Doctor Science Knows

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Book of Jonah

Repost of a comment I made after the High Holy Days *last* year, for reference *this* year.

slacktivist posted on the Book of Jonah and its interpretation, especially in Christianity. In the ensuing long discussion, I wrote:

IMHO Michael Cule's rendition of the Book of Jonah isn't a parody, it's a faithful re-telling: Jonah itself is, originally, a parody or satire, in fact *humor*, one of the longest pieces of humor in the Bible. And it is humor of a very, very Jewish sort: try reading it aloud with a strong Yiddish accent and the cadence of a standup comic in the Catskills.

Look at the beginning. The other (older, more conventional) prophetic books always start with the prophet being called by G-d, and the prophet goes, "who, me? I am not worthy!" The prophet is always reluctant.

Jonah isn't just reluctant, he *runs away*. Jonah doesn't just disagree with G-d a little bit, he sulks and pouts. He predicts the future, all right, and it pisses him off -- he wants to be a fearful Jeremiah, calling destruction down on his enemies, but he knows G-d is too merciful for that. What a bummer!

And then there's the bit with the gourd, and Jonah's self-centered dramatics -- "The gourd died! Kill me now, I've had enough!" And the very ending, which trails off most peculiarly -- IMHO this was a knee-slapper of a joke 2500 years ago, but the reference has been lost so all we have is an inexplicable punch line, ba-dump ching! tip your waitress, I'll be here all week.

The thing about Jewish humor is that it's ha-ha-only-serious. Jacob gets the name Israel because he fights G-d to a draw: why do you think chutzpah is a Yiddish word? And then there's this classic story from the Talmud, which has been summarized as:
Rabbi Eliezar was arguing with three other Rabbis. He said, "if I'm right, the heavens will open up and a voice proclaim it is so!" And the heavens opened up, and a voice intoned, "Rabbi Eliezar is right."


"So," said the other Rabbis, "that makes it two to three."

Now, this is both a joke, *and* an important principle of Talmudic interpretation. The simplistic, literalist readings a lot of you grew up on are incredibly thin gruel, by comparison. *This* is how you can read the Bible for a lifetime, for generations, without getting bored or coming to the end: by arguing with each other and with G-d, by not taking any reading as the final word, by not expecting it to be simple.

A couple pages of comments ago, someone pointed out that for Jews all of Jonah is very familiar, because the book is read in its entirety during day of Yom Kippur when everyone is in services. You might think this undercuts my theory that Jonah is humor, because Yom Kippur is the most solemn of Holy Days. But IMHO it is also characteristically Jewish to not focus on one emotion to the exclusion of all others: over the 27 hours of Yom Kippur the services are fearful and solemn and inward, but there are also stretches of anger, and grief, and some of the most beautiful music in the Jewish liturgy. The humor of Jonah is a slight relief, a lightening for an hour before we head into the final hours of the long fast, which includes the Yitzkor Service memorializing the dead.

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  • Hold the phone. You're Mark Kleiman? Guest poster extraordinaire? How did I miss that bit of intelligence?

    Sigh. I really must work harder at keeping up.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:29 PM  

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