Sunday, March 20, 2011

Selling Purim to Progressives Redux

Hi, it's Purim here in Shushan – oops, I mean it's about to be Shushan Purim here in Jerusalem – and once again, I am out to defend Purim with my fellow progressives. But first a few stories.

A colleague at the university, a Jewish liberal-hawk-neocon turned Islamophobe, came rushing to my Jewish studies colleague and blurted out, "Have you ever read the Qur'an?" My colleague said he had read some of it. The Islamophobe then said, "Do you have any idea how heartless Allah is? I mean, he actually wipes out all of humanity with a flood!"

True story.

Another colleague, an atheist and a card carrying clergyman in the Universal Life Church (don't ask; so am I) told me he is upset with "Old Testament Morality". Actually, were he to read the New Testament, he would be just as upset. He doesn't think much of Biblical morality at all.

Can you blame him?

Two classes of people should be warned before reading scripture. The non religiously-observant and the very religiously-observant. Those are the groups who take what the text says literally. I don't mind the non religiously-observant reading the text; what harm can it do anybody? But I would ban all religious fundamentalists from reading the Bible. They take the word of God too literally, especially when it gives them license to be immoral.

Some people I know have given up on Purim. Henry Norr (whom I don't know, but I hope to meet one day) wrote this post about the Book of Esther on Mondoweiss

Progressive Jews often claim that Zionism, or at least its cruder and more violent expressions, contradict the real essence of Judaism, which they believe lies in the prophets' cries for justice or in the modern tradition of social activism among some Jews. But Purim is a good occasion to remind ourselves that there's another, darker side - a history of tribalistic violence - that's at least as deeply rooted in our traditions.

There is a dark side of all religion, just as there is a dark side of most ideologies. And, indeed, we deny the dark side at our peril. But there is also a danger of taking texts that are thousands of years old too literally. Is their morality ours? In many respects, no. Neither, for that matter, is the morality of much classical literature. All texts are to be filtered through our God-given intellect, and our God-given morality (read "evolutionally-developed" if God-talk bothers you.)

Fortunately, there is a long tradition in Judaism of reinterpreting the texts in light of both intellect and morality (and social customs, etc.) Like Catholicism, and unlike Protestantism, traditional Jews have their text mediated by…tradition. And, believe you me, nothing is sacred when it comes to interpreting sacred texts. Did you know that the book of Esther is a philosophical allegory?

I have to go now. I am watching with my grandchildren The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. For those who may not remember, it is about how a rebel named Robin Hood fights the injustice of an oppressive occupier Prince John, who preaches ethnic superiority against the natives. Sounds familiar? When Lady Marian, a Norman raised to be prejudiced against Saxons, asks him, "What's your reward?" Robin replies, "You just don't understand" She looks at him and says, "I think I begin to understand now," and he replies, "That's reward enough for me."

That's what the ganze Megillah is about. It's about fighting injustice and group hatred. At the end of the Megillah, the bad guys get it. Since this is an ancient tale, where family is considered to be an extension of the individual, the "bad guys" include Haman's family and a lot of others. But no innocents according to the views of the ancients are killed. Just like the end of the Adventures of Robin Hood. Only bad guys die.

No, it's not the most lofty morality. But it's a step in the right direction. The challenge is to teach that part and not the others.

If you haven't read the next post already, please do.



pabelmont said...

Somewhere, sometime, morality (of punishment and retribution) was supposed to have changed (or maybe merely recommended to change) from tribal vendettas to a mere (single) "eye" for an "eye". Thousands of victims for one man's crime is a little over-the-top from this viewpoint.

Someone should mention this (single) eye for an eye -- approvingly -- to Israel and others in the Middle East.

shmuel said...

Pabelmont: I find time and time again on blogs around Purim that people simply do not read the text of the Megillah and think they know the story from what they remember from Sunday school or whatever.

Where do you see in the story "Thousands of victims for one man's crime"? One man INITIATED the planned genocide of the Jewish people, but the King signed the decree ordering his citizens to enact it by rising up against the Jews to kill them all. Later the Jews were given PERMISSION to fight back in self defence AGAINST THOSE WHO WILL RISE UP TO FULFIL the original decree! There was no killing of any innocents - the killed were only those who rose up to kill the Jews!

This was probably the only war ever fought without collateral damage to non combattents and without any spoil taken.

This is a story that, if it indeed happened, is one to be taken as an example of war morality at its best.

Somehow most bloggers and commentators miss this point totally.

That doesn't mean that I like the way some Jews celebrate it today with unfitting drunkeness, etc.

Amfortas said...

"There was no killing of any innocents - the killed were only those who rose up to kill the Jews!

This was probably the only war ever fought without collateral damage to non combattents and without any spoil taken."

You appear to have overlooked Esther 8:11, where the Jews are given permission to kill their enemies ALONG WITH THEIR WIVES AND CHILDREN. I think we can reasonably presume that some of the 75,000 people killed in 9:16 were non-combatants falling into those categories. In the light of this, your attempt to salvage the morality of the text looks pretty feeble.

Jerry Haber said...

Amfortas, I already answered that point here:

The women and children are to be killed? Of course -- they never count as individuals, They are extensions of the man in a patriarchal society.

That, by the way, is why there was nothing immoral in the Bible's eyes in asking Abraham to kill Isaac. Isaac existed only as the extension of Abraham. By killing Isaac, Abraham was being asked to obliterate himself.

As I wrote this is certainly not our morality; but the text does assume that only the guilty will be punished, and they will be punished by wiping out their line (via their families.)

shmuel said...

the verse u bring says "... to kill...all the army of the people and town who rise up against them children and women...", but under the word "women" comes an "etnahta" meaning a major break, thus joining the words "who rise up against them" to "children and women" implying that they also rose up against the jews. if the "etnahta" was under the word "them" u could read it as u do.

i stand by my reading of the text that there was no vengence or wonton killing of innocents.