Sunday, March 04, 2007


Reflections on Purim

For more teachings on Purim, see the archives for March 2006

Purim is in many senses the strangest holiday of the Jewish calendar year. To begin with, it is in a certain sense the most “secular” of the Jewish holidays. The Scroll of Esther, its central text, is lacking in any definitive religious message, at least on the surface; indeed, the name of God is totally absent from it (apart from one passage which refers, in rather oblique fashion, to “salvation and benefit” coming to the Jews from “another place” should Esther fail to act [4:14]; some old scrolls also hint at the presence of God by emphasizing places where the Divine name can be found in acrostic in the first or last letters of certain four-word phrases). The manner of celebration of the holiday is likewise lacking in the elements of dignity and seriousness, the sense of spiritual uplift and holiness, felt on other festive days. The day begins with the public reading of a scroll that tells a rather bizarre and even outlandish (not to mention improbable) tale, in an atmosphere of noise and total chaos in the synagogue; the rest of the day is devoted to eating, to drinking to excess (including actual drunkenness, which is deemed a praiseworthy state on this day!), the wearing of masks and costumes, including cross-dressing, and various forms of tomfoolery, pranks and generally raucous behavior.

Two Rabbinic dicta relate to this problematic aspect, suggesting that the day as such represents a kind of embracing of opposites: venahafokh hu, “and it was turned around” (Est 9:1), is the slogan of the day. That is, Divine Providence was indeed at work in the events described in the Megillah, but in completely hidden fashion: “From whence do we know that Esther is from the Torah? From the verse, ‘And I will surely hide [my face from them on that day; haster astir panay; Deut 31:18]’” (Hullin 139b). “Wherever the Megillah refers to ‘King Ahashverosh’ it refers specifically to Ahasverosh; wherever it speaks of ’the king’ without elaboration, this refers to both sacred and mundane” (Esther Rabbah, at Est 1:9). That is, the word “king” refers simultaneously to the rather stupid, earthly king of the book, and to the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, who secretly moves events.

This idea, of Purim and the Megillah enjoying special significance precisely because it is enwrapped in a mundane, secular shell, is developed extensively in later commentaries and works of derush, and especially in the literature of Hasidism, which is replete with homilies extolling the special holiness and importance of Prim, precisely because things are done therein “in hidden fashion.”

But there is a second, more serious problem with Purim. Now and again, one encounters the view that Purim is a festival that somehow celebrates violence, that it is based on unworthy emotions of vengefulness against the enemies of the Jewish people, and rejoicing in their downfall; that the entire story, and the celebration that comes in its wake, is based upon the downfall of Haman, the great enemy, and the rise to power and greatness of Mordecai the Jew.

According to this reading, the behavior of the heroes of the Megillah involves more than a few morally questionable actions: at the beginning, Mordecai sends his niece and ward, Esther, a pure Jewish virgin, to submit to the embraces of a Gentile king—an act on his part hardly better than pimping! Esther herself conceals “her people and her birth,” as if she were ashamed of her Jewishness. Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman, by which he endangered his entire people, may also be seen in negative light—obstinately attaching excessive significance to an act of simple civility and respect to a high royal official. And then, after the turnabout, the Jews themselves engage in massive slaughter of thousands of civilians, who may well have been unarmed; and so on. All this, as mentioned, is an alternative, unsympathetic, but coherent and plausible reading of the Scroll of Esther—one which has been propounded at various points in history.

Recently, historian Elliott Horowitz wrote a book entitled Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton–Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), in which he explores the more negative aspect of Purim, including condemnation of the Book of Esther and/or the festival of Purim by both non-Jews (often with no small measure of hypocrisy) and by a certain strain of liberal, enlightened Jew. Among other facts, he mentions that during the Middle Ages there were certain places were it was customary to conduct a symbolic flogging or burning in effigy of Haman, or to designate someone to play the role of Haman in the “Purim Speil”—at times a Jew and at times a Gentile—who would be subject to blows, spitting, etc. This “Haman” was often in turn identified with the contemporary enemies of the Jewish community.

On certain relatively rare occasions such acts crossed the boundary of symbolic action, and descended into real violence. He mentions two documented cases in history—in Inmestar (near Antioch in Syria) in the 5th century, and in Bray or Brie in Provence in 1191 or 1192—when such Purim “festivities” ended in the actual murder of the victim. But this was overshadowed in our own lifetime, on the awful Purim of 1994, when 29 Arab worshippers were slaughtered in cold blood at the Cave of the Mekhpelah by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from Hevron—an event that for some people left an indelible stain on the day.

The sense of repulsion towards Purim on the part of some Jews is indicated by the urban legend that the late Ernst Simon, a religious intellectual of high-minded ethical and humanistic principles—and one of the founding fathers of the early movement for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, Brit Shalom—deliberately avoided celebrating this holiday. Every year he would spend the 14th of Adar in his home in Jerusalem and then, on the eve of Shushan Purim (the 15th of Adar), he would travel to Tel Aviv.

The question that needs to be considered is: are there aspects of Purim that are in fact unseemly, deserving of condemnation—or is, perhaps, the very foundation of the festival tainted?

Returning for a moment to the element of riotousness, frivolity, and inebriety associated with Purim: Purim may be seen, essentially, as based upon the model of the “carnival,” a kind of “moral holiday,” in which man is freed from the normal restraints of behavioral limits. (On the notion of the carnival and its meanings, see Harvey Cox, Festival of Fools; Mario Vargas Llosa, The Language of Passion, 229-234; and see my own essay on “Mardi Gras and Purim,” HY VI: Purim.) Almost every culture (or, in any event, what might be called “folk” cultures) has its days of riotous behavior, of breaking conventional boundaries, of a structured easing of certain norms, and the temporary erasing or obscuring of boundaries of social class and hierarchy. Put otherwise, one might say that the carnival is a time of ritualized chaos within socially accepted limits. (Incidentally, by comparison with carnivals in other cultures, Purim is generally rather tame—compare, for example, the explicit displays of near nudity and sexuality during Mardi Gras in such places as Rio de Janeira.)

But beyond the joy and levity of the carnival, there is another aspect: in an almost paradoxical sense, beneath the surface of hilarity, there is an almost tragic consciousness, a kind of keen awareness of the absurdity of life: “We laugh, because otherwise we would have to cry.” The carnival is a defiance, for one day, of the human condition: against our mortality; against the social structure of ruler and ruled, of strong and weak, of rich and poor; and against the random, unpredictable nature of life, in which we may be overtaken at any moment by catastrophe, turning our lives around—wars, natural disasters, meaningless violence, disease, accidents, etc. On the depth level, the carnival is a kind of protest against the random, chaotic nature of life itself. We ourselves create chaos, as it were, to protest against the chaos in the universe.

But to return specifically to the Jews and to Purim: there is a particular element of danger and insecurity in Jewish existence throughout the generations. I do not know to what extent the events portrayed in the Megillah occurred exactly as described there, but it does not require much imagination to see in the Jews of Shushan, dependent upon the whims of a stupid, licentious, and drunken king, as an archetype for Jewish communities in all their places of exile, dependent upon the good-will and mercies of Gentile rulers and the clever management of relations with them. (And perhaps one should add: even Jews living in their own independent state find themselves more than a little dependent on the mercy and realpolitik considerations of international powers stronger than themselves, be it in decisions to wage war or to wage peace.)

From here we return to the question with which we began: Purim and violence. While Horowitz’s book is primarily a historical work—and as such I found it fascinating, filled with little-known information on a wide variety of subjects, relating both to the Purim and the Megillah, and to Jewish violence generally—here and there he expresses an ideological position, to which I must take exception. Thus, in the chapter on “Amalek,” he criticizes those who draw a comparison between Amalek and the historical enemies of the Jewish people in recent times, even taking to task those who compared Hitler and the Nazis to Amalek during the 1930s and '40s (pp. 137-145). He mentions in particular a comment by Rav Soloveitchik for advancing “the notion that an Amalekite was anyone, of any background, who harbored unconditional hatred of the Jewish people” (p. 144). I fail to see what is so terrible in this approach. Is not evil, even what might be called absolute evil, part of the reality of our world? Can every conflict between people be understood in purely socio-economic terms that, with a bit of good-will and rationalism, could be explained away and resolved? Are there not individuals or movements towards whom the only appropriate human and value reaction is one of utter hatred and disgust and abhorrence? True, it is too easy to engage in demonization of the other, of the rival who contests one's ownership of the same “God's little acre.” And certainly, I would agree with him that there is such a tendency in the present situation, of seeing all Arabs or Palestinian nationalism as the embodiment of evil (thereby conveniently overlooking the injustices and acts of oppression committed by our side). But there is also a danger of moral relativism, of losing one’s moral compass, in going to the opposite extreme and failing to recognize demonic hatred and religiously-motivated hatred on the other side.

And, I might add, the essay on Purim in which Rav Soloveitchik makes these comments (“On the Metaphysical Meaning of the Festival of Purim” [Hebrew], in his Divrei Hashkafah (Jerusalem, 1995), 175-188, esp. at 182-183) is imbued davka with a universal spirit, with a sense of the universal, existential tragedy represented by Purim, and with the notion of man as imprinted with the Divine image, and the Amalek syndrome as a strange exception in which man “exchanges his Godly personality for a satanic persona…”

To conclude: as I understand it, the Torah allows room for expression of the entire gamut of human experience, including those aspects of life that are not specifically “religious.” By their inclusion in the framework of the mitzvoth, they are uplifted to their source in holiness. Such is the case regarding such things as joy, sadness, sexuality, food, business life, and even the realm of doubt and questioning. The same holds true for the anarchic impulse within mankind. Purim provides a certain release for the human need to leave the accepted social and religious order—within a certain framework that nevertheless involves a certain degree of restraint and discipline—and to live in a world of reversal. The impulse towards violence and aggression is also among the basic components of human personality, and is at times a necessary evil. Thus, even the most ardent lover of peace needn't reject Purim, the festival of a people that has been “scattered and divided among the nations,” that has known much suffering during the course of its long history, and that rejoices in its survival despite the many “Hamans” that have risen up in the attempt to destroy it. Under such circumstances, one may forgive them if, at times, they ignore the verse from Proverbs, “When your enemy falls do not rejoice.”

Four Beginnings of the Megillah

A rather odd Talmudic sugya discusses the question: What is the minimum text that a person is required to read, or hear, in order to fulfill his obligation of reading the megillah on Purim? Say that he arrives late to synagogue, after the reading of the Scroll of Esther has already commenced: is all lost, or can he still discharge his halakhic obligation to hear the festive reading? Or, if reading at home from his own megillah, and his time is somehow limited, can he take any “shortcuts” in the reading?

The mishnah at Megillah 2.3 presents three options: R. Meir says that he must read all of the megillah, from the very first words: “And it came to pass, in the days of Ahashuerus…” The second view, that of R. Yehudah, says that he may begin from 2:4: “There was a Jewish man in the city of Shushan…”—that is, from the point at which Mordecai is introduced. The third view, that of R. Yossi, allows one top start with the third chapter, “after these things,” in which Haman appears. Finally, R. Shimon b. Yohai, in a beraita quoted in the gemara on this mishnah (Megillah 19a), says that it suffices to start from the middle, from the turning point of the story at the beginning of Chapter 6 (“On that night the king’s sleep was disturbed…”). So as to avoid misunderstanding, I hasten to point out that all this is theoretical for us: in practical halakhic terms, the first view, that one must hear the entire megillah, is universally accepted by all poskim that I know about—so make sure, notwithstanding the frivolity and the time needed to dress up in costume, to get to shul on time.

What is the underlying conception here? The discussion in the Talmud itself, à la Rabbi Yohanan, sees each of these four possibilities as really being an answer to the same question: when the megillah, at the very end (9:29), says that Mordecai and Esther recorded the story for posterity, writing “with all strength” (kol tokef), whose “strength” are they talking about? That is, who, ultimately, made things happen? Ahasuerus? Mordecai? Haman? Or perhaps the [Divinely engineered] miracle that begins in Chapter 6—in other words, God Himself—who was behind all this in a hidden way? Then there’s R. Hunna, who turns each of the four into a moral lesson, based on the verse “what they saw in this, and what befell them” (9:26), describing what each protagonist expected, and what in fact happened to them.

Another way of reading this discussion is as expressing different conceptions of poetics, of what it means to tell a story. The first view, of R. Meir, sees the story as a complete, indivisible entity: to understand it, you have to start from the beginning, with painting the background, portraying the ordinary routine against which the action will develop—in this case, the Persian royal court and its endless feasting—and introducing secondary characters—Ahasuerus and his hapless wife Vashti. The former, while important, is ultimately not a central protagonists, but a kind of a passive figure (notwithstanding his royal position!) for whose favor and backing the two opposing sides vie.

The second approach says that a story is about a hero, and everything that happens until he appears isn’t really important, but is merely marking time, and thus dispensable. The third view sees the essence of any story in dramatic tension and conflict: hence, there must be both a hero and a villain. Without the wicked Haman, whom everyone loves to hate, and whom each generation imagines in the image of their own enemies (this Purim, interestingly, we have come full circle: there is no doubt that the number one enemy of the Jews is located in Persia), there would be no story. Finally, there is the guy who is impatient, and wants to get to the “punch-line”: the crux of the story is the turning point, the happy end, the deliverance because of which we celebrate Purim in the first place.

But I’d like to suggest another line of thought: reading the megillah as a book about man and God, and God’s hidden actions in the world, I’d like to read our sugya in light of a bizarre group of aggadic statements in Hullin 139b:

Where is Haman alluded to in the Torah? In the verse: “have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat (ha-min ha-etz; Gen 3:11; the word “from” is written with the same consonants as the name “Haman”). Where is Esther alluded to in the Torah? “I shall surely hide my face on that day” (Deut 31:18; anokhi haster astir et panay; the word “hide” resembles “Esther”). Where is Mordecai alluded to? “You shall take pure myrrh” (Exod 30:23; speaking of the anointing oil?), whose Aramaic Targum is mira dakhya (which resembles the name Mordecai).

It is easy to dismiss the above as no more than entertaining word-play, a kind of Purim diversion of the Sages. But I think each of these puns conceals a deeper insight.

Following the order of the chapters: Mordecai is “pure myrrh”—a symbol of purity, of perfection, of human wholeness. In a Hasidic manner, one might say: it’s a mitzvah to tell the story of tzaddikim, to draw inspiration from the lives of human beings who were on a high level of spiritual and ethical development—a role played in the Purim story by Mordecai.

Haman is linked to the sin of the first human beings, in eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the question they were asked by God when they first showed signs of shame at their own nakedness: “Did you eat of the tree…?” What is the connection between the two?

Just before Purim, I happened to read a short essay by Jerusalem teacher Sarah Yehudit Schneider, entitled Purim Burst 2005. She notes there that verbs relating to anger, fury, wrath, etc. appear frequently in the megillah; indeed, anger is the motif moving the story forward. Anger is an emotion that is particularly characteristic of Haman. Anger is an emotion that is really useless, pointless, “irrational,” one that doesn’t really serve any positive, constructive purpose. Haman (like is ancestor Amalek) was motivated by a kind of meanness, a sheer cussedness, a desire to cause harm to others as an end in itself: because they are different, because they are successful, because they enjoy the favor of others—even if he didn’t get any concrete benefit out of it.

Perhaps the connection with the sin in the Garden is that this anger represents an element of human nature that goes back to hoary antiquity. Perhaps it was something the snake knew how to play to: in his conversation with Eve, he plants the seeds of doubts in her belief in God’s goodness and beneficence, suggesting that He prohibited them from eating the fruit of the tree to keep its putative benefits for Himself. Or perhaps it was somehow implanted in the human race as a result of that sin (Kabbalists speak of zuhama shel nahash, the “poison of the snake”). In any event, it split up the paradisiacal existence in Eden, disturbing the idyllic harmony between man and woman, between human and beast. In any event, Haman is thus not an aberration, an anomaly, an arch-villain, but a kind of everyman—a caricature, if you will, in whom the negative side of human nature is blown out of proportion, until it totally dominates the personality.

The connection between Esther and hester panim, “the eclipse of God,” really connects to the view that 6:1 is the crux of the book (Esther thus referring, not to the heroine, but to the name of the book). “On that night…” By sheer chance, seemingly, the king couldn’t sleep, and again by chance, his servants happened to read the passage in his chronicles reminding him of Mordecai’s unrewarded deed, hereby setting in motion the events leading to Haman’s downfall and saving the Jews. But this is seen, not just as “good luck,” but as a manifestation of the Divine presence, guiding the unfolding of events in a hidden way. There is an old-fashioned custom, when reading this verse, to sing it in a solemn melody from the High Holy days: Ha-Melekh—“The King, who sits on a high and lofty throne.” That is, that this story is as much a tale of God’s presence in history, a song of Hallel, as the accounts of the splitting of the Red Sea, as the defeat of Sihon and Og, as Deborah’s turning back the forces of Sisera, all of which are celebrated in song as overt miracles.

No verse there on Ahashuerus, but elsewhere (Megillah 11a) there is a pun were s name is seen as “ahiv shel rosh; the brother of the head – i.e., Nebuchadnezzar that is, he is seen as a kind of secondary, derivative evil-doer. Malfeaser negative figure who contributed to the description of the Temple, stole Temple vessels (the gold and silver mentioned there. As the cloth fittings ,etc.)

Finally, what do we do with Ahasuerus, with whom the book begins? He is a kind of tabula rosa, interested in the purely physical side of life: wine, beautiful women, Showing off his possessions, whether material (silver and golden vessels; elaborate drapery) or human (his beautiful “trophy wife”). In a certain sense, he is on a much lower, coarser level than Haman. He seems to display automatic, stereotypic needs and reactions; he is easily swayed by both sides in this drama, first one way, then another. Haman at least displays a certain nastiness that is at least interesting, so that, in a certain perverse way, one can’t help admiring for his sheer energy and determination—even if to do evil against our own people! But the gross, earthly, rather stupid is also a kind of everyman —and as such a part of any story about real human beings.

* * * *

A brief comment: An observation about the five megillot as a group. Two of them are named for women (the only books in the entire Tanakh that are thus named): Esther and Ruth. A third book, which has an abstract title, Shir ha-shirim (”Song of Songs”) is, at least on the literal level, about erotic love between man and woman. A fourth book carries the name of a presumably male king, Kohelet, but its name also has a feminine note: the letter tav, a typical feminine ending in Hebrew. He is evidently an old man, who looks at life from a certain retrospective, philosophical distance. Perhaps the more masculine, aggressive side of his nature is somewhat quieted and played out, and he has learned to make contact with the more feminine side of his self, his “anima.” Finally, Lamentations, known in Hebrew by its opening word, the exclamation Eikhah—“How does the city sit desolate.” That word, too, has a kametz heh, “feminine” ending. When I was a naïve first-time camper at Tel-Yehudah, my counselor told me that it was named for Jeremiah’s aunt “Eikhah”… Make of it what you will.


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