Sunday, March 23, 2008
Selling Purim to Jewish Progessives
Purim is a three-day affair in Jerusalem this year. However you look at it, the holiday is not exactly a favorite among Jewish progressives. The Megillah/Scroll of Esther celebrates a victory of the Jews over Haman, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. OK, so the Jews did not take spoils, certainly an advance over today's IDF (which explicitly prohibits taking spoils, and has prosecuted a few soldiers for it, but where taking "souvenirs" is widespread, if I can believe the reports of soldiers in my family and in the group "Breaking the Silence") Ah, but let's leave the IDF out of this one, shall we? It's not just the Scroll of Esther that discomfits progressives; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing; it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) It's the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. The stone-drunk business reminds me of a story. Once my family was invited to the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore for the festive meal on Purim. I thought, well, what could possibly go wrong? It's a happy holiday, and the yeshiva students at least know what they are doing. Well, when my children saw drunken yeshiva students vomiting on the lawn outside the yeshiva, my only consolation was that wouldn't want to go back and enroll in the joint. And they didn't, although they did go to some modern orthodox Israeli yeshivot. All I know is that Maimonides, not exactly a liberal, would be aghast at how the holiday has been turned -- by some -- into a drunken orgy of Jewish ethnic particularism. So...here's my attempt to sell Purim to progressives a bit late for this year, but not for next year. Consider the following: The Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, all of them were implicitly guilty, including the sons of Haman. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course. But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either. Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives. I adopt both readings, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views. James Kugel has argued pursuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Judaism and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is pretty mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place. So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just forget about the rest. I don't drink on Purim; if I am really feeling frum/religious, I will have a shot of scotch before I go to bed, whereupon I will not be able to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai". I will have a good time with my grandchildren, and pick a prayer service where there is a lot of decorum and the scroll is read in a respectful manner, without all the lunacy of the vulgar plebs (amkha, in Hebrew). And, of course, I will overeat, give baked goods that my friends will regift and throw away, and distribute a modest (i.e., token) amount of charity. I will read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy us because we were different from them. And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by bad people in power, in the name of culture and ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wished to do to the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group. Just wait till you hear what I do with the Haggadah!