By Yonatan Gordon
Conceived in 2007 by Gary Ginsberg and Michael Lynton, with writer Abigail Pogrebin, Newsweek’s “Top 50 Rabbis List” wasn’t intended to be taken too seriously. As Lynton told the Jewish Journal in 2013, “[W]e thought: Wouldn’t it be fun, and a little bit mischievous, to put together a list of who these people are and rank order them?”
But the public started taking it very seriously. After each year’s publication, debates ensued both in favor and against the list. In the hopes of stemming the debate, part of a disclaimer added to the 2012 list read: “The list is subjective. Its creators never expected it to be taken as seriously as it is. We know there are many more than 50 worthy rabbis in the U.S.”
So what happened? Why did something that was never intended to be taken seriously, become so hotly debated?
The sages teach that in the future, the entire Jewish people (not just 50) will be called a “nation of tzadikim (righteous people),” and become a true “light unto the nations.”
While the manifestation of the idea was problematic both on both sides, the deeper reason why it began to be taken more seriously, is because conceptually, the idea behind the list came from a very high place.
This interplay between fact and fiction, between something that at first appears to be a joke, but is later taken seriously, relates to the highest level of the soul called radla (“the unknowable head”). As we will now explain, this is also the level where all good Purim jokes come from.
The Purim Joke
In the well-known directive of the sages, we are instructed to reach a state on Purim of not being able to distinguish [lit. “does not know”] between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordechai.” While we usually relate this statement to drinking alcohol, Jewish mysticism puts on a different spin on the story.
In Kabbalah, the level of “not knowing” corresponds to radla, the place where the essence of God resides in the soul. As crushed olives used to light the Menorah in the Temple not only produce light, but reveal the source of light, God’s essence, so too when a Jewish soul is crushed by experiences, his radla (experience of pure faith) shines through. In order for us to become luminaries of the essence of God, we have to be crushed. It is impossible to reveal this highest source of light without being broken; without having a broken heart.
There are two requirements then for a good Purim joke. As we began, there should be an interplay between two complete opposites: “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordechai.” But additionally, the joke should come from radla, the highest level of the superconscious sefirah of keter (crown), where opposites coexist.
What then is a radla joke? A joke that calls out the relationship between two states that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. When these jokes are made in the right frame of mind, at a point when the joke teller feels crushed or broken from life experiences, yet wants to bring light and laughter to the world, then these jokes also merit that the essence of God shine through them.
The question is often asked: Why are so many comedians Jewish? Since radla is unique to Jewish souls, then Jews are also the most able to show the relationship between two opposite states. For instance, Seinfeld was a show about “nothing,” but presumably, “something” happened during these episodes.
But to delve a drop deeper, let’s talk about the two extremes of truth and falsehood. One of the secrets from this discussion is that it doesn’t make a difference what a Jew consciously thinks he believes. Even if he thinks that the stories in the Torah are fictional (God forbid), Purim allows us to also include these Jews in our Purim play as well. How so?
When meditating on the interplay between fact and fiction, while it seems that we are equally weighing two opposite states, two genres, according to Jewish mysticism only truth exists. So even if 99.9% of a movie script is fictional, even to the extent that it goes against Torah values of modesty and morality, that 0.1% is what counts. Like the small candle that lights up a dark room, one inspired idea coming from the radla of a Jewish soul brings an exponentially great amount of truth to Hollywood and the world.
To say it even stronger. Since truthful ideas are the most enduring, and packed with the greatest potential, although the public doesn’t realize this, aside from being a Jew, the most exciting thing about these well-known Jewish personalities in Hollywood is that they have learned to access the level of radla in their souls.
In Yiddish, this is called the pintele yid, the spark within the Jewish soul that is always lit and ready to be awakened. While the presentation of Jewish themes and concepts within a fictional setting may seem a statement of disbelief or assimilation, the Purim joke is that these expressions are the greatest manifestations of belief, of the pintele yid.
For instance, Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film on Noah is a fictitious rendering of the story. But whereas this has brought upsetness to some, publicizing a fictitious rendering attests to his deep radla connection to the true version of the story of Noah. The same goes for Neil Gaiman, who often incorporates Jewish themes and concepts into his writings, and many others.
The Radla List
So when Larry Ellison, one of the world’s physically wealthiest people, says he doesn’t think that the stories in the Torah are real, but then follows up with statement that “they’re interesting stories;” it is this latter point of interest that indicates the revelation of radla, his pintele yid.
Even if these personalities were not aware of their radla experiences, and even if they don’t see themselves as promoters of Jewish themes and concepts, it doesn’t make one speck of difference. Another result of our mediation is that the most marketable thing, the most exciting result coming from these personalities, are their publically shared radla moments; the eternally true and pristine thoughts of the pintele yid.
In addition to the personalities mentioned above, anyone who is sensitive to this discussion can pick up the “radla spottings” from the personalities below as well:
Ari Handel, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, JJ Abrams, Simon Kinberg, Steven Spielberg, Leonard Nimoy, Joel and Ethan Coen, to name a few (of hundreds).
For more radla fun, please visit Inner.org’s Purim section here: http://www.inner.org/holidays/purim
Dedicated to Harold Ramis OBM, who provided us with a modern-day metaphor for teshuvah (repentance), and the Kabbalistic difference between living a “circular” and a “straight/upright” life, in his movie Groundhog Day.