How the Books of Exodus and Esther Use Humor to Underscore a Message of Hope

April 17 2019

Since the holiday of Purim occurs exactly one month and one day before Passover, these two celebrations of redemption are linked in the Jewish imagination. Joel Kaminsky notes many parallels between the biblical stories associated with the two holidays: each revolves around a genocidal plot against the Jews by a powerful empire (Persia and Egypt), each begins with a woman or women disobeying royal decrees (Vashti, who refuses to appear before her drunken husband Ahasuerus, and the midwives who refuse to throw Jewish babies into the Nile), each has as a protagonist a Jew who lives in the royal palace (Esther and Moses), and each ends in a reversal of fortunes between the Jews and their enemies. While many interpreters have pointed to the use of humor and irony in Esther, Kaminsky argues that there is similar comic use of ironic reversals in Exodus as well. He writes:

It is my contention that the writers of the biblical text used humor not only to enhance the aesthetic experience of the reader or listener, but also to make a deeper theological point. One of the major themes in the Hebrew Bible is trusting in God’s promises even though quite often current reality suggests that the fulfillment of these promises is unrealistic, or even impossible. Inasmuch as the Bible asks those who read it as sacred scripture to develop a type of hope that calls into question a commonsense view of the world, one should not be surprised to find humor in these narratives. This is because there is a structural affinity as well as a direct connection between humor and hope in that each proclaims that the reality of everyday life does not necessarily have the final word. As [the late sociologist of religion] Peter Berger notes, humor challenges the dominant tragic worldview that confines humans to a stoic acceptance of the current conditions of existence. . .

Hope, [like humor], presents a . . . challenge to the status quo and also provides, in Berger’s words, a “signal of transcendence.” Humor is part of the language of hope that points to a higher order than the one in which we normally live and thus we should not be surprised to find it purposefully introduced into narratives where Israel’s hopes and in fact her very existence are being called into question. Of interest is that these ancient [texts] deployed humor in situations that many today would see as no laughing matter. However, it is precisely here that humor, by allowing the reader to laugh in the face of potential tragedy, facilitates the ability to continue to trust in God’s promises even when such trust seems rationally unwarranted.

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Read more at Marginalia

More about: Esther, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Jewish humor, Passover

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat