Angels in America (Comic & Serious Modes in Secular “Religion”)

Just finished reading Angels in America, part II Perestroika for the first time. It was the capstone text to my class on American Judaism, which I think is just perfect. It has grand historical arc. It’s queer and it’s Jewish but not “too Jewish.” It’s secular and metaphysical. It’s open to the world, but plays close to home.

I like especially the balance between the comic and the serious. This informs the play as a whole and is discussed explicitly in the playwright’s notes. Kushner wants to make sure that the angels are not played for laughs. They’ll get their laughs, he insists, but they will be better laughs by maintaining the dignity of the angel. That’s what he says.

The back and forth between the comic and the serious can also be found in Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judiasm. In the first chapter, she turns to misogynistic texts from which as a feminist she should flee. Instead, she enters into the zone of conflict where she now finds the fear of women in so many of these texts “hysterical.” And you know. When you read some of these texts with Adler, you see she has a point. These texts are funny, and we can mean this in ways that are not snarky and vicious.

The tension between the comic and the serious appears also in Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, which I am now reading, also for the first time. It’s the mix of the serious with the burlesque that Boyarin finds appealing about the Bavli, and so should we.  I’ll write more about Fat Rabbis later.

Personally, I find it a little uncanny how all this topos , the comic-serious, comes together from slightly different places at precisely the time when I needed them.

To think today about religion in a secular key and to take its claims seriously but not too seriously requires this constant shift back and forth between credulity and incredulity. Kushner, Adler, and Boyarin teach us to laugh at the things they take very seriously.  

Perhaps what I don’t like about Angels in America is the utter lack of humor and high minded seriousness with which “it” takes itself. This tends to be the rule in leftie politics, no? This inability to laugh at oneself (more on that too, later with Fat Rabbis). For now it’s enough just to note a secular religion that plays itself tongue in cheek.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Angels in America (Comic & Serious Modes in Secular “Religion”)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    although, as i mentioned in an email to you, i have some reservations about bakhtin, i think that the idea he has about the twin-genre of serious/parody is very rich. i was also planning on reading fat rabbis this summer. in general, my interest in humor comes down in many ways to the earlier debate on this site about religious passion and secularism. in a sense, the solution i am looking towards is less a passion/doubt dichotomy and more a (serious) passion/comic undoing dichotomy. i think it is possible both to be extremely serious and, at once, to laugh at oneself all the more for it.

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