Send in the Clowns: A Rabbi's Take on Charlie Hebdo

Being a clown captures the paradox of what Charlie means at this moment and points toward an understanding of how to think of the work that they and others like them do.
01/16/2015 12:25 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

It is a very serious time in France, especially for the Jewish community. And yet, at the center of the storm is a very unserious entity, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo who may have become best known for caricatures of Muhammed (venerated as a prophet by many throughout the world), but had made their living by ridiculing just about anything anyone took seriously, including themselves. The cartoonist known as Luz, who owes his survival to running late to an editorial meeting, expressed how the assault that robbed him of his friends and colleagues also left his self-identified "irresponsible journal" carrying the kind of weight and societal burden it was neither made for, nor ever sought to bear. Perhaps the edition he helped produce this week will help him drive home the message and shed some of his new admirers who may really fit more in his cross-hairs than as his target readership.

The cover has received the most notice -- Luz's reprise of his famous Muhammed caricature, this time holding a "je suis Charlie" sign under the banner "all is forgiven." Some have interpreted this as a bittersweet gesture of reconciliation, but there is certainly biting irony as well. Either way a cartoon inside the magazine more directly makes the point that the slain cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not and would not have been great fans of reflexive piety, even on their own behalf. The cartoon depicts French leaders and other dignitaries holding up their iconic "Charlie" signs and the caption reads, "One family of clowns decimated, ten more take their place!"

Being a clown captures the paradox of what Charlie means at this moment and points toward an understanding of how to think of the work that they and others like them do. To call oneself a clown is at the same time a self-deprecating reminder not to be too serious and an assuming of a very important role. And when aimed at those who take themselves too seriously, being revealed as a clown lands as an insult, maybe an unforgivable one.

Like most professions and attributes, Jewish tradition judges being a clown in context. On one hand there are strong warnings against mockery, mean-spiritedness, and even just wasting time. On the other, one who uses humor to a holy purpose is lauded, even to the point of being singled out, in one Talmudic source, as particularly meriting a place in the world to come. A clown breaks through both melancholy and arrogance, cheering up the dejected while letting the air out of the haughty, and ultimately, according to the Sages bringing peace. While I would not guess that Charlie Hebdo would be interested in the distinction for the sake of piety or any such high-minded goal, their combination of sharp wit and coarse humor can provide that service.

The latest issue of the "irresponsible journal," the first I have ever read in its entirety, is not particularly nice to Catholics, politicians, singers of La Marseillaise, and, yes, Muslims. Or more accurately, to those who are hurt when the values behind those identities are ridiculed. Other issues mock Jews and some of my own deepest held values. I'm more of an everything's sacred than a nothing's sacred kind of person. However, in an environment when so many sacred bulls of every kind run amok, somebody has to be allowed to brandish a shovel.

The power of expression is multifaceted and comes with responsibility. And yet, paradoxically, one of the responsibilities of free expression is to carve space for both the frivolous and the offensive in order to make sure that no voice is completely snuffed out under some consensus of what is good taste or acceptable discourse. Charlie Hebdo manages to cross all of those lines from an avowedly secular and skeptical perspective, and yet not be nihilist or without something to say.

Another strip in this issue, also from Luz, opens a window into the psyche of how Charlie Hebdo were like little kids drawing (sometimes obscenely) petit bohommes, little imaginary fellows to help themselves understand a vast and bizarre world of adults. In that version of Charlie, the punchline was seeing how their myriad of imaginary "little fellows" had suddenly seemed to come to life in the millions of people marching in the street. Here too, their final reflection refused to fall under the spell of thinking too much of themselves: mais jusqu'a quand? "But for how long?" In that question is, perhaps despite itself, a profound wisdom: even opposing what we know is wrong and standing for values that we know are worthwhile, there is always more that we don't know then that we do. The best we can do sometimes is scribble our petit bonhommes, "little fellows," in pencil and refuse to let them be erased.