We human beings have a special adaptive mechanism called rationality. It allows us to prognosticate. We say “If A, then B.” If we wish to change B, perhaps we might change A. This is the good news.
The bad news is that we are incapable of perceiving situations otherwise than as the syntheses of thesis and antithesis.
This capacity often goes awry. We have self-created misery called neurosis, wherein our ability to correctly perceive A leads us to an invalid conclusion at “Therefore C.” Our neuroses worsen, beginning with the conclusion, “All events I perceive concerning me must end with the conclusion “C.” We may call this delusions of grandeur, or delusions of inferiority. We may go further and say not only that all events concerning me must have a foregone conclusion, but that all events concern me; this is called psychosis, of the type called paranoia. Our ability to synthesize allows us to thwart the megatherium. A) The megatherium is heavy, B) heavy things which fall down may hurt themselves, C) if I dig a pit, the megatherium may fall down and hurt himself.
It also allows us to be conned. Con games and magic tricks, just as neuroses, are misuses (here, intended by another) of the process of rationalization: A) this fellow tells me he is going to make a coin disappear, B) he is trying to distract me by lowering his hand to his pocket, but, wait a second, what’s that? He has, magically, made the coin disappear.
Here the mind has been led, as Ricky Jay says, to its own confusion. This process of inductive reasoning may be perverted by introducing a false or, indeed, a magical second term. A) This sealed water bottle is solid, but if B) a magical silk scarf is placed over it and a certain incantation muttered, C) the coin in my hand may penetrate the otherwise sealed bottle. Our enjoyment of the magic trick, our subjugation by the confidence trick, both issue from our unconscious, unfailing application of logical thinking.
At the confidence trick’s revelation, logical thinking has proved inefficient and we are sad: at the magic trick, it has proved superior, even to the invariable forces of nature as generally understood by us, and we are delighted.
This process is also the stuff of the courtroom, especially in the west. Here two mutually exclusive propositions compete for the ratification of the judge or jury.
We may say the courtroom is the area of a contest for truth, or a battle to allow justice to prevail. But more truly it is a debate, applying the rules of logic to arrive at conclusions which, far from fulfilling the community’s need for justice or truth, may frequently be per se absurd, since they proceed not from generally acknowledged truths, but from, finally, arbitrarily arrived at premises. And yet, our belief in our logical powers is so great that we will indulge, here again, in what may frequently be a charade, and call it the community’s search for truth and justice. (The question is not if O.J. Simpson did or did not kill his wife, but, whether or not a certain glove fits him, and whether or not one of the witnesses used the “N” word.)
The community’s progression toward this manner of determining guilt is an endorsement of the process of logical reasoning, though both its employment and its results may be absurd. Since we cannot, in truth, say for a certainty that O.J. did or did not kill his wife, we will find or create a set or propositions to stand in for this quest—propositions that are provable either outright, or capable of being awarded the victory as overcoming doubts of a reasonable man. Does the glove fit, did the dog bark, et cetera.
This process generally satisfies no one directly connected with it, and exists to assuage the mind of the community, that, should any member, god forbid, be involved, he or she might hope for a happy summary outcome.
How are we assured? The process is based on the process of inductive reasoning, our pet, and tool, and constant monitor. The process, though, sometimes pulls us astray, just as it may put us aright. People lie, people delude themselves. As much as the excellent mensch might avoid the first, he or she cannot, short of sainthood, avoid the second.
Being human, we have various tools for dealing with our knowledge of the fallibility of our reasoning process. We use them constantly. One is the joke.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. Ha ha. “Funny” means that our rational process is proved fallible, and the answer to the conundrum is both surprising and inevitable. It was there all the time, and we could not see it because our brain does not work that way. Aren’t we a silly and dear bunch of monkeys!
I am the luckiest man alive. I find a dollar, I take it to the bank, I am the millionth customer, they award me a trip around the world, I go to the Taj Mahal, a beautiful Indian woman is standing next to me, her caste mark red on her beautiful forehead. We fall in love, I take her back to the hotel and spend the night with her. In the morning I look down at the sleeping form, and become obsessed by the red dot in the middle of her forehead. I rub it off. I win a car.
The ending is surprising and inevitable. We use our reasoning process to run ahead of the joke. I hope it will be funny, I hope it will be neither racist nor sexist. I can’t see how that is possible, the way it is going…and then, at the punchline, the laughter comes from the release of the “nervous” energy we created in trying to beat the teller to the punchline. A way exists where there was no way, and, not only that, we were told, at the beginning that it would be so. “I am the luckiest man alive.” The ending was always there, and our beloved reasoning process prevented us from seeing it.
The structure of this joke is identical to the structure of a tragedy. Oedipus says, “Here’s this plague on Thebes. I will find out what is causing it if it takes me the entire play, for I am the most powerful man alive, and I am responsible to my people.” At the end, he finds that he is the cause of the
plague, he has brought the plague on Thebes, and he is reduced from the status of King, to the status of blind beggar.
The joke, the tragedy and the comedy all are structured thus — leading the mind of the audience to its own confusion, and supplying the true and, retrospectively, obvious and necessary ending just at the point where the audience has determined there is no hope.
Aha, we might say, then, obviously, another employment of and comment upon the use and the fallibility of the reasoning process is the religious service. And indeed it is.
(Drama, of course, was originally a religious celebration, and its function as such may be seen still today in tragedy and comedy — the most perfect forms of drama. In each, we leave the theater, the cinema, cleansed and renewed in direct proportion to the perfection of the syllogism. A) My wife is the most perfect and loyal person in the world. B) There is no way she could be untrue to me. C) If I proved she were untrue, would you kill her? Yes, therefore D) Desdemona gets the pillow. The fault is revealed to have been not in Desdemona but in Othello, and he is transformed from the most powerful and beloved of men, to the least powerful and loveless of wretches.)
Religion offers us the opportunity of renewal. To do so, we must become closer to God. We may use our reasoning processes as the Yetzer Ha Ra, the evil inclination: I should be allowed to sin, this is not sin, although it is sin, it is not bad sin, no one will notice, it is too late to ask forgiveness, and so on.
Or we may immerse ourselves in the drama, and accept proposition A: to surrender to ritual, tradition, to outside control may bring redemption. In so doing we, like any other hero, embark on a quest. We use our forces of reason to aid us on the quest: they say, “Go home, do not go to shul”; they say, “But see, so and so’s life has apparently been transformed, go one more week,” et cetera. We wrestle with the problems brought upon us by our reasoning process, and try to use our reasoning process to fix them.
We ask what is the rational purpose of the bris, of kashrut; finding none, we reject them, and wonder why we feel alienated. We peck at religion and feel unsatisfied, and the Yetzer Ha Ra uses the reasoning process to remind us that we are special, and that, somehow we are superior to the process, that we are too good, too bad — both meaning superior — to the possibility of change.
If we persist, there comes a point in our journey where we recognize, as did Othello, that our true friends are false, and that our antagonists have been trying to help us. The ending of that tragedy cleanses us. It does not teach us “Don’t disbelieve your attractive young Lieutenant,” but it reminds us that we are fallible, that God has an answer, but that it will only be discovered through subjugation to God’s will, and that, as God’s will is not readily apparent many times, the process will be difficult.
One predictable part of both the comedy and tragedy is this: At some point, the hero, thwarted, must confess the uselessness of his or her rational capacity. Hamlet says, “Oh that this too solid flesh would melt,” or Joel McCrae in “The Palm Beach Story” comes into the empty apartment vacated by his now-vanished wife and sits alone, all avenues of progress, any possibility of progress, closed, as the deus ex machina walks in the door and propels him into the third act. The drama, tragedy and comedy is a celebration of God’s grace and of our redemptibility in spite of our human, prized, distinctive and finally flawed rational capacity.
To progress toward the conclusion — of the drama, of the joke, of the old year — we first must confess. This irresistible urge toward confession is hard-wired in the human consciousness. We are unable to begin the end of a finite journey without a confession. The urge is autonomic, and, once aware of it we may look and discover it, like Fibonacci numbers, in all human endeavors: In the sixth bar of an eight or the eighth of a 12-bar melody, in the Gipper speech before the fourth quarter, in the second inaugural, we are overcome by the corrective urge. Hamlet will be unable to complete his play, nor will Dumbo receive the magic feather until he has confessed his powerlessness. The seventh inning stretch, the “eleven o’clock song,” and the Movie of the Week’s “When I was young I had a puppy” speech, in fact, hold the place of the religious confession.
It is then, literally, the God-given corrective to the inevitable flaw in the human consciousness. As soon as we feel the loom of the end of a finite project, we are overcome by the urge to confess our faults. We can progress toward the end of whatever endeavor only by first acknowledging our fallibility.
Halachically, our Jewish year started at Rosh Hashanah, but, in truth, we know it did not begin until Ne-eilah.