A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.

 

The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

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What’s a Megillah?

A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

Esther, Upended

The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.
The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.

I recently read an article by Ayalon Eliach in Ha’aretz that offers a new and unique understanding of the Book of Esther.

Hang around the Jewish world long enough, and you will eventually meet someone who tells you that there’s a “commandment” in the Gemara to drink yourself silly on Purim, specifically to drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, two characters in the Esther story.

Said Rava: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” – Megillah 7b

The context doesn’t help: no reason is given that one should drink until one cannot tell the “good guy” from the “bad guy” in the story. Given all the pronouncements against drunkenness elsewhere in the Talmud and indeed in the Torah, it is extremely odd.

Eliach went looking for the reason Rava might have said such a thing. He looked into other statements by Rava, and learned that this one sage took a very dim view of Mordechai, reading the Esther story in a completely different way than is usual. In Rava’s reading, Mordechai does anything and everything for access to power, prostituting his niece in order to have a secret advantage at court. Mordechai’s lust for power came from arrogance, not piety, in this reading: he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he wasn’t going to bow to anyone. And by that act of arrogance, he endangers the entire community, bringing a pogrom down upon the heads of the Jews of Persia. According to Rava, Mordechai cloaks his ambition and arrogance in piety. Then Eliach draws his conclusion: perhaps the real message of Esther is to watch out for the Mordechais of this world, who claim to be pious but for whom piety is just a means to their real goal, power.

In summary, what Eliach found was that for Rava there was no difference between Mordechai and Haman. Both of them are bad guys: Haman for all the usual reasons, but Mordechai because he gambled with the safety of the Jewish people and with his niece.

There’s more in the original article (if you are intrigued, read it!) but I bring it up here for two reasons:

  1. It’s the most inventive reading of Esther I’ve seen in a while, and
  2. It illustrates beautifully that there is no single “correct” reading of the Bible.

One of the joys of study as a Jew is that we value an innovative interpretation such as Mr. Eliach has made. He makes a good rabbinical argument, looking at an anomaly in the tradition and then bird-dogging it through the texts to uncover a new understanding. That new understanding doesn’t necessarily supercede the old one, it just adds to it. The fact that in this case it produces a moral of the tale 180° from the more familiar moral just makes it more interesting. It’s also quite appropriate to Purim, the holiday when everything is hafuch (upside-down.)

The Torah and the Tanakh are given to us, to the Jewish People. We wrestle with them, and in every generation, some among us find new and wonderful ideas in there. We use both traditional tools and modern tools: Eliach makes his radical reading of Esther with the most traditional tools imaginable, the words of a 4th century rabbi. Another reader may dig at the text with a modern tool like structural criticism and find something wonderful, perhaps with a more traditional feel to it – Jewish text study is not without its ironies!

The point is, these texts are ours: Our to learn, ours to cherish, ours to poke and prod for new insight. Enjoy!

 

 

The Basics of Purim

Purim costumes are usually very informal.
Purim costumes are usually very informal.

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, a story about the Jewish community in Persia. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.  

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the megillah read every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by listening as someone chants the scroll or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos. The booing and noise is what may shock newcomers to synagogue: for many Jews, this is an opportunity to really let out our feelings about the people who have tried to kill Jews.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday. Holiday cookies and foods are a great way to use up flour and other chametz in the pantry. Remember, Passover is one month after Purim, so the baking for Purim can be the beginning of Passover prep.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal. A donation to the Food Bank in your area or to a Jewish organization such as MAZON works nicely.

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OHT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, sent to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally we send friends a little package including two or three treats.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. Don’t give alcohol to children. Purim is supposed to be a fun holiday, and overdoing the slivovitz can take all the fun right out of it.

Immediately after Purim, we begin our Passover preparations. Passover is only a month away!

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by maxnathans

Are You a Cultural Jew?

Roxie's Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich
Roxie’s Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich (Photo credit: GregoryH)

“I’m a cultural Jew.”

People generally say it after they find out I’m a rabbi. I know exactly what’s going on when they say it: they suspect that I will judge them a Bad Jew, because they aren’t “religious.”  And either they are cringing at the prospect of judgment or they are angry at the prospect of judgment. Either way, it’s a barrier.

I wish I could convince them that I know enough about Jewish history and Jewish scripture to withhold my judgment. Whatever the ideal of “a good Jew” one may have in mind, history offers a wild diversity of Jewish role models. Secular Jews have been active in many of the great social justice movements of our time. They have been influential philosophers, artists, scientists, musicians, lawyers, actors, writers, and economists.  Their Jewish cultural identity has informed their lives and work.

Some secular Jewish role models:

I am much more interested in what you are doing about being Jewish, than that it happens in a way approved by some particular corner of the tribe.  There are many ways to be Jewish. Let’s celebrate them all.

Purim for Beginners

English: Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest No...
Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand, c. 1915 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, which is such a wild, farcical document that it very nearly didn’t get included in the Bible. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the story every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by hearing the scroll chanted or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal – hence, gifts of food to the poor. (A donation to the Food Bank in your area works nicely.)

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OAT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, given to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally they are a little package of more than one goodie.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. No matter what anyone tells you, getting drunk is never a mitzvah.