The call for a review if not the elimination of celebrating Purim is not new. My teacher’s father, theologian and philosopher Shlomo Ben-Chorin, famously suggested in the early 20th century that Purim be eliminated from our cycle of celebrations. Even more radically, he continued that the entire book of Esther should be removed from our canon, commenting that the narrative of Esther is “unworthy of a sacrificial people”.
If we haven’t thought much on Esther, this seems patently absurd. Our relationship with Purim usually does not go beyond groggers, hamentashen, kitsch, costumes and adult beverages. As Jewish leaders, it is one of the events that we know we can get a multigenerational crowd with built-in enthusiasm into the shul, and as a “Jew in the Pew” we know that if “shul is not my thing” I am going to at least be able to tolerate, if not enjoy, the silliness. How could this, other than the hangover, in any way be harmful?
And then we take a few minutes to actually read the text, studying the words that are actually written, and are forced to confront that the narrative not only describes a genocide, but seems to do so in a quite celebratory manner. That moment of shock as we read: “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies,” in light of a clearer vision of human history makes the Book of Esther suddenly read, from a moral perspective: “it wasn’t right when they tried to kill us, but we successfully returned the favour. Well done us.”
At this point, the conversation usually devolves into one of several arguments. On the one hand there is the “what harm can it do?” or the more extreme, “stop trying to foist your politically correct drivel on my Judaism” or on the other side “how can we continue to celebrate such a thing?” or the more extreme, “stop trying to foist your radical nationalism on my Judaism”.
What is the solution? Celebrating Purim!
I almost wish that I was being facetious, but our propensity to step into polarised arguments has become so predictable that they are inevitable. We are living at a time of high stress and anxiety, where even the mitzvot of Shabbat that would encourage us to unplug from tribal debates seem impossible as we sneak in one more minute of Facebook to become angry at one more thing. How nice would it be if we could just find some sort of celebration where we stopped taking ourselves so seriously for a minute, got riproaring drunk (if that be our redilection) and just laughed at ourselves for a few hours? Where could we possibly find such a holiday?
It is ironic from a sociological perspective that the underlying archetypes of the Purim celebration appear nearly universally. We have prank days like April Fools or the Day of the Holy Innocents. There is the pagan Ostara and the Hindu Holi, and many of these take place in the winter or early spring when through our evolutionary history we most needed to blow off steam. We as a society are and have been for several years a pressure cooker and there is an inevitable conclusion to people remaining under unrelieved pressure.
So, we can just ignore the genocide?
Honestly, the fact that the story carries with it such baggage makes it even more important to read and study as part of our celebration. Mordechai Kaplan once suggested that one of our greatest imperatives is to take seriously our personal obligations to re-interpret our stories in every generation. Within this perspective, it is imperative that we encounter the darkness of the narrative with the same vigour as we celebrate the absurd. The sad reality is that genocide has been present throughout all of history.
Even after the horror of the Holocaust, the world has still watched Rwanda, South Sudan, Cambodia and others. If we were to edit out Esther then we would remove our perfect opportunity to yearly encounter the uncomfortable reality of how awful humans can be to others. Even more, a modern moral reading forces us to look in the mirror and ask how we may be complicit in horrors enacted in the world. Nearly every Jewish celebration and commemoration has a dual nature with complex themes. Why should this one be the exception?
In reality, the events narrated in Esther most likely never happened or were a distant tribal memory of some local event. I always like to think of a whole bunch of folks who have suffered from moments of lost agency and power in their lives, sitting around in a pub, drinking too much, and entering into an area of inappropriate fantasising of what would happen if they had “power” for just one day. For most of our history this has been the case, and even if we make the point that the world has changed, our sense of individual impotence in the face of any politically divisive debate that we can imagine has not.
So we dress up in silly costumes and overconsume and pretend for a moment that we really still can talk to our neighbours, and then when we have said l’chaim with them, we wake up the next day with a hangover and realise that maybe we have made a mistake by forming up into teams that wish to vanquish each other. We think, maybe the point to begin with was to encourage us via absurdity to step away from our propensity to see ‘us’ as ‘us’ and ‘them’ as ‘other’…even if the ‘other’ is our Jewish neighbour in the shul down the street.