Arthur Kiron

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20032004 Forum on Belief

Arthur Kiron

Curator of Judaica Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library, Belief and Humor

Belief in Humor

The notion of belief and the experience of believing are often associated with emotional states of gravitas, a physical furrowing of the brow, stances of intellectual seriousness, and profound, univocal meaning.  On the other hand, humor and its variants--irony, parody, satire, wit, practical jokes, physical laughter--are often associated with a certain lightness of being, triviality, and destabilized meaning. Both, however, must be considered integral to the human experience; what, then, is the nature of their relationship?  Are humor and belief compatible as simultaneous emotional, physical and intellectual events? 

To probe the intersection of belief and humor, Kiron will analyze the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim celebrates the threat and ultimate escape from a genocidal persecutor described in the biblical scroll of Esther, yet it also functions as a carnivalesque moment in the Jewish calendar cycle. The worlds of life and death, of ritual observance and transgression, are inverted.  Historically, celebrations of Purim feature inebriation and behavior that might otherwise exceed the limits of social acceptability. Yet the content of the Esther story belies the frivolity of this humor, bringing into focus the sobriety of abstract matters of conviction as well as of lived experiences of personal and communal suffering.