How To Take Purim Seriously

Shaul Magid on how to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim without reinforcing the holiday's violent backstory.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

I know that in writing this I will be accused of being a buzz kill. So be it. I enjoyed reading Rabbi Daniel Landes’s essay on Purim published in Open Zion. He chides us liberals for not taking Purim seriously enough, for relegating it to “a play date for the kids.” Who can argue with that? Liberal Judaism has sadly been guilty of Pediatric Judaism for a long time, and not just on Purim. However, the disgust about drunken debauchery is not about the Purim story (many liberal Jews hardly know it) but the product of a bourgeois mentality that has equal disdain for the Sex Pistols, Burning Man, Grateful Dead concerts, and raves. So in terms of Rabbi Landes’s swipe at liberal Judaism, I generally agree with him. But not for the reasons he cites.

But following Rabbi Landes, let’s get serious about Purim. The harshest critique of Purim does not come from the liberal’s Purim carnivals but from Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was once asked whether he would consider living outside Israel. Leibowitz allegedly responded that, no, he would not, because Israel was the only place he could live where he never had to celebrate Purim. On Purim he would be in Jerusalem (as a walled city, Jerusalem celebrates Purim a day after everyone else, called Shushan Purim) and on the evening after Purim Leibowitz would travel to Tel Aviv. Thus he never had to read the Megillah nor drink to celebrate an act of bloody revenge. In typical fashion, Leibowitz cut to the chase. Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence.

So while I enjoyed Rabbi Landes’s reading of the Purim story, let us not forget it is essentially a holiday of revenge. We drink to celebrate blotting out Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zakhor, Jews gather in synagogues to read the only biblically mandated Torah reading of the year, the verses that command genocide against the Amalekites. Perhaps we are commanded to get so inebriated to simulate the notion of blotting out the memory of Haman in the very act of remembering. But we must remember not only to not forget, but to blot out the enemy—not mercifully, but through genocide.It is true that the rabbis long ago were aware of the danger of this commandment and put it to rest by saying we no longer know who Amalek is. But as Elliot Horowitz shows in painful detail in his must-read book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Jews never really gave up on Amalek. In his Introduction he cites an interview Jeffrey Goldberg did with now Knesset member Moshe Feilglin in Haaretz in 1994. Feiglin told Goldberg “that although he could not link the Arabs with Amalek ‘genetically,’ their behavior was ‘typical of Amalek’.” What did Feiglin imply here? A pregnant teenager, Ayelet, was asked if she thought Amalek was alive today, and she said to Goldberg, “Of course,” and pointed toward an Arab village in the distance.

Rabbi Landes cites Baruch Goldstein with the same embarrassment many of us feel. But that is too easy. Moshe Feiglin is an elected member of the Israeli government. And Ayelet is not an atypical settler supported by the government. And Goldstein’s grave in Kiryat Arba is a shrine for a whole community of Israelis. Amalek is arguably alive today in the minds of many Jews in ways it has not been in a long time (I recently saw a picture of Ahmadinejad with Hamantaschen ears on the Internet). An enemy is one thing. Amalek is something quite different.

I have taken Purim very seriously my entire adult life. And I have paid for it the next day in spades. But Baruch Goldstein ruined that for me. It was a loss of innocence. I am sorry, Rabbi Landes, but I could never celebrate Purim the same way after 1994. And if you want to take Purim seriously, as I do, neither should you. What to do? That remains a topic for debate. But Baruch Goldstein lives in the minds of many citizens of the Jewish State. His actions may have been an aberration but his thinking, sadly, is not. The problem with the Jews today is not only the liberals who don’t take Purim seriously. It is also with the Jews who take Purim seriously. Very seriously. Too seriously.

Rabbi Landes, you want to sound open-minded about Purim by offering gifts to your adversaries—as you say, to a BDSer. I have a better idea. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, “Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.” His Hasidim were petrified. “What could the master mean?” Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash. The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

Forget about giving gifts to a BDSer. You want to blot out Amalek? Go to the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously after 1994.