Reflections on Purim, Amalek and Anti-Semitism
Purim is one day of the year when Jews like to eat, drink, be merry, throw off some of the constraints of their normal behavior, and forget their troubles, both personal and collective. But Purim also has its serious side, one largely expressed on Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim, so called because of the passage from the Torah we read thereon commanding us to remember (Zakhor) the vile deeds of Amalek, a nation which attacked the weak and vulnerable rear flank of the Israelite people shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, this reading is deemed so important that the Rabbis declared that listening to it constitutes a mitzvah de-oraita—a Torah mitzvah—the only such in the entire annual cycle of Torah readings. Indeed, it was the custom in many communities of Near Eastern Jewry—I have heard of this practice in Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo—for the leading rabbi of the city to deliver a major address in the synagogue on that Shabbat, one of only four times during the year when he did so (the other three were Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath preceding Yom Kippur; Shabbat Hagadol, that before Pesah—on both these occasions Ashkenazim also have this custom; and Shabbat Kallah, the Shabbat before Shavuot.) What did they talk about in these sermons: the laws of Purim? the trials and tribulations that have marked Jewish history? the metaphysical and psychological significance of Amalek? We know but little of what they said; all we can do is take an example and address ourselves to some of these topics.
Purim is in a certain sense the most “Jewish” of all Jewish holidays. By that, I mean that, more than any other, it is most deeply rooted in the specifics of Jewish history and experience. The other festivals, in one way or another, all lend themselves to interpretation in terms of universal human concerns. Thus, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur deal, respectively, with God’s sovereignty over the cosmos, and human fallibility and the need for moral rehabilitation and forgiveness (i.e., teshuvah); Shavuot celebrates Divine revelation and the centrality of Law, of teaching and norms in human life—even as it deals with a particular revelation and a particular body of teaching; Passover is concerned with human freedom and liberation from bondage and, again, while related to a specific context of time, place and people, has clear universal echoes and repercussions. But what about Purim? Purim has been called a “Jewish carnival,” but it is only superficially so; notwithstanding the drinking and frivolity, it is light years away from the license and blatant sexuality displayed at the Mardi Gras in Rio. Whether or not the Purim story occurred exactly as recorded in the Megillah—and for many historians this is open to question—what makes it such a beloved holiday is not the food and drink, nor the masquerading and tomfoolery, but the sense that it serves as a kind of paradigm (or perhaps wish-fulfillment?) for the experience of Jewish communities throughout the generations, especially in the Exile: of being threatened by virulent anti-Semitism; of living in fear of hysterical, hate-filled mobs who might rampage through their towns or villages for no apparent reason, pillaging, raping, destroying, killing—and, in the end, the ultimate delivery from harm (which in real life did not always come, or came too late).
True, Amalek may be interpreted as a principle of evil generally, There are always individuals and groups who are ready to harm and attack the weak and helpless—whether mass murderers in Rwanda or Sudan or Somalia or any one of a dozen other places around the globe; or, on the micro level, the perpetrators of vicious, gratuitous acts of random violence and sadism on an individual level. Amalek can be read as universal human cussedness, as easily as he can be read as “the Goyim” or “the Arabs” (a popular reading in certain circles). But the Jewish Purim is first of all about the Jews, anti-Semitism, and the situation of Exile. “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” One might say that the hysteria and joy of Purim are mingled with keen consciousness of the often marginal or conditional nature of Jewish existence. As someone once said, “We laugh because otherwise we’d weep.”
Two examples of this paradigmatic aspect of Purim: Just recently I learned that in 1953 Stalin planned a major pogrom against all the Jews in the Soviet Union; the so-called “Doctors Plot” of 1952, in which scores of Jewish doctors were arrested, imprisoned and even executed was merely a prelude to the larger pogrom planned for Autumn 1953 (something Stalin could not do in quite so direct a way during the Second World War and its aftermath, because the USSR was on the other side from the anti-Semitic regime of the Nazis). In any event, Stalin’s death on March 5 1953 put an end to these plans. Interestingly, the Hebrew date of his death was 18th Adar 5713, just four days after Purim—close enough for his death to be seen as a kind of Purim miracle, a delivery of the Jews of the Soviet empire from a would-be Haman.
A second example: when Julius Streicher, editor of the notorious Nazi newspaper Der Stűrmer was taken to be executed, alongside nine other top Nazi leaders convicted at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946, he said “Heute ist dem Purim-fest” (“Today is the Purim feast”). Of course, it was not Purim, but early autumn; what he seems to have meant was that this was a day when the enemies of the Jews were being defeated; that the ten Nazis being hanged on that day (the eleventh convicted had committed suicide in his cell), all close protéges of Hitler, could be seen symbolically as the ten sons of Haman, (I also just learned that this happened on October 16, 1946, which that year coincided with Hoshana Rabbah; this date is of no small personal significance to myself, being the day on which I was initiated into the covenant of Abraham.)
Anti-Semitism in the Modern World
Modern Jewish history may be seen as an attempt to find an answer to the Jewish problem, to somehow transcend or escape the fate of anti-Semitism which has plagued Jewish communities in so many places for so many centuries. Many Jews rightly felt that this dark, irrational force contradicted the rational, liberal spirit of the new era. One apparent solution was that of enlightenment and assimilation. “If only,” Jews said to themselves, “we wouldn’t be so different, so bizarre, with our strange customs, our beards and earlocks and outlandish garb, our chaotic and undignified synagogue services, we will be accepted by our neighbors as respectable bourgeois citizens.” This path was tried in Western Europe but, while it seemed to work for a while, Jewish life in both France and Germany were marred by virulent anti-Semitism—murderously so in Germany.
The second solution was Zionism—transforming the Jews from a religio-ethnic minority in various host countries to a nation-state with its own sovereign government, army, territory, language, secular culture, and all that goes with it—“to be a nation among nations.” Ye things didn’t quite work that way. As Phyllis Chesler writes in her book The New Anti-Semitism, the history of the State of Israel has not followed the natural course of new nations. Of course, Jews as individuals are not persecuted in their own state. But something strange and uncanny has happened: the State of Israel is itself treated as a pariah-state by many countries, and not only in the Arab world. Many well-meaning, progressive people in Britain, Scandinavia and in the international Left generally participate in academic and cultural boycotts of Israel; pro-Zionist meetings on American college campuses are disrupted; a disproportionate number of censorious resolutions at the UN pertain to Israel, notwithstanding the far greater violations of human rights in numerous countries throughout the globe. Is all this Israel’s fault? I have on more than one occasion decried in these pages Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and called for more vigorous, proactive peace efforts on the part of her leaders. But is the occupation such a uniquely heinous, original sin as to justify such treatment? It would seem that something else, far more sinister, is at play here. When highly educated Western men and women people actively support the Hamas—by all accounts a fanatical, reactionary, intransigent (not to mention misogynist) movement—and back their struggle against Israel’s very existence, something very strange is happening indeed. In any event, t seems clear that the Zionist theory or ideology hasn’t worked quite as planned. Some say that the safe haven for the jeish people is today the most dangerous place in the world for Jews. And the “new Jew,” with all his bravado and military prowess and macho and secularism, is not as different from his predecessor as was once thought
A third solution proffered to anti-Semitism is America, or more generally the democratic, “post-Christian” West. Some say: “America is different,” The jury is still out on that one. Certainly, Jewry in the US has been a remarkable success story, enjoying wide acceptance (but, collectively, at the price of assimilation and intermarriage which some see as threatening its very existence a few generations down the road—except, perhaps, for a small ultra-Orthodoxy minority). The US is a melting pot, with a vast variety of groups and an official ideology of tolerance—and there are other, more serious ethnic and racial tensions in the US that seem to override anti-Semitism. But who knows what the future holds. There are those, who perhaps consider pessimism an inextricable part of their Jewishness, who contemplate scenarios leading to major anti-Semitism in America’s future (Meir Kahane’s people used to have a “Museum of the Future Holocaust” in Jerusalem).
Some say that the Holocaust proved that the world is a dangerous place for Jews, that we can rely only upon ourselves. Others say: only by working for universal values of love, justice, human brotherhood and tolerance can we prevent another Holocaust, whether of Jews or others. (Interestingly, Mark Adelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the only one of its major figure to survive to old age, remained in Poland, built his life there as a physician, and participated in various human rights struggles there.)
All this is particularly relevant this Purim, when an existential threat to Israel—Iran’s nuclear project—has been prominently on the public agenda, particularly at the AIPAC conference earlier this week.
Between Purim and Tisha b’Av
I now turn to theological reflections. Purim and Tisha b’av are usually seen as polar opposites. There are two familiar, contrasting Rabbinic dicta: “Once Adar begins, we increase joy” and “Once Av begins, we diminish our joy.” But there is really a connection between the two, one being very much the flip side of the other. This is even expressed in the musical motifs of our liturgy: it is customary to read certain verses of Megillat Esther that recall or portend catastrophe (1:7b; 2:2; 4:1; 4:3b; 7:4; 8:6) with the dirge-like melody of Eikhah.
Both deal with anti-Semitism, the dangers and threats to Jewish communities in an often hostile world. Tisha b’Av commemorates, not only the destruction of the Temple, but the suffering of the people of Jerusalem and elsewhere as a result of its conquest by enemies, Babylonian and Romans (a theme much stressed in the scroll of Lamentations itself), as well as the various disasters and calamities that befell Jews throughout history—Crusades, Inquisitions, Chmelnicki’s massacres, pogroms in Russia, the First World War, and the Holocaust. One might say that Tisha b’Av marks calamity realized, while Purim is the festival of calamity averted.
More important, on the theological level one can say that both deal with the question: What does the world look like without God? A central motif of Tisha b’Av is hester panim, the hiddenness of God’s face. No less a man of faith than Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l constantly stressed that on Tisha b’Av we are allowed to ask the most daring and provocative questions about Divine Providence and its absence at crucial junctures in Jewish history; the Rav read many of the kinot in this light. As for Purim, many Hasidic teachings emphasize the upside-down, hidden nature of Purim—the drinking, the masks and costumes, even the “hiddenness” of the meat in the stuffed dough or vegetables that are traditional Purim dishes—symbolize God’s hiddenness. As is well known, God’s name appears nowhere in the Megillah, but is only alluded to indirectly once or twice. The absence of open miracles and the casting of lots or pur-im from which it takes its name, manifest the chance nature of what happened (the serendipity of Ahasuerus’ sleeplessness on that particular night, and that his officials happened to read the memo about Mordecai’s unrewarded deed). Purim itself, while a day of feasting and celebration and one that has many mitzvot, is in no sense a sacred day: it is pure hullin, totally contained within the realm of the mundane. On the surface, it almost celebrates mikreh, the chance or coincidental, hidden way in which God acts in an unredeemed world.
A Halakhic Note for Jerusalemites
This year Shushan Purim falls on Friday; there are other years when 14 Adar, the “regular” Purim, observed in all other places in Israel and the world, falls on Friday. The problem posed is this: when ought one to hold the Purim Seudah, the elaborate festive meal in honor of Purim. The Rabbis prohibited having a large meal in the late afternoon, close to Shabbat, as this would detract from the importance and honor (and required appetite) for the Shabbat meal. On the other hand, many people find it inconvenient to have an elaborate, leisurely meal in the middle of the day: in the morning they are busy hearing the Megillah and delivering mishloah manot and, by the time they are ready to sit down, particularly if there are guests, it is late and they are beginning to feel pressured by the imminent onset of Shabbat. Moreover, outside of Israel many people work on Fridays, and only come home mid- or late afternoon. On those years when Purim falls on other days of the week, this does not pose a problem: so long as one begins one’s feast before sundown, one may continue into the evening indefinitely. But when it falls on Friday this option does not seem to be available.
Or is it? There is an interesting sugya in the Talmud, at Pesahim 100a, in which Shmuel states that, if people are seated at a meal on Friday afternoon, then “when the day became holy”—i.e., night falls, and Shabbat comes in—פורס מפה ומקדש—“one spreads a cloth [over the bread] and recites Kiddush,” and continues the meal as a Shabbat meal, without either bentch’n or reciting ha-Motzi anew (this view is brought as halakhah in Rambam, Hil. Shabbat 29.12 and Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 271). This solution seems ideal for us Jerusalemites this year: rather than having a major meal midday, and worrying about getting ready for Shabbat and yet another meal, one has one meal which serves for both Purim and Shabbat.
There is some question as to whether one may leave to go to the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv, which typically may take three-quarters of an hour or more, and thus might well constitute a hefsek, breaking the continuity of the meal. I would suggest davening at home—lighting candles, reciting Kabbalat Shabbat around the table, making Kiddush—and continuing to eat, drink and make merry into the night—and reciting Ma’ariv after Birkat Hamazon. This Grace After Meals would then incorporate both Al ha-Nissim for Purim and Retzeh for Shsbbat.