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!"
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.