Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

September 14, 2006

Comedy Is No Laughing Matter

Fred Phelps, the ecclesiastical leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, recently had a little to say in regards to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This self-styled "fire and brimstone" preacher belongs to a community that is outlawed by most other evangelical communities in America. With websites like godhatesamerica.com and godhatesfags.com, Phelps and his followers (most of whom are related to him by blood or marriage) have made names for themselves as extreme (and often offensive) fundamentalists. Their habit of turning up at the funerals of soldiers and high-ranking US army officials with denigrating placards has infuriated many. While previously being permissable under the First Amendment, President Bush recently signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, prohibiting such activity.

It is difficult to find support for Phelps's curious brand of Baptist Christianity on the internet, but not particularly difficult to find condemnation. Phelps has been accused of everything from wife-bashing and money-laundering to murdering the first wife of his eldest son, Fred Jr. It is most probably in reference to Phelps and his renowned sermonising that Stephen Colbert greeted the audience of the recent Emmy Awards ceremony with a serious, "Good evening, godless Sodomites". While this received a large peal of laughter from the Hollywood crowd, it also elicited a sermon from Phelps himself.

It should be no surprise that Phelps also considers Hollywood (and, indeed, all of America) to be populated by godless Sodomites, and that he believes that it is now an unpardonable sin to even pray for the salvation of Americans. All Americans are going to hell, either because they are gay or because they are what Phelps endearingly refers to as "fag-enablers". In any case, while I wouldn't recommend necessarily tracking down any of his lengthy sermons and subjecting yourselves to an hour-or-so of hate speech, the short sermon delivered against Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is perhaps worth listening to.

For those of you who can't be bothered (I hardly blame you), the following is what I considered to be the most salient point that Phelps made:

In Genesis 19, two unidentified messengers ("angels", according to many traditional translations) arrive at the home of Abraham's nephew, Lot, on the outskirts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their message: that the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked sinners and that they are all soon to be destroyed by fire and brimstone (גפרית ואש). Lot warned his sons-in-law but they did not heed his message. According to verse 14,
ויהי כמצחק בעיני חתניו
But he seemed like a jester in the eyes of his sons-in-law
Subsequently, fire and brimstone do indeed rain down upon the twin cities and everybody, save Lot, his wife and his two daughters, dies in the desolation - including the sons-in-law who were warned directly by Lot himself. What is the message that Phelps derives from this? There are several.

One is that it is not only the sinners themselves who die in God's fury. Lot's wife was not guilty of the same crimes for which the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah burned, but she looked back longingly at the cities and can thus be understood to be supportive of their crimes. Like many of the citizens of America, Lot's wife is one of Phelps' "fag-enablers".

Another major message, and the one that allowed Phelps to rant for a time about Colbert and Stewart, was the fact that Lot was misunderstood by his sons-in-law to be joking around. Clearly, argues Phelps, such was a common joke at the time. The citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah knew what terrible sinners they were, and they frequently mocked the very fact that they were all, indeed, destined for hell.

While I do not share Phelps' sentiments, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised at what appeared to be an interesting and rather viable exposition on the Bible. It is worth noting that there is nothing within the Biblical text itself that would indicate that homosexuality was the sin for which the residents of the two cities were to die. While men of Sodom do request the messengers/angels that they may have intercourse with them, this is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible as being the crime for which they were guilty. In fact, the very notion that the residents of Sodom were all practising homosexuals (hence the word 'sodomy') is thoroughly post-Biblical and almost entirely of Christian origin. Nonetheless, the fact that Lot's relatives perceived what he was saying as a joke may also be taken to indicate the prevalence of such humour.

Is it a marked sign of our own depravity that, instead of being berated, we are effectively congratulated through the medium of comedy? Does liberalism, indeed, constitute depravity at all? It's fun to hate people like Phelps for their single-minded bigotry, but I am nonetheless struck by the pertinence of this particular point. I laughed at Colbert's and Stewart's performance, but I also found that it gave me pause to think.


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