On 5 February, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, Director of the magazine Tenou’a, was awarded the “Manager of the Year” prize by le Nouvel Economiste at the Council for Economic, Social and Environmental Affairs, Paris, a prize shared with Haroun Derbal, Imam of the Islah Mosque, Marseilles. This year, le Nouvel Economiste decided to honor personalities engaged in promoting freedom of expression.
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Ladies and gentlemen,

When I announced to my friends and family that tonight I was to be awarded the prize of manager of the year, one half jokingly told me that he had never doubted my talents as a “menagère” (housekeeper)! I must say I am touched by this double honor. Because through history few rabbis were honoured for their qualities as a manager…. and even fewer for their talents as “menagere”! But times change and the feminisation of functions can work miracles.

If I share this personal anecdote with you, this rather facile play on words, it’s because it brings us directly to the subject that concerns us this evening, the subject you have chosen to put in the spotlight, namely freedom of expression.

Since 7 January 2015, this concept has been haunting public debate in France. There are many who have sought to define its limits: what have we the right to say? .. or more specifically : what can we laugh about? As if to define the frontiers of acceptable humour was even more critical today. As if each of us recognises intuitively that there is laughter that is salutary and laughter that is negative or destructive, laughter that works positively to provoke reflection and laughter that feeds foolishness.

Humour, as you know, is dear to Jewish tradition which has made the art of telling stories something of a vocation, a quasi-religion. Yet recent events might suggest that the God of monotheism has little sense of humour. So it is up the attentive reader of religious texts to restore a forgotten truth: in the Bible, God is capable of make really good jokes.

Take for example God’s announcement to Abraham and Sarah, aged 99 and 89 respectively, that they are going to have a baby (without recourse to MAR).  The situation is already incongruous. But to add to the comic effect God announces to the young father, a few years later, that his son and heir, the much loved and miraculous child, is to be sacrificed at the top of a mountain. And since God is not shy of creating surprises he waits till the last minute before intervening to say “no, no, I was only joking”!

Let’s admit that it is also rather comical that God should choose Moses, a man who stutters, to speak in his name. And to have the Hebrews wander in the desert for 40 years when their destination was just a few kilometres away.

Faithful to this sense of humour, traditional commentators systematically introduce a certain distance from whatever text they are reading.   They step back from the literal meaning and quite often allow the text to say something it did not say at all. It is written for example “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. So what, say the Rabbis… we will say that all damages must be compensated financially.

Interpretative Distance

That’s what we call interpretative distance. An exercise where the question is not “what does the text say?” but “what can the text say?” or “what will the text say?” for future generations.

In that respect, interpretation is of the same nature as a play on words, its faithful companion. In each case, it’s a matter of reading or hearing something other than what you thought you read or heard: “managere” pour “manager” … a quite disrespectful slip of the tongue, impertinent, a form of blasphemy, a misuse of language or, rather, a salutary attack on the literal sense of words.

I am always troubled to see what sort of male models our monotheist religions have chosen. Take the most famous of them: Abraham and Moses.

These two figures have something in common that is rarely mentioned. Abraham is a man who one fine day physically destroys the idols of his fathers, i.e. the gods of his origins. As to Moses, no sooner has he received the precious Tables of the Law than he throws them to the ground, smashing them to pieces.

Our religions have thus chosen heros who challenge petrified old beliefs, indeed who challenge ideas in all fields whenever they have become frozen and frustrate renewal and hence, in a word, frustrate freedom.

It is urgent, I believe, within the religious world, that we remind ourselves that our heros were in their own way and in the eyes for their contemporaries, “blasphemers”. They were not afraid to explode the dogmatic certainties of their time and of their texts. They were not afraid to do violence to their icons in the name of freer thinking.

To me, this is the sense of freedom of expression that we should cherish, defend and promote. Contrary to what some say today, it is not freedom to say whatever comes into one’s head, to utter irresponsible or insulting stupidities or propagate outright lies in the name of free speech.

It is rather the conviction that language and especially humour — when its purpose is to move boundaries, to question certainties, to make others think outside their petrified mindsets — is a key to freedom of conscience, a religious key in the literal sense, capable of linking us to a heritage that is reinterpreted generation after generation.

Fanatics cannot tolerate “interpretive distance”.  They are so alienated by primitive reading of their texts that they end up considering that violence towards the texts is the same as physical violence towards man.

This is why I believe in humour and especially in witty remarks as the most potent of antedote to fundamentalism. So it is urgent to teach Jewish humour in our schools. More seriously, it is urgent to teach the art of plays on words and the ability to “read with distance”, which is both the guarantee of our freedom of expression and itself the expression of our freedom.

Lire la version française de ce texte / Read this text in French.
© David Pope (@davpope)

© David Pope (@davpope)

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Delphine Horvilleur is Rabbi at MJLF in Paris and Director of Tenou’a magazine.

Texte translated into English by Robert Ley.