NEW YORK (JTA) — The Talmud and its associated commentaries, comprising tens of thousands of pages of rabbinic debates in Hebrew and Aramaic, form the basis for modern Jewish law. The texts are often vilified by anti-Semites or idolized as the secret to Jewish intelligence. But outside the Orthodox world, the intricacies of the Talmud and its essential logic are little-known and often shrouded in mystery.
Comedian Ari Shaffir wants to change that.
In his latest set, filled with blunt analysis of Jewish law and sex, the 45 year-old former Orthodox Jew manages to make the nuanced intellectual debates accessible — and a source of laughter at the innate absurdity of governing one’s life by ancient standards.
I caught up with the comedian on the phone after a performance of his aptly-named “Jew” show at New York City’s Comedy Cellar, which impressed this Orthodox journalist and scarred her formerly ultra-Orthodox date with its guilt-inducing kabbalistic depictions of the consequences of masturbation. Shaffir already has several Comedy Central projects and a two-part Netflix special, “Double Negative,” under his belt, and plans on filming this set as a special in the coming months.
JTA: You went to seminary and you attended Yeshiva University briefly. But did you ever totally drink the Kool-Aid of your upbringing? Or were you always a little bit skeptical of the whole thing?
Ari Shaffir: No, I think I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Like most people in Modern Orthodoxy, people don’t even think about it.
The fact that I didn’t believe in God was something that I just didn’t consider. And then when I did, it was like, “Oh yeah, I’m out.”
Orthodox Judaism as a lifestyle is all-encompassing. Has comedy become a replacement to that for you?
The Talmud is just breaking shit down constantly, and that logic is the same thing I use in stand-up.
I’ve never considered what you just said, that the ability to just sit and focus on one thing for forever, like you do for Talmud, could be replaced with standup. I never had good grades until I dropped out of religion. And then suddenly, my grades went up. So maybe I replaced it.
You mentioned in the set that you still have a decent relationship with your parents and occasionally go home for the High Holidays. How do you choose when and how to engage with Judaism?
The biggest thing I lost when I left religion was that sense of community and the culture. It was an unexpected kind of free-falling. When I was in it, I didn’t understand how much the community was a part of my life.
So that was kind of weird for me, to have no anchor. It was disconcerting. At first I was kind of angry at anyone who was still in it — I’ve seen this with a lot of Jews who kind of get out. But eventually I reached a place of calm.
Some of the community stuff manifests in a shitty way, like gossip. Everybody knows everybody’s business because of these tight communities. But the gossip is basically because everybody kind of loves each other. You don’t gossip about some non-Jewish neighbor.
There are some nice things about the culture. Pretty much every week, you have Shabbat dinner and lunch with your kids, so there’s no way for them to become drug addicts. The food — I can’t explain why I like gefilte fish. The only way to eat it is to cover it up with massive amounts of horseradish.
Are you still close with anyone that was a part of your life when you were Orthodox, or did you have a big separation?
Almost all of them I’ve separated from. When I was at Yeshiva University and decided I wasn’t going to be religious anymore, I didn’t consider that I would stop being friends with all of these people.
I didn’t even know why it was happening at first. But then, you realize looking back that there’s just things you can’t do. Where are you gonna eat? You can’t go out on Friday night or Saturday day, and then it just gets harder and harder to communicate with them.
How did you get over all the internalized and systematized guilt that comes with growing up in the Orthodox world?
Being Orthodox Jewish is kind of like being raised on like network sitcoms. There’s no sex. It was hard for me to start viewing women as a group of people who wanted to get laid.
When I would have sex at first after leaving, somewhere in my head was like, “Oh I did something to them.” Slowly, slowly, over the years, I started to be like, “No no, we both enjoyed that. Nobody did anything wrong.”
Or take doing drugs. I do them — I do plenty of them, willingly and happily. But part of me thinks I’m kind of a degenerate. No one else thinks pot smokers are degenerates. But deep in me somewhere, that 13 year-old version of myself is still looking down on this guy smoking pot on a Tuesday afternoon. And you can’t quite shake that. That guy is still judging you.
But at the same time, Orthodox values also mean that I’m respectful to my elders on a level that most of my friends can’t understand. I can’t not be. It’s too much in me.
How long did it take you from the conception of doing this really inside-baseball Jewy set to the first time you performed it? Do you refine it at each stop that you perform it, or do you kind of have a really set routine that you just use for any type of audience?
I wanted to do an hour about Judaism and get rid of it. Instead of making jokes here or there, I wanted to really cover it.
In the story of Noah, based on the world that Hashem set up, I saw some inaccuracies. And then obviously, I go back and learn the Rashi, and all the commentary, and see what they say, see those explanations, and then judge those explanations.
It’s all f–k based, by the way. Sex is all God cares about with human beings. He’s like this guy next door with binoculars looking into everything we’re doing.
The commentators give three possible explanations for the flood. The first was that man was laying with animals — which is like, maybe. But there’s no way you can get that from the script. And if man was laying with animals, why wouldn’t the animals eat people afterwards? So that was a tough one.
The other one was, the angels were laying with human women, which is also possible. But then that doesn’t make sense why they would flood the world — you should flood heaven! It’s the angels that are at fault there, not humans.
And then the last one was sodomy. And so that’s the one I cover in the set. If sodomy was the reason God killed everybody, what went on based on that?
This process will have been two and a half or three years when it’s all told. At first, I would do 30 minutes of material, and then I would just take questions from the audience. I’m like, “What have you guys just wanted to know about Jews?”
The questions kind of guided me to new places. Audience members asked me about circumcision, or why Orthodox women wear wigs. You know, all sorts of stuff like that. I’d talk about loopholes. That’s all the Talmud is — finding loopholes.
As I tell it, I usually try to make a joke, but I can see how ridiculous it is. Because I haven’t thought about it in so long.
Sometimes audiences will ask about something that’ll baffle me. “Why do they carry around pillows?” That was one of them, and I was like, what are you talking about?
Do you know what that pillow question is about?
Was it a tallit bag or something?
Yeah, it absolutely was. Yeah.
I had no idea what he was saying. Like, we don’t carry around pillows, dude.
I took two more questions before it hit me. Then I was like, “Ooh, a tallis bag, okay. Yeah. It’s not a pillow. It just goes with him. And they just embroider it to make it look nice.”
And built from there, and looked at other stories, and stuff like that. I had a girlfriend who lived in Bed-Stuy, right near where the Satmar Jews live. So I would see them sometimes, and it would remind me of things. Because when you take all this stuff for granted, you have to be reminded of it to think of it clearly.
Once I record it as a special, which will probably be in December or January, maybe February, that’ll be it. Then I’ll excise that demon and then I’ll move on from Judaism in terms of, like, expression on stage.
If I don’t record this in New York, then I’ll for sure do a big show in New York. Because New York is really the home of Jews in America. It’s more special for me to do it there than in other places.
I did it in Jerusalem too, which was weird. The problem was half of the people in the crowd were still religious, and the other half had been religious. So they were like, “Yeah we know all of this. We know it all.”
And I’m like, damnit. The whole time I was on my heels. I’m not used to performing to people that know it quite well. So that was weird.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.