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Some Serious Thoughts on Jewish Humor


By Daniel C. Bell | September 1991
Daniel Bell, who is of the Jewish faith, is Henry Ford II Professor of Social Science Emeritus at Harvard University, and Scholar in Residence at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. Among his books are: The End of Ideology, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. His collection of essays, The Winding Passage, was reissued in July by Transaction Books, Copyright 1991 by Daniel Bell.

Commencement Address at Brandeis University, May 26, 1991

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that a speaker should never tell an audience where he is going, for he may never get there. But the Talmud also says: If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there. I have only 15 minutes, and I need to be quick. (There is also the sign that used to be in the inns in the shtetl: Sleep faster, we need the pillows.)

The title of my talk is “Some Serious Thoughts on Jewish Humor: A Commentary on the Nature of Wisdom.” Given the heavy burdens of the world, it may seem strange to speak on such a light-hearted topic. I trust, however, that you will bear with me.

Many years ago, a graduating student sued Columbia University on the ground that he had not received any wisdom. The court dismissed the suit on the ground that a university does not, cannot, teach wisdom. (Since times change, and litigation has become an American way of life, the American Association of University Professors now offers malpractice insurance to liberal-arts professors — it is called professorial liability — at $75 a year for $500,000, and $125 for a million dollars. Not a bad deal for those interested in the test of contingency and necessity.)

But the court was right. A university provides information and knowledge — which is different from information — ways of thinking, construction of arguments, explication de texte, but not wisdom. Nor, I would venture to say, do many of you, as yet, have wisdom.

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