Photo Credit: Joan Rivers 2010, Wikipedia Commons
By Yonatan Gordon
At her funeral, she was eulogized by Howard Stern as “brassy in public [and] classy in private … a troublemaker, trail blazer, pioneer for comics everywhere, … [who] fought the stereotypes that women can’t be funny.” Joan Rivers, the self-proclaimed “piece of work” passed away September 4th at the age of 81. And so now we reflect.
While it is appropriate to reflect when any soul we feel close to slips on from this world, when a celebrity passes on, there is a dimension that we can add that goes beyond reminiscing over their legacy. We can ask this question: If they merited to attract and interest millions, beyond the books authored and the film, television, and other public appearances, are there enduring lessons we can learn from reflecting upon their life?
Now we know that not every well-known personality is famous for good reasons. Some clearly are popular because of some immoral take on reality. Someone mistakenly thought this about Robin Williams and commented on my article written in memory and merit that he was of the opinion that Robin was Divinely punished somehow. This is of course totally wrong, but a person needs to be sensitive to this. That there are indeed some celebrities that are famous for all the wrong reasons. But never does this apply to a Jew (as will be explained below), and in Robin’s case, well… this didn’t apply to him either.
The task of essays like this is two-fold. On the one hand we go searching, sifting to find the diamond in the rough. To find the spark of holiness buried beyond the bawd and brass. The second is to explain how it was this spark that attracted millions (and not the bawd and brass).
This spark, the inner point of attraction that guided Joan’s pintele yid—the inner point of pristine goodness in her soul—through her career, was a concept we can call “candid speech”; what the world often calls improvisational comedy or shock humor. In short it means to always be ready and capable to deliver an uncensored line that leaves the audience astounded. But while there are some that use uncensored speech to promote immorality, this was not what Joan, not what her pintele yid was attracted to.
What is so praiseworthy about uncensored speech? As we will explain, the uniqueness is two-fold:
- The first is that this manner of candid, spontaneous speech, bypasses the intellect… which enables the inner thoughts of the soul to become revealed without being censored by the intellect.
- The second is that this approach reveals the primacy of speech as a means for expressing the subconscious aspects of our soul… and as woman symbolize speech in Chassidic thought, this then also explains the inner reason how Joan was able to “break into” comedy… a primarily male profession.
Let’s now bring the book expert, from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s Transforming Darkness into Light: Kabbalah and Psychology (pp. 82-84):
…Since this innermost core of our psyche [the inner point of pristine goodness that cannot be defiled] is usually concealed deep within our normal consciousness, coaxing it out of hiding is no simple matter. One of the ways available to us is spontaneous, candid speech.
The Torah identifies the power of speech as the quintessential expression of humanity. Even though our ability to think is far superior to that of the other forms of life, what defines us as uniquely human is our ability to articulate our thoughts and feelings to other human beings. This is because even more than thought, speech has the power to reveal the hidden depths of the soul.
We have all experienced how talking things out, even to ourselves, helps us order and crystallize our thoughts. Often, articulating our thoughts helps us uncover deeper insights and perception into what we are articulating.
The sages teach us that “more understanding was given to woman than to man.” One of the mystical interpretations of this saying in Chassidic thought is that man symbolizes silence and woman symbolizes speech. By speaking things out, thereby manifesting our feminine side, we gain additional understanding and reveal hidden depths of our souls. This revelation serves to alleviate–sweeten–our anxiety.
In Chassidic thought, speech is seen as the second of the three means of expression, or “garments,” available to the soul, the first being thought and the third being action. An idea born in the mind usually proceeds sequentially through these three “garments”: we think about the idea, we talk about it, and finally we act upon it. We generally use speech as a way to express the ideas we have already worked out in our conscious minds.
It would therefore seem that speech can disclose no more to another person than our inner world of thought. The world of conscious thought, however, is quite limited relative to the vast realm of unconscious thought that constitutes the unconscious mind. Speech would thus appear to be restricted to expressing the limited ideas of the conscious mind.
The truth is, however, that speech is not just the end-product of thought; it is an independent “garment” that functions on its own. Just as, at times, we do not talk about our ideas but simply think about them and then act upon them, bypassing speech, so may we at times bypass conscious thought and express in speech an idea originating in the unconscious levels of the mind. This type of speech is spontaneous and unrehearsed, unlike the deliberate speech that expresses the ideas carefully edited and censored by the mind through the faculty of conscious thought. In spontaneous speech, the ideas expressed are the deep, subconscious thoughts that have not been processed or refined by the mind.
As we all know, and has been observed in conventional psychology, such spontaneous expressions of the subconscious can and do occasionally slip through the censoring process of consciousness and surface unintentionally in the course of conversation, often to our chagrin.
Thus, we see that relaxed, spontaneous speech can reveal both aspects of our soul that are normally obscured by the conscious mind: the inner point of Divine purity and the deep recesses of the unrectified, animal subconscious. This, of course, is as it should be, since we must reveal the former in order to rectify the latter…
Expressing the Deep
Given the above, about the deep, subconscious thoughts that result from candid and spontaneous speech, what would we hope to find? What diamond or shimmering spark in the rough are we hoping to uncover? Beyond the brass and bawd, what we are looking for is a shining moment of truth and clarity. An unrehearsed revelation of the innermost point of Divine goodness in Joan’s soul that was revealed as the result of her uncensored manner of speaking. Does such an example exist where her candid and spontaneous speaking style led to a good and pure revelation?
As some of you may have guessed, the best example of this appears to be Joan’s spontaneous airport interview where she staunchly and defiantly defended the Jewish people’s right to defend themselves in the Land of Israel. Spoken just weeks prior to her passing we can view this as the realization of a goal she had been subconsciously working on for decades. Just prior to her passing, Joan experienced first-hand this principle of candid speech leading to the revelation of the Divine purity in one’s soul. And through her act of staunch defense for the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel, may it be that God considered this one act of truly good and positive candid speech—the proper use of the garment of speech—the tikkun that rectified the rest.