This is about a Torah-lesson I learned from Jerry Seinfeld:
Metaphors, similes, epithets, nicknames and others are just some of the tools of description and comparison which are seen and heard everywhere. They are so commonplace we often don’t even pay attention. (Just think of when someone says, “It’s hot as hell.”) Some of these are profound, others illogical, farfetched, even outrageous.
But when I began to think about this subject, I did not expect a tidal wave of examples. It was like I had opened a verbal and literary Pandora’s box. World literature, the Bible (especially the Book of Proverbs), The Siddur, the Machzor, the Talmud, the Midrash, the daily news reports, common conversations are replete with far too many examples to note in this short space. So I will name only a few:
From the secular world:
1. Robert Burns’ “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,…” is familiar to many people and gets the reader thinking.
2. Few would dispute that one of the greatest examples is the severely troubled Macbeth’s savage outpouring (Act V, Scene 5):
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Who has not read that and not been forced to pause at length to consider The Meaning of Life?
3. Slightly off-beat poets and singers also make the list. The not-so-well-known singer Melanie has a great line: “Look what they done to my brain, Ma. They picked it like a chicken bone and I think that I’m half insane, Ma.”
4. In a lighter vein, in the world of sports we have Babe Ruth — The Sultan of Swat and Colossus of Clout, Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio, and Muhammad Ali’s poetic line that he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.”
5. There are some men who have refered to their partners as Wonder Woman.
6. If a great cup of coffee is called “heavenly”, and if Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, were Jewish, I have no doubts that he would say many of the (trayf) dishes were Ta’am Gan Eden — simply divine, a taste of Paradise.
7. In the past few decades the dictionary has added “the mother of…, variations of “The mother of all wars.”
1. The Lord is my shepherd, is universally known in Western civilization.
2. The prophet Isaiah’s comparison (40:7): surely human beings are like the grass is later expanded on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to add, like dust that blows away, a passing shadow, and like a dream that flies away. Combined with “Who shall live, and who shall die?…” even those congregants who do not pay much attention during those long hours in synagogue understandably listen to these words.
3. These words, of course, bring to mind Rabbi Tarfon’s statement in Pirkay Avot (Chapter 2): The day is short, there is much work to be done, the workers are lazy and the Person in Charge is demanding.
One step more intense is perhaps applying an epithet to a person, place, or thing:
4. Isaiah (1:26) refers to what Jerusalem used to be like as Faithful City.
5. Three times Ezekiel (22:2, 24:6, 9) calls Jerusalem Blood City.
6. Most striking is the reference to our ancestor Rachel as Mother Rachel, most eloquently described by Jeremiah (31:14):
Thus said God:
A voice is heard in on a height —
Wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone.
In the following verse, God gives her comforting reassurance that the Jews in Babylonian Exile would return to Israel:
Thus says God:
Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears:
For there is a reward for your labor — declares God:
They shall return from the enemy’s land.
I first encountered this passage 57 years ago in a JTS class in Jeremiah taught by Professor Shalom Paul. It has been ingrained in my heart and mind ever since.
Now to Seinfeld:
Jerry Seinfeld certainly is a very talented stand-up comedian. So much so, it landed him his own TV show that ran for a few years as one of the most popular situation comedies on the home screens of the 20th century.
What troubled me about Seinfeld’s Torah-lesson is that we often see, hear, or think of something insightful or clever that we could build on for others to know. Comedians are particularly prone to that kind of thing, not wanting to pass up a likely possibility to work it into their act and to garner laughs and add to their popularity and ego.
Now what happened that disturbed me is this: In 1995 Seinfeld had an episode called “The Soup Nazi”. I have been thinking about it ever since I first was told about it, though I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Jerry must have heard about a soup vendor in New York, one Al Yeganeh, who was known for being tough with his customers at his restaurant, Soup Kitchen International.
This was too good for the comedian to pass up, but when he became aware of the nickname, Seinfeld should have known to pass on it. The issue at hand is the word “Nazi”.
Nowadays it is sometimes sloppily, sometimes viciously bandied about in all kinds of contexts including by members of Congress, anti-Semites, academics, students, and just plain folks in casual conversations. It is, of course, a horrible cheapening and obscene usage of the reality behind the word.
I know why Seinfeld did it, but I also want to know who were his Rabbi and his Hebrew schoolteachers when he was a child. The lesson he should have been taught is “Passt nisht — Jews just don’t do those kinds of things.” He crossed the line of our centuries of Jewish ethics. He should have known better.
We have been fairly warned.