Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Selling Purim to Progressives One More Time

It has been my custom to reproduce this Purim post every year, with some modifications. This year I do it a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu gave  a megillah/Scroll of Esther to President Obama.The scroll, read twice on the holiday of Purim, relates the victory of the Jews over Haman the Agagite, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg explains the point of Bibi’s gift:

The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.

Goldberg reads Bibi right, but Bibi reads the megillah wrong.  In the story, the Jews are saved only because the Jewish Queen Esther convinces the Persian king to execute the wicked Haman, after which the king  authorizes the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.

The real message of the megillah for Bibi should be:  Diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

It's not just the Scroll of Esther that discomfits progressives; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); 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.) And most sane people don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk.

So...here's my attempt to sell Purim to progressives again.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, 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, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the Ancient Near East, the offspring are considered extensions of their parent.  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, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.

I adopt both responses, 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 persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity 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, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless. 

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 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 forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

9 comments:

Utopian Yuri said...

president obama should have anticipated this and given netanyahu a megillat eicha (book of lamentations) in return.

pabelmont said...

I read somewhere about Marduk and Ishtar as related to Mordechai and Esther. Maybe?

Another thought: big difference between those who may absrtractly (or abstractedly) wish to kill you (or your people) and those with the power and viciousness to do it. Barukh Goldstein had an actual gun and lots of viciousness, so 29 Palestinians at prayer (who had no king to protect them) perished and another 125 were wounded.

The Iranians have not the means to damage or destroy Israel and (considering the USA's presence as Israel's protector) have not the inclination to actually attack Israel. They are simply not a danger to Israel.

Perhaps Esther and her father were wrong to regard the people they later massacred as "enemies"; perhaps they were more properly "victims" (after all: they died). Or to put it differently, perhaps the people the Jews killed were, indeed, enemies -- but were so because they knew of the implacable hatred of the Jews -- hatred which ultimately expressed itself as massacre.

Even if the story I just told is not accurately "Biblical", it sure fits the Israeli (some, with at least some reason, say Jewish) treatment of Palestinians, and proposed treatment of Iranians.

fiddler0 said...

Good point, pabelmont, if I get you right: the morality of your actions depends less on the predicament others have put you in than on the nature of those actions themselves.
It can't be said often enough that "good" and "evil" are not two camps into which people fall, or invariant properties of individuals like eye colour, nor do people (much less collectives) become "good" simply by having suffered injustice.

I'm reminded of Wolf Biermann's meditation on a drawing by H.R. Penck:
http://www.thefiddler.de/tmp/penck.jpg
(in German, sorry if you can't read that. It hinges on the double meaning of "böse" - both "evil" and "angry": by calling the Evil One "evil" the Good One makes him angry - you see, the Good One is actually evil.)

Tamar Orvell said...

Protestant Judaism. What is this?

Michael Davis said...

Tamar -
That one is new for me too. I think Prof. Haber is referring to movements such as Reform Judaism. Jewish Orthodoxy instinctively denigrates Reform as being a Christianized Judaism, therefore lacking in Jewish integrity. Orthodoxy was born in rebellion against the assmilationist drift of mainstream Judaism.
The influence of Protestant Bible studies on early Reform is clear but far from obvious today.
I do think that "Protestant Judaism" needs explaining, and comes across as offensive.

Jerry Haber said...

Tamar and Michael,

You know, I think I just had a mental lapse. I meant Protestant Christianity. I wish I had an editor.

I have changed this. Please take points off for careless editing.

In the meantime, I will doublecheck to make sure that this is not a phrase that Kugel uses it, but I doubt it.

Tamar Orvell said...

Professor, you already have editors — We, the readers:) No worries. All is well.

D.C. said...

This is a tangential point, but please remove the libel against Hanan Porat z"l. He had many sleepless nights over the media's use of that unfortunate sound bite to imply that he was happy about the massacre in Hebron, and it's time to let that rest.

Personally, I identify with the Right (albeit not to the extent of Hanan Porat), but I think that both the Right and the Left have "good guys" (and gals), who are genuinely motivated by a moral code and the desire to do the right thing, and "bad guys" who are motivated by personal gain or by hatred of "the other."

You can agree or disagree with him, but Hanan Porat was one of the good guys. I have no problem with debating his legacy on all the issues, but please don't use a statement taken out of context to imply that his basic moral compass was totally out of tune and lump him in the same group with Baruch Goldstein.

Jerry Haber said...

Dear D. C.

I wrote"

" 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.)"

Should I remove the comma between
"holiday" and "despite"? Because I represented precisely his explanation.

By the way, it is his explanation that is outrageous. Did he or did he not say, "Purim Sameah" after he heard of the massacre? Would he have said it had he heard that 80 yeshiva students were murdered? Answer me that.

I hope his sleepless nights were over the theft and misery that his entire settlement project brought to innocent Palestinians. And I pray daily that the retribution that Hashem yisborah is liable to take against the Jews for their gezel and hamas -- on both sides of the green line will be lefi midas harahamim and not lefi midas hadin -- that Hanan Porat will be judged leniently because he was a tinok she-nishbah of an idolatrous ideology.