(This past winter, shortly before Tu B’Shvat, Steven Plaut’s younger brother David, a”h, died suddenly at the age of 53. The following is a text Steven prepared for delivery at a memorial service for his brother in May in New Hampshire, but which he begged off from reading publicly there at the last minute.)
There are two characteristics unique to humans in the universe, separating them from the animal kingdom and perhaps also differentiating them from anything in the higher or trans-natural world. One characteristic is well appreciated in Jewish tradition, the other less so.
Simply put, humans appear to be the only creatures in the universe who ask questions and also the only beings who laugh.
The uniqueness of human inquisitiveness and curiosity has long been understood in Judaism. Curiosity in the animal world is very unusual and essentially restricted to interest in finding food or mates. Animals do not feel any need to understand “why.” In a realm higher than the earthly, one that transcends the mundane, there would also be no need to ask why, because there the answers would already be known.
Human infants enter the world with a drive to ask why even before they can actually speak. The “why” question is uniquely human, and also one of the most central aspects of Judaism. Consider Passover, in many ways the most important event of the Jewish calendar. The Passover Seder is organized around the asking of why.
While the Haggadah’s Four Questions are asked in part to keep the attention of children, this is not their only function. At a Seder where no children are present, it is still a religious commandment to ask the Four Questions, with a designated adult doing the asking. Even if someone is alone for Passover, he must ask himself the questions. One has not fulfilled the religious obligation without asking them.
Yet despite the central importance of the questions in the Passover ritual, there is one all-important fact that seems to be almost universally overlooked: No answers are provided to the Four Questions.
To be more precise, two of the four get answered in part, while the other two are never answered at all. The text of the Haggadah has no answer to the question about eating while leaning or about dipping the vegetables. There are of course explanations for these, but they are not part of the actual text. More generally, the question about why the night is different from all others is also not explicitly answered, unless one regards the entire Haggadah as a composite indirect answer.
Not only do the Four Questions remain unanswered at the end of the Seder, the fact that they went unanswered does not nullify one’s obligation to ask them all over again the following year.
In other words, the central religious obligation is the asking of questions, even when they remain unanswered. There is a crucial lesson in this about human existence and the nature of the world. Humans are driven, indeed commanded, to ask, but there is never any guarantee that the questions will ever be answered. Unanswered questions are in a very important sense the very essence of the natural universe.
Curiously, attitudes toward unanswered questions also seem to govern philosophical thinking in other areas, especially science. There is the minority school of thought called Intelligent Design, proponents of which see a supernatural guiding hand in the fact that biology cannot explain the origin of life and because there are holes in the theory of evolution. For such people, God’s existence — or at least Intelligent Design — is demonstrated for the world in unanswerable scientific questions. The sharpest critics of Intelligent Design are atheistic scientists who argue just the opposite. They insist the very fact that some unanswered questions have been answered scientifically over time proves that one need not appeal to theology to explain the natural universe.
A third point of view might object that every discovery of a scientific answer to a natural mystery raises many new, unanswered questions.
Will the unanswered questions multiply in the future like in a Malthus model, rising at a faster rate than the discovery of scientific answers, or will they slow down, allowing humans to someday understand the natural universe? This itself is just one more unanswered question.
I suppose the Jewish approach has always been that the Divine is evident not in the failure of science to find answers or, for that matter, in its successes, but rather in the drive to ask the questions. Questioning, whether it results in answers or not, is the manifestation of the Divine in our world.
I do not think humans can rationally conceive of a world in which there is a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place. But at the same time we cannot conceive of a universe in which there is no God at all, no Creator, a universe that simply popped out of a space smaller than the head of a pin for no reason and with no cause – the explanation that seems to be the current apogee of scientific thought about the universe and the Big Bang.
In other words, humans cannot conceive of the Universe at all. The universe remains a set of unanswered questions, and many may remain unanswered forever. This is all the more true at the levels of individual human existence. We cannot conceive of a universe in which random probability and purposeless mixing of molecules could mathematically produce a human child. Are there reasons for seemingly unconnected events? Is there such a thing as true randomness? What is life? What is death? Will we ever know?
Again, the manifestation of the Divine is in the asking of the questions, not in their being answered.
The other manifestation of the Divine in human uniqueness — or so it seems to me — is in laughter and humor. The human is the only creature that laughs, that sees funniness in the world and in earthly situations and ideas. And while the written Torah is largely devoid of humor, the Talmud is filled with it, along with sarcasm and even biting satire.
Does God have a sense of humor? How could He Not? Could there be an infinite Being incapable of understanding human sensations and insights, unable to grasp what humans themselves see and feel? How could God not get the joke?
This is not to say that God needs to “feel” the humor or to laugh. Maimonides insisted God feels nothing and is beyond feeling, so all discussion of God’s anger, love, impatience, sadness, enjoyment, etc., is at best allegorical, and such terms applied to the Infinite are simply mortal terms of reference to help us understand bits and pieces of the world.
If God comprehends human feelings, He must understand humor and laughter. And it follows that humor must serve a Divine purpose. Humor and laughter are uniquely human. If humans are made in God’s image, there must be some humor involved in the engineering of the universe. Its presence in the world must be another manifestation of the Divine spark.
And when we appreciate an irony or laugh at a good joke, we are serving a purpose. Medical doctors say laughter improves health and extends life – a finding anticipated by King Solomon who observed, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
How do unanswered questions combine with humor in this world? Perhaps the humor is there to take away some of the frustration at being unable to find answers to questions, to blunt some of the blows. Perhaps the asking of unanswerable questions and our pleasure in laughter are two manifestations of the quest for human happiness, of the seeking of contentment amid the hardships and bitterness of life.
Or must that also remain an unanswerable question?
Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.