A Holiday Message
Purim Perils: His View Is His Own
Rabbi Daniel Landes on what it means to properly celebrate Purim.
Purim excites some and vexes others. Or, it vexes some that others are excited. They fear the crossing of lines that Purim encourages—“a person is obligated to get so perfumed (inebriated) until he cannot distinguish between the lines ‘blessed is Mordecai’ (the hero) and ‘blessed is Haman’ (the villain).” The maddening merriment, the wearing of masks, and the resulting mischievous behavior scares some when they see that it’s not just the costumed, cute children caught up with it all.
That crossing of lines is exactly what attracts GLBTQ Jews to Purim. They see the power of convention being torn apart, the serial masks donned and dropped. But the crossing of lines that everyone fears is precisely the danger of drunken behavior. Here Conservatives get in the act. There are exhortations devoted to the subject by rabbis who were concerned about accidental humiliations and other dangers. They counsel Maimonides’ dictum that “one shall drink wine and fall asleep in his drunkenness.” Asleep and harmless, one doesn’t know the difference between hero and villain. Also, alas, that interpretation would render Purim a big snooze.
The Liberal fear can be summed up in two words: Baruch Goldstein. That fear is that Purim and its Megilla (the Book of Esther) would inspire a wannabe to open fire on a group of innocents. The Purim Torah becomes deadly, serious, and scary.
The sister notion to “cannot distinguish” is “vanahafochu”—turn it upside down. Just as the Jewish victory represents a total reversal of power, we likewise celebrate through inversions—school children pretend to be rabbis, rabbis wear baby costumes, and endless variations of the two occur. Baruch Goldstein was a sinister turn-around: a doctor becomes the Angel of Death, a religious man murders fellow monotheists at prayer, and a once promising Talmudist—whom I tutored at Yeshiva University—creates injustice.
The Liberal claim is that Purim panders to an aggressive instinct that Jews have (mostly) repressed during the exile. Now that Jews have guns, they argue, the Purim paradigm of ruthless revenge—that killed more than 75,000 gentiles in the Persian Empire (according to the ninth chapter of Esther’s Megilla)--will create other Goldsteins.
I share the Liberals’ fear. But not their solutions, which usually marginalize Purim by limiting it to a play date for the kids. Or at least an ambivalence toward reading the Megilla—an invitation to drink in itself.
Reading the Purim story with puckered lips doesn’t work well for committed Jews. Most of us think that those who essentially drop Purim have dropped much of their Judaism anyway. Moreover, it fails to understand the deep meaning of the story: it doesn’t respond to what happened with Goldstein, because it ignores the dialectic of our situation that the story actually addresses.
Comedy is serious. The Purim story is both, as it serves as a modern tale about absolute power and powerlessness. It starts with the banishment of a woman, Queen Vashti, when she refuses to give up her dignity in the face of an absolute demand from an absolute tyrant. Her absolute banishment from power is the equivalent of death. Meanwhile, the Jews have no power, and our heroes hide behind Persian names and behaviors. Esther is absolutely beautiful and absolutely submissive. Mordecai, a court player with an ear for intel (and a way to convey it to power), achieves some of that power. And they face the absolute villain, Haman, from the absolute villainous family, Amalek.
Cut to the chase: Esther’s sexual charms enchant the king to save them, and through sexual innuendo indicts Haman, which eventually culminates on the high gallows built for Mordecai. Everything is absolute, and everything is upside down. The tension of extermination, which Amalek sought when the Jews left Egypt by attacking their weak flank of women and children, and which the Jews of Esther’s time experienced nearly in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, was what Haman intended: “A certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom whose laws are different than those of every other people, and who do not keep the king’s laws, and it is not for the king to tolerate them—if it please the king let it be decreed that they may be destroyed.” Absolute annihilation throughout the civilized world of Jews “both young and old, little children and women,” allows us to understand how Hitler wondered if his Final Solution would be stymied if the Jews were to create a second Purim.
This story is serious comedy. At this juncture, Esther must get permission for Jews to defend themselves and put Mordecai in a position to get the resistance organized, with the cooperation of the local governmental leaders. Both initiatives were successful—“the fear of Mordecai fell upon them,” while the “Jews gathered themselves” for defense.
The story is written in an absolute style that mediates the situation of powerlessness. It allows for the situation to be absolutely validated, as it simultaneously demands an exit from it. It is fantastical in a scope equal to the threat of destruction, which is also real. No wonder it results in telling the humor of the upside down, the original Jewish ironical narrative of comedy. In some ways, it resembles Tarentino’s Inglorious Bastards, with its impossible yet thrilling alternate history of WWII: the Nazis fearing the Jewish “Bear” and the machine gunning of a terrified Hitler. Comic but very serious. Bad taste, probably, but also surprisingly satisfying. It works because it is an updated Purim story delivering the results we fantasize about.
And the Megilla is indeed serious. Esther and Mordecai confront a hostile host society and an implacable bureaucracy. They employ every trick to attain real power, though it is not absolute. Mordecai wears the king’s trappings, but he is not the king. So as the Jews rise to the challenge of power, they simultaneously demonstrate restraint.
Yes, restraint. There is no mention of torture or of outsourcing the fight through drone warriors. Jews fight fiercely, but legally. And it is repeated: “on the plunder they did not lay their hand.” They take the fight only to those who “sought their hurt.” They do not impose the designation of Amalek—whom the Jews are commanded to erase from their memory—upon anyone except for Haman and his ten sons with the alliterative names, the moral equivalent of our despicable Uday and Qusay Hussein.
The Jews of that time didn’t forget that in the sudden ascent from powerlessness to power, the latter is always to be constrained by reality and morality. In that area you can’t cross the line.
The problem with Goldstein was not only that he and his cohorts had a megalomaniacal, racist view of Jewish power. It’s also his discovery that power wasn’t, well, all that powerful. He perpetrated his massacre when he realized that limitation and found a new power solution—a provocation leading to an all-out war of Jew and Arab that mandated for the Jews to win by completely eliminating their foes. The macabre joke, the turnaround, was the once again reversed conditions of real and moral powerlessness—it was on his own settler community. His (mis)reading of the Megilla power dialectic meant tragedy for all. I’ll remember him on the fast that precedes Purim.
But on Purim itself, let’s read the Megilla seriously. Send gifts of food to those we have problems with (I’m looking for a BDS’er), bestow gifts of money to the absolutely powerless, and pray, to the Designated Driver of our lives, to get us all home safely at night.