The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Deathly Laughter: A Comparative Study in Ancient Classical and Jewish Literature

What threat does laughter hold for the Jewish world of 0-600 CE? And what threat does it hold for the Classical world of this same period? When is laughter fatal; when, benign? How can differing attitudes towards laughter’s threat be compared in a literary study to discern not only the space between the Jewish and Classical approaches to laughter but rather also a stronger understanding of each on their own merit?

Through use of the sociologist Mary Douglas`s framework for assessing a society’s attitude towards risk, I look at Jewish and Classical perspectives towards laughter’s threat. I note differing attitudes towards risky laughter at various hierarchical strata, including the outlying attitudes of laughter of the Divine.

This paper focuses comparatively on laughter`s often fatal threat to authority at the upper levels of the pecking order. I look at death, the delegation of laughter to the eschaton, sense of belonging and communal fragility as some ways, inter alia, of exploring this literary difference.