An Ironic Moment of Faith

By Rabbi Michael Bernstien

Irony gets a bad rap when it comes to faith. Ironic detachment, a kind of poking holes in what seems too earnest or heartfelt, feels like a close cousin of cynicism, a sense that to believe is to be deluded or worse. What role could irony take when it comes to faith other than to ridicule those who would see our hard edged world as a place for the Divine to hold court?

Such great champions of reason as Voltaire used irony to tear apart those that naively believe that everything is for the best. A more recent example is the brilliant Australian satirist Tim Minchin whose not quite safe-for-work song destroys the idea of a G*d who would take time out of a busy schedule of “giving babies malaria” to nip over to a suburban church and cure some guy named Sam’s mum of her cataracts. The ironic tone of the praise lavished on this “omnipotent optometrist” would seem to rip apart any of the heart felt faith needed to buy G*d as faith healer.

What makes this ELI talk from Rabbi Charles Schwartz so interesting and compelling is that rather than pit faith against irony, Rabbi Schwartz identifies a very real moment of experiencing G*d as both ironic and personally moving. The moment, finding himself reading his own name in a random list of Holocaust victims, strikes him neither as a pure coincidence nor as a proof of a divine intervention. While far from humorous, it seems to Rabbi Schwartz the kind of unexpected twist on which humor hinges.

Rabbi Schwartz’s story works precisely because he does not draw from his encounter a mandate or tenet of faith. he does not need to impose his insight onto the world as such. In fact, his insight only operates against the background of a G*d who is not to be counted on to intervene in history. Who will not be swayed by prayer to cure Sam’s mum’s cataracts or, for that matter, to stop people from getting malaria and, poignantly, from preventing the horrors that led to the occasion for Rabbi Schwartz’s encounter in the first place.

The G*d that Rabbi Schwartz is called by is one who does not operate in a narrow way and who opens a world where the questions are often better than the answers. Not an all-knowing sky god meting out judgements according to particular codes, but an Expression of the interconnectedness of all beings and the responsibility that we have for each other. A G*d who does not speak directly in history, but in the disruption of everyday life by infinite and unpredictable possibilities. A G*d with an ironic sense of humor.

One of my favorite Simpson’s episodes nails this irony as well. Following a hurricane the Church sign says “God welcomes His victims” Here, however, G*d is not only in on the joke as it were, but, despite it all, particularly inviting to those who doubt. Especially those whose doubt may lead them to a deeper place than even faith might. The ultimate irony.

Michael Bernstein, is a Rabbi Without Borders fellow and the Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Atlanta. He and his wife Tracie have three children: Ayelet, Yaron and Liana. Follow him at @ravbareket.