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Sacred and Not-So-Sacred Cows: Humor and the Golden Calf

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Someone I know used to have a mug that said "Sacred cows make the best hamburgers." This pithy statement captures part of what is at stake when we declare certain things to be off limits, taboo or untouchable. Of course, the flip side of the question is are there any targets that should in fact be declared off limits, taboo or untouchable?

This was a good week to ask that question.

Hosting the Academy Awards in front of a purported 1 billion viewers, Seth MacFarlane decided nothing was too sacred and nothing too profane. He racked up hits on topics as crass as in which movies famous actresses can be seen undressed, as graphic as the manner of Lincoln's assassination, as ugly as the physically abusive relationship between Chris Brown and Rihanna, and as poisonous as pretending that Hollywood is run by a secret Jewish cabal that meets at a synagogue. Some of it was even funny. All of it, however, triggered the conversation so ingrained in our society over what is allowed and not allowed to be joked about, and who gets to judge what is too sensitive, too hurtful, or too ignorant to be funny?

Interestingly, in addition to MacFarlane's performance, this past week seemed to have featured an above average number of stories involving this question. Also on Oscar night, The Onion, a satirical paper known for irreverently skewering everyone and everything, tweeted a short, extremely obscene message purporting that deep down lots of people want to call 9-year-old best actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis a very not nice word. Later, (alleged) comedienne Joan Rivers, never one to filter, reached for the Holocaust to find a reference point in talking about the "hotness" of German supermodel Heidi Klum. And Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jewish Assemblyman representing Brooklyn, painted his face dark to dress up as what he referred to as a "black basketball player" for a Purim party.

Only Hikind, of course, justified his behavior as a celebration of Purim. His excuse did not fly very far with the public as an explanation for how anyone, let alone a public figure who represents diverse constituents, could deem it acceptable to dress in a way that makes fun of another group of people. Not to mention that he employed "blackface," whose shameful history creates an even greater offense. (Here's The Daily Show's incomparable take on it.) Still, the Purim holiday, celebrated last week, has become an occasion for not only dressing up in outlandish costumes, but for roasting up those sacred cows.

Last week, we read of a very different cow, the Golden Calf molded by the Children of Israel out of impatience and loss of faith in Moses and G*d. When he sees the sight of such debauchery and idolatry, Moses hurls down the very stone tablets on which the law against graven images was engraved in the first place. So in the end, it is not only the not-so-sacred golden cow that gets broken into pieces.

The rabbinic tradition teaches that Moses' act met with G*d's approval and therefore, when the time came to place the Ten Commandments into the Holy Ark to accompany the people of Israel for all time, they included along with the intact second set of tablets the shards of the original. Among the many lessons these shards convey, is the idea that it is important to break the idols from time to time, even those that we hold to be sacred. Taking that task to heart carries with it responsibilty, particularly for those who hold power over and influence people.

When it comes to the role of humor it would be pointless to try to judge what lives up to this responsibility, let alone what succeeds as a joke. Power is dynamic, not static. It does not lend itself to absolute rules of conduct and propriety, and therefore, neither will humor. However, the act of purposefully thinking about the roles we play and what power we wield, matters and must be considered an integral part of what defines the impact of our language and our actions. Including those that are intended to push the envelope, or even slay the sacred cows.