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The Surprisingly Jewish Theology of David S. Pumpkins

Our relationship with the Tom Hanks character is a lot like our relationship with God. Any questions?

Liel Leibovitz
October 27, 2017
Photo: Will Heath/NBC
Tom Hanks as David Pumpkins.Photo: Will Heath/NBC
Photo: Will Heath/NBC
Tom Hanks as David Pumpkins.Photo: Will Heath/NBC

A few weeks ago, reading the story of Cain and Abel, I was struck by a discomfiting thought: God, creator of heaven and earth, source of all light, could be a bit of a jerk.

Consider how He treats poor Cain. Here’s the hard-working farmer, salt of the earth, offering Hashem a delicious, gluten-free, certified-vegan sacrifice; and here’s the Holy One, taking one sniff of the turnips and the squash and refusing Cain’s bounty. Then, noticing that the tiller of soil is walking about with a frown, God speaks to humanity’s first-born son in a quizzical manner that would make even Yoda scratch his head in confusion. “Why art thou wroth?” quoth God, “and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.”

What does it all mean? How exactly is Cain to do well? And who’s the he over whom Cain must learn to rule? God doesn’t say. This kind of celestial ambiguity can really lead a fellow to fratricide.

I thought about this story again this week as I prepared to wrestle with yet another manifestation of godly bafflement: David S. Pumpkins.

This week, the character, which began life as a short skit on Saturday Night Live last year, will return in a 30-minute animated Halloween special, once again voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks. In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with Pumpkins, you can read this excellent oral history, or forgive me the following artless but useful summary: David S. Pumpkins is a maniacal character at a Halloween-themed haunted house ride, who is unsettling only because he makes patrons wonder what on earth is going on. Why would a guy in a pumpkin suit, accompanied by two dancers in skeleton costumes, even be scary? And what’s up with that grating catchphrase of his: “Any questions?”

Confronted with this grinning dweeb, the young couple on the ride is confounded. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around David Pumpkins,” says the young man. “Are we supposed to know who that is?”

“Well,” replies the ride’s wise operator, “you don’t get frights. You feel them.”

But the couple refuses to embrace the mystery. A few more appearances by the dancing David Pumpkins, and they demand clear answers. “Is he from something? I mean, is he from a local commercial?” they ask.

“Well,” the wise operator speaks again, “the scariest thing to the mind is the unknown.”

Indeed: By the time the ride’s almost over, Pumpkins himself somehow magically materializes from behind the agitated riders, flashing his demonic smile and asking “any questions?” in a voice that would make even Linda Blair’s possessed Regan weep with fright.

It’s a very funny skit, precisely because the viewers are as confused as the couple, struggling to understand what’s funny about a sketch that’s all about other people struggling to understand what’s scary about David S. Pumpkins. But it also makes for very good theological shorthand: Our relationship with David S. Pumpkins is a lot like our relationship with God.

Just ask Cain. Even having direct access to the Lord, even having the kind of intimacy where the Almighty drops by just to inquire about your mood, you can never really wrap your head around him. Why did he just refuse your offering and then tell you to resist sin? Go figure.

This state of perpetual not-knowing is both terrifying and terribly amusing. In one of the most astonishing passages in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam complains to God that he’s lonely; might the Creator kindly furnish him with a companion? You’re lonely, God smiles; how do you think I feel?

What thinkst thou then of mee, and this my State, / Seem I to thee sufficiently possest / Of happiness, or not? who am alone / From all Eternitie, for none I know / Second to mee or like, equal much less.

Like David Pumpkins, God is destined to perform for his creations and watch as they strain to make sense of his otherworldly spirit.

Not that we would have it any other way: If our relationship with our maker was simply one of clear commands and blind obedience, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Morality, spirituality, and all the other little engines of human greatness work precisely because we strive so hard to understand just what it is that’s expected of us, and because we know too well that we’ll never have clear answers. How can we be better people? What’s the Lord’s will? Why do good things happen to bad people? We’ll never know, and that, to paraphrase that sage character in the skit, is the scariest thing to the mind.

It’s also the most potent. Struggling with the mystery of chosenness, for example, trying to understand why we were chosen and what we have been chosen for, propelled us Jews to reflect mightily on ethics, community, and responsibility. Having made our peace with the cosmic lack of answers, it’s the questions to which we devoted our lives. It’s why our central intellectual work, the Talmud, is short on anything definitive and very long on argumentation.

And it’s why we can all use another hefty dose of David S. Pumpkins. With too many of us tempted by the sweet siren song of certainty, it’s refreshing—and necessary—to have a reminder of just how little we understand about the way the world works, and how little, really, it matters. You don’t get life, you feel it. And just as your attempts to make sense of it all fall short, as they always do, some beguiling force sneaks up behind you, surprises you with a smile, and raises the only question that has ever mattered and ever will: Any questions?


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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