IT’S A FUNNY OLD TESTAMENT: THE ROOTS OF JEWISH HUMOUR GO BACK TO THE BIBLE
22 November 2017 | by Jeremy Dauber
In the spirit of my new book on the history of Jewish comedy, I would like to begin by telling you a joke. A Jewish joke, of course; and – perhaps also unsurprisingly – one with a kind of bite to it. It may not be to everyone’s taste; you may not find it laugh-out-loud funny. But it has the benefit – at least in the eyes of this writer – to be the greatest Jewish joke in history. It also, for the historically minded, has the benefit of being one of the earliest, one that – as much as any single joke can do – explains how Jewish humour got to be the way it is.
But before the punchline, the set-up, which entails a quick trip through Jewish biblical theology, at least as it applies to comedy. It’s fair enough to say that the Bible is, generally speaking, not funny. Or, more precisely, Not Funny: because its general thrust is to be hard on a certain kind of laughter that displays an ironic sensibility, a knowledge of the way the world “works”.
Take Sarah, wife of Abraham, that first laugher: her mirth is occasioned by her understanding that the angelic promise of her delivering a child is biologically impossible, as she is long past the age of menopause. But her understanding, in a world saturated with God’s presence and active intervention, is a faulty one, and her second laugher – embodied in the Hebrew name for Isaac, her son, which contains that root-word within it – is something closer to a humbled grin.
If laughter is based on knowledge and understanding (you can only truly laugh at a joke if you’re in on it enough to get it), then it seems to follow that the kind of laughter the Bible does prize is that of those who are in sync with the divine plan for the world, and who are on the right side of God’s covenant. Thus we have the onomastic and linguistic play that pervades the Bible as an understanding of the mystical, religious rightness of the connection between word and thing (or, on occasion, its direct reverse).
Or – perhaps more troublingly, to modern comedic sensibilities – there is the triumphal comedy of punching down against those who weren’t on the right side of God’s programme. Take, for example, the case of Eglon in the book of Judges. Eglon, the king of Moab, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “calf”, is, like his namesake, corpulent and ignorantly led to the slaughter.
The Israelite hero Ehud is able to assassinate this enemy of the Jewish people by the fairly simple expedient of telling him that he has a secret for him, and so he should dismiss all of his guards. This the king does, allowing Ehud to stab him in the gut – a gut so extensive, by the way, notes the usually laconic biblical narrative, that the dagger and the handle were embedded all the way into the belly.
This kind of humour was perfectly in line with what Thomas Hobbes considered to be the essence of comedy: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” Superiority theory, as this idea of how comedy works has come to be known, was unsurprisingly championed by the man who both was responsible for the idea that life was nasty, brutish, and short, and was a subtle and careful reader of the Bible.
But this kind of comedy – which is present in numerous instances in the Bible – works best when there is an uncomplicated and pure sense of the superior, of the victorious, of being the top dog. It works well, in other words, in biblical books depicting the rise of the kingdom of the House of David, and the construction of God’s house on earth, the Holy Temple; when the covenant between God and Israel is in good, easy, strong, uncomplicated operation.
But what happens when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lie in ruins? When God’s house has been consumed in fire? When the leadership of the Jews has been scattered to the diasporic winds? What then? Well, “what then” is the development of the greatest Jewish joke of all time. You’ve been very patient, and I thank you for it. But here it is. It’s a joke told by the Jews, to the Gentile nations among whom they would coexist throughout post-exilic Jewish history.
“You Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, etc.,” it goes, “You think that just because you’ve destroyed our temple, killed our leaders, exiled us, you think you’ve won? You think you’re in charge? You think you know what’s going on? What shmucks you are!”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing (Yiddish hadn’t even been invented yet). But this joke, like all the best Jewish jokes, is deeply barbed. On the one hand, it seems, ostensibly, to be a pious statement, if impiously rendered, of theology. The covenant obtains: these historical events are merely the result of national sin, and with appropriate behaviour and repentance will be rectified; and the marauding forces are – far from their own self-image as conquerors and empire-builders – simply instruments in the Jewish God’s plan, chess pieces in a larger history. Their triumphal laughter is akin to Sarah’s: they think they know, but they do not understand.
But that laughter has a doubled, anxious, inward focus; not simple superiority, but with a nervous edge. What if they’re right? The Jews of the Bible, after all, are as loath to be the butt of someone else’s joke as anyone else, as the book of Lamentations suggests over and over again: “Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery,” the mourning narrator intones.
There’s that small, heckling voice in the back of the Jewish consciousness. Who are we kidding, what with the superiority complex. Look at where they are and look at where we are: we’re history’s joke, not them. Non-Jews made this point, too – as early as the fourth century, Julian the Apostate said: “Will anyone think that victory in war is less desirable than defeat? Who is so stupid?” – but the Jews listened to their own voices most of all.
And so, this leads to the greatest of all Jewish works of comedy, the one that carries the seeds of all Jewish comedic effort after it, the one that outlines the blueprint for how to survive in the Diaspora: the book of Esther. For Jews, the book of Esther is practically synonymous with joy and merriment: it is the liturgical reading for the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the salvation of the Jews from the genocidal depredations of Haman, the vizier of Ahasuerus. If ever there were a text dedicated to the old Jewish joke about celebrating – “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” – that text would be the book of Esther.
And yet the book describes a salvation not based on God’s providence: Esther bears the distinction of being one of the only books of the Bible where the divine name goes unmentioned in the text. Befitting the name of the holiday it is read on – a word that means “lots” or “a lottery” – the salvation of the Jews takes place by a string of coincidences.
What would have happened, one imagines, were it not the case that Ahasuerus, suffering from a case of royal insomnia, happened to read of Mordechai the Jew’s good deed for the king, rather than anything else? What if Haman had not happened to be outside waiting in the king’s courtyard? What if he had not tripped and fallen on the queen after she revealed her Jewish heritage, making the king believe she was the victim of an attempted seduction or assault? And, for that matter, what if the king had picked for his consort someone who was not Jewish?
Traditional authorities have said, as a matter of theology, that this string of sheer coincidences are so deeply unlikely that there must – must – be an author to them, and the rabbis acted, through midrashic intervention, to place God back into the narrative. But this is interpretation, not text; and the text is blackly comic indeed. In a world of divine hiddenness (and Esther’s name, which can be etymologically related to “secret” or “hidden”, was taken by the rabbis as a nod to just such a concept, albeit for very different reasons), another interpretation darkly suggests itself. And what can you do about it, but laugh? Well, lots of things. And Jews did, in many ways, and in many works of brilliant comedy, over the centuries. But that’s a story for another time: helpfully written, case bound, and now on sale from a reputable publisher.
Jeremy Dauber is Atran professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Columbia University, New York, and the author of several books on Jewish literature. His latest, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, is published by W. W. Norton & Company.