as incompatible with it. It is therefore natural to assume that comedy doesn’t have value, or at least that it doesn’t have inherent value, according to the Torah. The Torah even prohibits something called “leitzanus,” which many translate loosely to mean “humor”. Is there any value in humor beyond helping us cope with life’s hardships? What is the prohibited act of “leitzanus,” and how does that tie into the Torah’s view on humor in general? Are there any examples of humor in the Torah? Can we make jokes about the Torah and other important topics? And if we can, how far is too far? Tune in to join David and Rabbi Daniel discussing the sometimes surprising answers to these questions.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where we discuss issues, personalities, and ideas about religion and traditional world confrontation with modernity and how on earth are we supposed to construct meaning in the contemporary world right now? It is my distinct pleasure to welcome the eminent Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, who is a Rosh Yeshiva, author, at Yeshiva University. He’s published many, many books, and teaches Talmud, Halakhah, teaches in the Sy Syms program in Jewish public policy. Rabbi Daniel Feldman, thank you so much for joining us today.

Daniel Feldman:

It’s a pleasure to be here, in my own office.

David Bashevkin:

It is very exciting to have you. What I really want to talk to you about today is the role of comedy in Jewish thought and Jewish practice. And before we get into the Jewish view on comedy, maybe you could tell me a little bit about your upbringing and what your comedic influences are.

Daniel Feldman:

Well, that’s a tough question, you can find comedy everywhere. I grew up in a household that respected both Torah and lightheartedness, and I think that’s a big part of it. My father was a rabbi and author who had a very quick and ready smile and a sense of humor. And that definitely runs in my family, an appreciation for being able to get a laugh and a joke and to be a little lighthearted about things in the context of content and seriousness and that which matters.

David Bashevkin:

He would start his sermons or classes with a joke and pepper it with that kind of material.

Daniel Feldman:

He would, and he would also in general in his personality, he had an easy laugh…

David Bashevkin:

I love people in easy rim. I’m not one of those people, but you feel like you get every shot. And Rabbi Liebowitz, who is a dear friend, he’s a great rim. He laughs at everything, I love talking to him.

Daniel Feldman:

I know what you mean.

David Bashevkin:

An absolute joy.

Daniel Feldman:

Many reasons.

David Bashevkin:

But you skirted the question, and I don’t know if you’re comfortable –

Daniel Feldman:

Sure, I do that a lot.

David Bashevkin:

I don’t know if you’re comfortable saying, but did you have specific influences? Were there comedians that you grew up listening to?

Daniel Feldman:

Abbott and Costello.

David Bashevkin:

Abbott and Costello.

Daniel Feldman:

For sure.

David Bashevkin:

Did you have other influences, other specific performers, or that’s who you would say were your primary…

Daniel Feldman:

I’m sure there were many, but there were definitely big childhood memories from Abbott and Costello and from all over. From everywhere.

David Bashevkin:

So when you prepare, and you’ve become very well known. I think when I first heard about you I was in high school. I was in high school, you were probably not a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshiva University, and I remember you became, I wouldn’t say fa… It wasn’t world famous, but it was famous among our high school students in that you would deconstruct the halachic implications of different episodes of The Simpsons.

Daniel Feldman:

Could be true.

David Bashevkin:

It could be true, okay. What I found so interesting about that, and as a kid – I get a lot of people who are doing this now. When a kid, most people, you never heard about this, of people who are taking something that they would see or that they knew from television, and showing them that these situations and scenarios had real-world halachic implications.

Daniel Feldman:

I think that was from NCSY Kollel, if I remember correctly

David Bashevkin:

From NCSY Kollel, exactly. Do you remember which episode and which class it was?

Daniel Feldman:

I remember a little bit.

David Bashevkin:

You do. You’re playing it very coy right now, which I appreciate. Gives you the deniability, I can’t blame you for that.

Daniel Feldman:

I have a little bit of memory of that. I have a brother, who is really the funny one, and is the one who has a real insight for these things, he’s got a real talent. And he used to teach a course in the summer camp called Being M’kaddesh the Homer. He…

David Bashevkin:

Which is a play on the word “chomer,” meaning the substance instead of – That’s great, that’s fabulous.

Daniel Feldman:

Like I said, this is something that…

David Bashevkin:

Sanctifying, the Homer.

Daniel Feldman:

Right.

David Bashevkin:

I love it.

Daniel Feldman:

So I am coming from a context where this is appreciated.

David Bashevkin:

This is appreciated. When I think about the intersection of Torah and comedy, I think about two distinct categories. There’s one category, which we could definitely talk more about, but it’s not where I want to begin, which is this class, you look at a Simpsons episode, you’ll look at something from television or a movie that’s funny, that’s enjoyable, that’s entertaining, and say, “Let’s consider the real world halachic questions that come up in here. Let’s think about, how does Jewish law apply in all of these cases?” That to me is the most minimalist view. You could do that with a tragedy, with a drama, you could do that with any real world, you could do it with the headlines, that a lot –

Daniel Feldman:

It’s a point of entry.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly, it’s a point of entry. What I’m more curious about is people who are using humor within their delivery of Torah itself, and the world of humor, not just as a point of entry, but as a religious value in and of itself. And whenever we talk on the phone it’s almost all kibitzing. I think it’s mostly in your direction towards me, kibitzing. To an outsider it almost sounds insulting, God forbid. God forbid.

Daniel Feldman:

Luckily there are no outsiders listening in on our phone calls.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, no outsiders.

Daniel Feldman:

This is the first time.

David Bashevkin:

This is the first time. And my question is: What is the inherent religious significance to a sense of humor, to being funny?

Daniel Feldman:

So it’s funny that you ask “inherent”, because this is a topic I’ve thought about. And I think there are a couple of values, especially because we have to struggle a little bit to justify it, because we do find sources that indicate that we’re hesitant to be associated with what might be called “leitzanus,” however you want to translate that. And I think the translating of it is important, because it could be translated as humor or comedy in a modern context. But I think we probably have to translate it in a more targeted way in order to carve out a space that allows for making distinctions.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly. Anytime you make somebody smile, it gets into this category of frivolity or whatever it is, then yeah, that would seem the Torah’s case. I think for a lot of people, I know for myself, when I was sitting down thinking about talking to you, I actually… I was thinking about the Simpsons because of that original class that got all that buzz. But I was also thinking about –

Daniel Feldman:

It’s only one time, by the way.

David Bashevkin:

It was only one –

Daniel Feldman:

Only one time.

David Bashevkin:

There was a lot of buzz around that class.

Daniel Feldman:

Some things are disproportionate.

David Bashevkin:

Things are disproportionate.

Daniel Feldman:

That’s the nature of humor.

David Bashevkin:

But I was thinking about a different narrative and episode that actually came from the Simpsons, was “Like Father, Like Clown,” which is an episode surrounding about the backstory of Krusty, where it’s revealed that Krusty’s father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, voiced by Jackie Mason, who had his own store like this, has this story of, he was rejected by his father because of his sense of humor and because he went into comedy. And for a lot of people, when they think about religiosity and humor, religiosity is serious and somber, you’re not making everybody laugh and smile. And that’s the impression that you have walking into it. You have that narrative arc of, if people in the room are laughing, they’re not learning Torah, they’re not involved in something holy. So where is the holiness in the world of humor?

Daniel Feldman:

I think there are a couple of angles to consider, and some of them are functional and basically pragmatic, like the ability to cope with the day. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch comments Parshas Beshalach that when the Jews come out of Egypt, and they say to Moses, “Why did you take us out here? Because there aren’t enough graves in Egypt?” So he comments that that’s not a serious question, that’s a sarcastic comment. And he writes that they were doing that in order to cope. He adds that that’s what Jews have done ever since, that that’s the quality that we’ve adopted in order to cope. And if that’s the case, which is pretty self-evident, then it’s only a short jump to say that if you can make other people laugh when they’re having a hard time, so then that’s an act of kindness, which is our core mission in this world. And in fact, the Talmud says that explicitly also. There’s a passage in the Talmud, which was actually my high school yearbook quote, which says that two people are identified in the marketplace by Eliyahu HaNavi as, and this was actually used by the Simpsons, in that quote. It was an actual quote from the Talmud, that these two individuals were identified as destined for a special reward because they were comedians who could cheer people up. And in addition to that –

David Bashevkin:

I’ll just tell you, so I write this humor column, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, for Mishpacha. Not everybody finds it humorous, but I do try. And I find the process of writing and making people laugh one of the most exhausting things in the world. It’s much easier to step into a room and be serious, or inspirational, or this. To try to get people to laugh, there’s nothing worse before you say, like, “Are you going to be funny? This better be funny.”

Daniel Feldman:

You can Google, I forgot who was who said, but somebody once said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

David Bashevkin:

Exactly, exactly. So when I go in there, and I remember I was talking to my editor, Sruli Besser, and I was like, I had nothing, I was exhausted. I said, “I hate this right now, I hate the feeling.” And he just sent me a voice note of that passage in the Talmud. He said, “You’re doing the Lord’s work. You’re comforting people and making them smile about Yiddishkeit, about God, about Judaism. All this stuff, it’s not eye-rolling, this is important work. To bring a smile to people is not something to dismiss so easily.”

Daniel Feldman:

That’s for sure. To help you cope, to help other people cope, the Rambam even talks about this in his medical writings, making people laugh. Laughter is the best medicine. Yeah, Dr. Fred Rosner translated the Rambam’s medical writings into English, and he quotes that. It’s there.

David Bashevkin:

To laugh?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, to make the patient laugh, and to smile, is a part of your responsibility towards those who are –

David Bashevkin:

So I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this. I’ve definitely had periods where I’m a little low, and a little bit… I would call it depressed, sure. I’ve definitely been depressed in my life, and I absolutely flee to good stand up comedy. Just that world, even just listening to comedians talk to each other, I find there’s a comfort in that, and a coping. I love listening, the person who I love most, who I talk about constantly, is Garry Shandling, who… There was a very, dare I say, religious component, to what drove his comedy. He was a very spiritual person.

Daniel Feldman:

Very meta.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, very meta, very into meditation, also, very self-aware. And I always found myself looking at clips to lift myself up, if I’m ever in that side, or listening to one of your shiurim.

Daniel Feldman:

Of course.

David Bashevkin:

One of your classes, that’s always a good pick-me-up.

Daniel Feldman:

Speaking of meta. But in addition to the idea of helping you cope, there is a pedagogical value, clearly. We know that it helps to get a message across effectively, and the Talmud states that explicitly, that was how some teaching was done. And that only to –

David Bashevkin:

Because the Talmud says that they would always start with a joke.

Daniel Feldman:

Right, and not only dealing with the tough students, the Gemara says he was talking to the rabbanim.

David Bashevkin:

So to other rabbis? It’s a really serious class.

Daniel Feldman:

Right, and there’s some discussion about that. Some of the commentary say, “It can’t mean that, it was a joke. It must mean something else.” But I think most interpretations assume –

David Bashevkin:

That it was an actual joke.

Daniel Feldman:

That it was a joke. And also, the Gemara practices what it preaches. Somebody once asked, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, I think, they said, “Rabbi, are there any jokes in the Talmud?” And he responded, “Yes, but they’re all old.”

David Bashevkin:

That’s excellent.

Daniel Feldman:

It’s true, it’s hard for us to pick them up. But somebody once wrote an article in the BADAD Journal. Bar Ilan has a journal “BADAD,” Bechol Derachecha Daehu.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Daniel Feldman:

And there’s a very long article there a few years ago. Someone wrote “Hidden and Revealed Humor in the Babylonian Talmud”. And he had a lot to say, he had a lot to find –

David Bashevkin:

He speaks about jokes that the Talmud snuck in there.

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah. The most obvious one, or the most explicit one, is a bunch, he had a long article. But the Gemara tells us that when we’re cleaning up for Pesach, we have to consider the rooms where bread might’ve been brought into. And then the Gemara says that maybe a weasel, which is called a “chuldah”, may have dragged bread into a room that you wouldn’t have otherwise brought bread into. And then the Gemara says that, in fact, maybe the week before Pesach he’s going to stock up, because you’re not going to have any bread that week. Which is pretty impressive for a weasel to, planning ahead, so it’s already a little humorous.

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha.

Daniel Feldman:

But then the Gemara says, “Is this chuldah a prophet?” Which is a pun, because there was –

David Bashevkin:

There was an actual prophet, “d’chee Chuldah neviah” –

Daniel Feldman:

Right. So just in case you were wondering, “is this already a little funny,” then you have the Gemara making it clear with this –

David Bashevkin:

They were having wordplay in this kind of –

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

And in the Talmud, and this – Who wrote this article?

Daniel Feldman:

His name was, maybe Binyamin Fleisher, maybe you could check it, I don’t remember exactly.

David Bashevkin:

And he lists all of the wordplay in history of the Talmud. You have this article on you right now?

Daniel Feldman:

I may have it in my bag there somewhere, a reference to it. But in any event, I think more significantly though, you asked “inherently”. In terms of an inherent value in humor, there might be something else that’s a little more essential. Rav Schachter Shlita, who himself is somebody who’s able to smile and to laugh very quickly…

David Bashevkin:

I was intrigued that when I asked you about your comedic influences, I think when I began, I obviously I had in mind your actual comedians, who you definitely avoided giving me too many specifics from, though you seem to be registering all of my references.

Daniel Feldman:

Are there people who do that professionally?

David Bashevkin:

There are people who do that professionally, but –

Daniel Feldman:

It’s a living now?

David Bashevkin:

You can eek out a living. But the question I was also wondering is, who are your – Do you have rabbinic influences in humor? You mentioned Rabbi Schachter, who is a fellow Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, and your teacher.

Daniel Feldman:

Moreinu V’Rabeinu.

David Bashevkin:

Moreinu V’Rabeinu for sure. And you’re a teacher. But he has a very sharp sense of humor, and a style…

Daniel Feldman:

And he has a very strong appreciation.

David Bashevkin:

Correct, correct. Which we’ll talk about, I was just watching a video of him.

Daniel Feldman:

He knows how to laugh.

David Bashevkin:

Yes, he definitely knows how to laugh. Did he have, when you sat in his class – How long were you in his class for?

Daniel Feldman:

About six years.

David Bashevkin:

And when you s –

Daniel Feldman:

I consider myself still in his class.

David Bashevkin:

Do you still –

Daniel Feldman:

So it hasn’t stopped. Only formerly on the register.

David Bashevkin:

On the register, I gotcha. But in that class, did he have classic jokes that he would tell or rely upon in class? Did he have favorites?

Daniel Feldman:

He did, but it’s not so much – He does occasionally just tell a joke straight out, but it’s not about that, it’s more about his overall personality. And, like I said, he’s somebody who can appreciate a joke, he’s somebody who could laugh.

David Bashevkin:

But, meaning he wasn’t saying, God forbid, a knock-knock joke, but there is a style in the way that he delivers dense, dense Talmudic ideas. It doesn’t get more intricate and complex than what he’s describing, but there’s a narrative in the way that he delivers it, that… I’m not comparing it to a comedian in the sense that it’s silly, God forbid, but what I’m saying, there is a… He’s a storyteller, in a way. Like any great comedian is, behind the… Peppering it with stories and set ups, he’s almost using Talmudic ideas as the punchline to get to, but he has these wonderful setups with the background of the stories.

Daniel Feldman:

Zev Eleff wrote an article a number of years ago in The Commentator, I think, about Rav Schachter as a storyteller.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, exactly. And he has these great ways about how he comes to it. What other classic one-liners are there in the Talmud? Were there others aside from the –

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, you’ve got to read that article, Binyamin Engelman was his name. It’s in volume eight, winter 5759.

David Bashevkin:

1957?

Daniel Feldman:

No, 5759.

David Bashevkin:

Oh 57.

Daniel Feldman:

Yes. Winter 5759, it was volume eight.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. I hope that my ignorance, which was usually shines through, but not always so clear –

Daniel Feldman:

You can edit that out.

David Bashevkin:

Not always so clearly.

Daniel Feldman:

I’ll make repeated references to it, so it’s harder to edit out.

David Bashevkin:

I appreciate that. Coming back to the inherent significance. There’s an element that it’s a coping mechanism.

Daniel Feldman:

Right, so that’s more functional and pragmatic, which is great. The truth is, the Talmud has some interesting discussions, also, that if you notice, Rav Yirmeyah, for example, will sometimes ask questions that seem a little out there, and there’s some interesting reactions. And in one place, the Gemara actually says that Rav Yirmeyah was trying to get a laugh out of Rav Zeira. And there’s some articles written about that, about how they seem to have very different attitudes and just –

David Bashevkin:

He was provoking him with the questions to make him…

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, try to lighten him up a little bit. There’s some interesting articles written about that, but in terms of a more fundamental purpose, I was about to say before that Rav Schachter quotes from Rav Soloveitchik –

David Bashevkin:

His teacher?

Daniel Feldman:

Right, who’s actually apparently delivering this in the context, ironically, of a hesped, but that Rav Soloveitchik –

David Bashevkin:

In a eulogy.

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah in a eulogy.

David Bashevkin:

Do you know who he was eulogizing?

Daniel Feldman:

I believe it was Rav Moshe Shatzkes, if I remember correctly. It’s in Nefesh HaRav that Rav Soloveitchik understood a certain statement in the Talmud, which talks about God playing with the Leviathan, the big fish –

David Bashevkin:

Livyasan, the big fish, okay.

Daniel Feldman:

That the message of that, what’s the importance for us to be told something like that? How does that help us religiously? That he understood that the point was that we should imitate God, that’s a general directive, and that here, the message was: You can’t take everything so seriously. You have to be able to be a little playful sometimes.

David Bashevkin:

The fact that God was so to speak playing, described as playing with these large fish, it shows that there’s a religious directive, that we should have a playfulness.

Daniel Feldman:

That’s how he quoted it. So the way I understood that, what I take that to mean, in terms of how there’s something God-like that we should be imitating, is that it refers to a sense of perspective. That’s how we often talk about a sense of humor, is a sense of perspective. And that we need to be able to differentiate between what is important, and requires our focus and our attention, and what is a distraction, what bogs us down and weighs us down and can make us feel bad in ways that aren’t productive. And to be able to identify what’s important and what isn’t, that is a crucial skill in life. And essentially, God is the one who sees it all at once and who knows what is big and what is small. And when we’re told to emulate God, in this sense, we’re asked to cultivate a sense of perspective, to be able to recognize that this is not something that we should care about and that is.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning, there’s that otherworldliness that a comedic perspective has where –

Daniel Feldman:

Maybe you would call it a “worldliness,” an ability to know what in the world is important and what isn’t, what shouldn’t be a part of this world. To look at the world and –

David Bashevkin:

Correct.

Daniel Feldman:

So I wouldn’t call it an otherworldliness, I’d call it a this worldliness, maybe, but to know what in this world is important and should be a focus, and what is a distraction and what is the small stuff that we’re not supposed to sweat, so to speak.

David Bashevkin:

Because it’s not just God who’s described as having that playfulness, as Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed. The Torah itself, when people talk about Torah, Torah is described as “Torah Sha’ashuay,” like a play thing, and I rem –

Daniel Feldman:

Which is a delicate point, the way the Gemara discusses it, to know exactly how to say that in a way that doesn’t imply disrespect. The Gemara, in fact, tries to figure out.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. So that’s what I’m getting to, which is, what are the parameters of playing and being excited with Torah? What parameters, what boundaries does the Torah give, does the Talmud give, when talking about being playful with Torah? We began by talking about playing off of the Simpsons. Is that too disrespectful? Is that too irreverent? How would you scope that? Maybe it’s changed at different stages in your own life.

Daniel Feldman:

I don’t think there is an easy answer to that, I think it’s a question of judgment that has a strong responsibility embedded to try to make sure that you figure out where the parameters are. I don’t know if we have any obvious guidelines as to where those parameters are, it’s a matter of trying to remain rooted and appreciative of what the values are.

David Bashevkin:

There’s a letter that Rav Hutner has right in the beginning of his Pachad Yitzchak, which is a collection of his letters, where he actually talks about Torah being sha’ashuay, like this play thing. And the way he explains it is that, a part of – What makes something into a game? What makes something playful in a game? It’s something where the board game has no external repercussions, there’s no real world repercussions. And he talks about how, when you really fall in love with Torah, some of the interpretations you give, they’re clearly not for applicability in Halakha, or in daily practice, or anything like that. Sometimes you hear ideas quoted, Hasidic ideas with a playful comma. They’ll put commas in different ways in the sentence. I always think, that’s the playfulness of Torah, rewording a sentence, and using it as common sayings or in aphorisms in this way in your regular speech, those puns and plays on words. But I’m curious, do you ever feel like you’ve crossed the line, or have you ever given classes that have included comedy or general entertainment in a way that you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing anymore?

Daniel Feldman:

That’s hard to know, if I was I probably wouldn’t tell you right now. It’s something that you always try to maintain a sensitivity for, and you have to worry about how people sometimes can over-interpret things, and that’s something you have to be very careful about –

David Bashevkin:

Well what do you mean by that, “over-interpret things”?

Daniel Feldman:

Well, for example, if you make a reference to popular culture, you have to be concerned, is that going to be taken as an endorsement of –

David Bashevkin:

Everything that’s been written there, everything this person’s done.

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, which I think is unfortunate, that that’s the tendency, although you have to recognize that it is the way people tend to think. And if that’s going to be the interpretations, then you have to be much more discerning in the references that you make. Because, certainly, we have to be more concerned than ever, that anyone should get the impression that everything that’s out there in popular culture is consistent with –

David Bashevkin:

Because so much of it you think has deteriorated.

Daniel Feldman:

It was never a fully consistent or close to it, but certainly we’re at a level where there’s a much greater distance from the center, it’s so much farther than it has been. So we certainly can’t create the impression that there is a overall compatibility. And if that’s how you’re going to be interpreted, so then you have to be very concerned about that.

David Bashevkin:

So what do you do now, in your daily class when you’re teaching students? Will you make those kind of references that you once to did in camp, or it’s like, given that you’re in a totally different position, you’re not a camp counselor anymore, and they’re looking to you –

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, that has to factor in to how you make decisions. You have to think everything through carefully. What’s the value going to be of any particular reference at any particular point, and is it going to contribute more than it’s going to…

David Bashevkin:

Do you have role models who you think do this really, really well?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah. There’s a very interesting article by Rabbi Shalom Carmy on tradition where he discusses the balance on this point. I think it’s called “Homer and the Bible,” if I remember correctly.

David Bashevkin:

Is it really? And which Homer is it referring to?

Daniel Feldman:

The real one, Homer Simpson.

David Bashevkin:

Homer Simpson.

Daniel Feldman:

But I think that’s actually –

David Bashevkin:

With Rabbi Carmy you never know.

Daniel Feldman:

You never know.

David Bashevkin:

You never know.

Daniel Feldman:

You never know, it’s a very fascinating perspective that he has there. And he addresses aspects of that balance of the costs, and…

David Bashevkin:

The costs?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

What do you think are the main costs?

Daniel Feldman:

Well, a little bit what I mentioned before, about creating a misimpression about what you’re endorsing and what you’re not endorsing, and also cheapening your material, which is really what he focuses on there in a particularly brilliant way. He has a lot of insight on a lot of things and that’s…

David Bashevkin:

Meaning, it could cheapen… If everything that you present immediately is associated with the most lowbrow…

Daniel Feldman:

That’s a part of it, but also in terms of what’s lowbrow and what’s highbrow. That’s something you and I talked about in that interview with –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, we were on a panel together, a written panel, but yeah.

Daniel Feldman:

How exactly to define that I think is somewhat subjective. And that all has to do with the impact that it has on the consumer, or a lot of it has to do with the impact that it has on the consumer. So I think we have to know ourselves. We have to know what uplifts us, and what brings us to a place of greater insight, and what degrades us, or what exposes us to things we don’t want to be exposed to.

David Bashevkin:

Something that’s traditionally seen as highbrow, fancy literature could, ostensibly, have the effect on the consumer that it drags them down, and there aren’t –

Daniel Feldman:

It definitely could.

David Bashevkin:

And it could go vice versa. There are things that are lowbrow that are actually fairly insightful, but you have to just basically, your approach is just to use your careful judgment, one could say.

Daniel Feldman:

You have to really be careful. And comedy is particularly double-edged in that way, because comedy certainly could have the effect of just knocking down things and being cynical, which is the opposite of a Jewish sense of humor the way we were describing it a few minutes ago: for trying to be able to preserve the importance of important things by identifying what should be focused on. So then a cynic, who doesn’t think anything’s important, like Oscar Wilde said, he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. So then cynicism is the opposite of a Jewish sense of humor. And as Rav Hutner discussed in the first essay in Purim, because that’s what the Talmud means when it says all leitzanus is prohibited, he defines “leitzanus” as cynicism.

So, for sure, an attitude that knocks down anything of significance and just says it’s all nothing, that’s something we have to really worry about. And any kind of an attitude that’s going to cheapen important things, or going to lessen our sense of reverence or our sense of dignity, is tremendously dangerous. But at the same time, or together with that, what humor can do, in addition to the sense of perspective that we mentioned, it gives us a vocabulary. It gives us a language towards the world to be able to understand some of what works and what doesn’t work, and some of the nuances of life that we don’t necessarily always catch onto right away. And that’s where it can be tremendously valuable.

David Bashevkin:

Do you still, to this day, are there moments where you turn to comedy or humor outside of Torah, outside of giving classes, shiurim, and lectures, and sermons, and books, do you still find that humor in your life has the capacity to uplift you?

Daniel Feldman:

I think it’s crucial for all of us, we have to try to find it everywhere. And thank God we’re surrounded by a lot of people who appreciate that.

David Bashevkin:

That means a great deal. It’s been such an absolute joy to speak with you today. I like to close with some general questions.

Daniel Feldman:

And then a joke?

David Bashevkin:

We’re not going to end on a joke, in fact, we’re not going to end on a joke. Maybe you can send one in after? I’m always curious about people’s schedules, and I wanted to know: When do you usually go to sleep, and when do you usually wake up in the morning?

Daniel Feldman:

This is a gotcha interview.

David Bashevkin:

No this isn’t a gotcha, it’s not gotcha.

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, yeah. I’m not going to answer that question.

David Bashevkin:

You’re not going to answer that question?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah no, on the grounds it may incriminate me.

David Bashevkin:

Because you go to sleep very late?

Daniel Feldman:

I’m not going to answer such gotcha questions.

David Bashevkin:

It’s too gotcha?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah it is.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. Last question: If you were –

Daniel Feldman:

I stayed awake through this interview –

David Bashevkin:

This is very impressive, for most of it. If you –

Daniel Feldman:

As far as they can tell.

David Bashevkin:

As far as the listeners can discern, you were awake for all the important parts. If you were to go back to school –

Daniel Feldman:

I never left.

David Bashevkin:

You teach at a school.

Daniel Feldman:

I never left school.

David Bashevkin:

But if you were to go back as a student in school –

Daniel Feldman:

Never left.

David Bashevkin:

And get a PhD.

Daniel Feldman:

Oh.

David Bashevkin:

What do you think you would write your PhD on? What would you want to write your PhD on?

Daniel Feldman:

Bashevkin.

David Bashevkin:

Me?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Bashevkin, what…

Daniel Feldman:

And all the fascinating paradoxes.

David Bashevkin:

I am so absolutely flattered by that. I’m almost scared to ask: What school would that PhD be in? Is that a Jewish studies PhD or a psychology, sociology?

Daniel Feldman:

I don’t even want to begin to speculate. It’s one of those structured majors that you can create here.

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha, structured major… And final question: Growing up, what were the formative book or books that had an influence on who you are today?

Daniel Feldman:

Staying outside the realm of Torah?

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Daniel Feldman:

I think one of the most valuable non-Jewish musar books is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

That is so fascinating. I think – Who wrote that? That’s –

Daniel Feldman:

Stephen Covey.

David Bashevkin:

Stephen Covey. Warren Buffett always quotes Dale Carnegie’s book.

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah, it’s not like…

David Bashevkin:

You don’t like that one?

Daniel Feldman:

Yeah. In the beginning of Seven Habits, he explains the difference in the hashkafos.

David Bashevkin:

He explains, he goes through Talmudic logic of why.

Daniel Feldman:

It’s a whole different shita.

David Bashevkin:

Rabbi Daniel Feldman, thank you so much joining me today.

Daniel Feldman:

Thank you so much for joining me in my office.

David Bashevkin:

So appreciated, thank you so much.

Daniel Feldman:

It’s a pleasure to have you here, and keep up all the fascinating work.

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