It is, perhaps, my least favorite joke in Jewish life. There it is, plain and simple for the eye to see, included in any collection of Jewish humor. Only I don't think it's very funny. I think it's really offensive.
A Jewish man is very proud of his new Mercedes. [Or Hummer. Or whatever else the most fashionable and expensive vehicle might be at the time.] But he wants to use it in the "right" way. He wants to know his conspicuous consumption is somehow "alright" in the eyes of God. So he goes to an Orthodox rabbi, and he asks in all seriousness: "Rabbi, what's the berakha [a blessing] for a Mercedes? And the Orthodox rabbi answers: "What's a Mercedes?" He repeats the procedure with the same response, from a Conservative rabbi. The trip to a Reform rabbi, however, ellicits a different answer. "Hmn." The Reform rabbi says. "What's a berakha?"
Now, the problems with this so-called humor should be obvious. Just in case they are not, however, I will share with you one recent real-life experience: one of the highlights, for me, of our Confirmation class trip to New York City is always the Erev Shabbat (Friday night) service we spend at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, the [unaffiliated but once Conservative] hip, hopping, happening bastion of liberal Jewish spirituality on the upper west side of Manhatten. In the midst of the thousand worshippers every Friday night, there are invariably people there we know, and did not expect to see. Last fall, however, a woman we did not know came up to our kids, was very friendly, and asked what kind of synagogue we came from. The tenth graders told her they were from a Reform synagogue and without missing a beat she said, in what she must have thought was a helpful and encouraging tone: "Oh, well, try to hum along."
But this is not the month I want to write about issues of Jewish literacy, or the perceptions and misperceptions of one movement of another. Nor do I want to go into the images of materialism and piety raised by the question of "what's a Mercedes?" No, but there is a new twist on an old joke I want to take. I want to take the punch line seriously. I want to ask: "what's a berakha?"
Now it seems like a simple question. The blessings are such a routine, and superficially familiar part of Jewish life. So many of us have the image in our head (although the name may vary) of an MC-DJ at a wedding or a Bar/t Mitzvah bash announcing the "motzi" with great fanfare and faux familiarity: "And now, Uncle Itzy will come forward and bless the bread."
But things are not so simple. Whole books have been written on the first six words of the berakha formula alone, and they only scratch the surface of what can be said on the topic. More immediately, there are least two immediate problems with the Uncle Itzy image. Both have to do with language and the way language is used. First: we almost automatically translate the word "berakha" as "blessing." "Blessing," in English, implies something good. But there are many, many berakhot in Jewish life. One of them, in fact, is a berakha on hearing terrible news, the first words recited on hearing of the death of a loved one. In my book, then, the word can't quite mean "blessing." It is, then, something at once more slippery, and more profound. It is an acknowledgement, an awareness, what one of my teachers calls "an awakening" to something beyond the superficial, something "more," something extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. The rote berakha is robbed of its potential power: said with actual intention, the words of this formula are a gateway to spirituality, a breathtakinig awareness of amazement found in the very face of the familiar.
The second problem is with the phrase "bless the bread." And to see why this is a problem is a bit complicated.
Any interpretation of Jewish tradition involves operation on many layers at once. (This is true of any interpretation of any text which serves as the foundation for a community's life, as, for example, a Constitution. You find the exact same kinds of arguments and schools of thought about how to interpret the Constitution as you do about how to interpret Torah.) Sometimes, the rabbinic (by which we mean "Talmudic era") layer will take two Biblical passages which might have been originally unrelated, fling them together, "find" a problem, and procede to solve the problem with new and creative thinking.
One of the clearest examples relates to the case of the realm of divine and human areas of authority. There is one verse in one Psalm, read out loud in English in the old Union Prayer Book, which states: "The Earth is the Lord's, and the heavens above." There is another verse, usually sung in Hebrew, which claims that: "the heavens belong to God, but the Earth God has given to human beings."
Now this is only a problem at the rabbinic layer, which assumes a consistency and infinite applicability in the Biblical text which the writers of these Psalms probably never envisioned themselves. But that is the beauty of Jewish interpretation: to see even more than was meant, and to read that depth of meaning into our lives.
This also seems like the kind of argument that asks about angels dancing on the head of a needle. But the implications are important; hidden in the folds of this semantic discussion (and a similar seemingly arcane argument about whether heaven was created first or earth and heaven were created together) is the question of whether our spiritual lives must trump every other aspect of our existence, or whether there is a balance between the mundane and the holy, the ordinary and the extraordinary.
And how did the rabbis of old resolve this apparent contradiction. In the following way. The first verse (the one where God owns everything) applies before we say a berakha; the second (where God stays "up there" and we get this world) applies afterwards.
This is an amazing reading! Uncle Itzy doesn't "bless" the bread at all! Everything is blessed; everything we encounter and experience is holy. And nothing belongs to us at all. Unless. And until. We are aware of that reality. We acknowledge it. We utter an appreciation for it. We ask permission to use it!
Uncle Itzy isn't making the bread holy at all. If anything he is desacralizing it; removing it from God's realm, and bringing it into our own.
What's a berakha? What is the power, in a formula of six ancient words? These words are the keys to Jewish spirituality. This approach unlocks for us the secret realms of appreciation, acknowledgement, and amazement. It wakes us up to the miracle in the midst of the mundane, the extraordinary in the assumed. They are words of simple politeness, and permission. And we know anew that in all the world around us, in every encounter, in every experience, in every event is the potential for something beyond what it seems to be.
We live with layers of meaning, with the apparent and the surface, and the teasing possibility of much more once the layers are stripped away. We live amidst the holy, in a world ablaze with splendor, if we but open our eyes, and our mouths. We have but to see it, and to say it. Ask, and it shall be yours.
Not the Mercedes, perhaps. But the glory, the "rightness," and life the way it can be.
Next time I hear that joke, maybe I'll be proud, instead of upset. Proud, for being able to ask the question beyond the rote and the routine: what is a berakha, anyway?