Some Serious Thoughts on Jewish Humor
A COMMENTARY ON THE NATURE OF WISDOM
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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