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Purim, But Make It Darker

The following is a transcript of Episode 130 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on the fast of Esther, Monday, March 6th, 2023. 

The Talmud tells of the ruling by the sage Rava that a person is supposed to become so intoxicated on Purim that they cannot distinguish between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordechai.” As an illustration, it tells a story about Rava himself, who feasted together with his friend Rav Zeira, and they became so drunk that he, Rava got up and murdered his friend Rav Zeira. The next day having sobered up, he prayed to God for mercy and brought his friend back to life. The next year, Rava reached out and suggested to Rav Zeira that they have the Purim feast together again. Rav Zeira declined, saying, memorably, “Miracles don’t happen every day.” 

It’s a little bit of rabbinic humor to be sure, but I think it’s a lot more than that. The story is illustrating the risks and the costs with actually getting that drunk on Purim, and the lesson is that you probably shouldn’t. This kind of rhetoric is not uncommon in the rabbinic tradition, a proclamation that the law is X, but then a story that the rabbis tell, which not so subtly undermines the ruling.

But I think it tells a much more deep story than that, and especially the punchline. See, Purim after all, is a holiday premised ostensibly on a miracle. The threat of genocidal violence against the Jewish people is overcome maybe because of all of the praying and fasting, and maybe because although God is not mentioned in the story, maybe God is actually lurking behind the scenes and making sure that the worst doesn’t come to pass.

It’s a miracle, and that’s why in the Purim liturgy that we say when we pray on Purim, we describe its events under the heading of Al Hanisim, reflecting on the miracles and the wonderment that befell us on this day so many millennia ago. But then here come the sages and say out loud the sad and real truth. Miracles don’t actually happen every day lest you read the Purim story and conclude that because there may have been a miracle once, there will continue to be miracles, the prosaic conclusion of this Talmudic story is no. Miracles are miracles precisely because they are exceptions. 

So maybe Purim happened once to the Jews, that the world turned upside down and they were miraculously saved. They went from powerlessness to power overnight and took control over their own destiny. Hooray. Most of the time it doesn’t. In fact, it might even be the case that for a person to believe based on the Purim story that the lesson is that God intervenes in history to save us, it might be to believe that is actually kind of obscene. What does it mean to tell the Purim story as though that’s the lesson, today after the Shoah, around 90% of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million people were killed in the Shoah? How do we even speak about God’s intervention into history anymore?

No, Rava’s cute story is actually the main point of the Purim story. Miracles don’t happen every day and maybe even darker, miracles so don’t happen every day, that we have to think about our lives and our fate on our choices, on the assumption that they don’t.

Purim, I think, is the holiday of loneliness, the holiday when the Jewish people have to reckon with a possibility. Perhaps the likelihood that we are going at it alone. As you know, God doesn’t appear in the story. It’s also the only biblical text that takes place fully outside the land of Israel in the assumption of a post-destruction reality.

The main character Esther, is named for a phrase in Deuteronomy about divine absence. The story describes the fate of the Jews in the hands of an idiot king and a malignant enemy who turns a personal indignity into a genocidal plot. The plot may seem satirical, nonsensical, but then it became recognizable as utterly plausible by the experience of Jewish history. And the plot itself hinges on the throw of the dice. The biggest tell of the whole story, that the main lesson is not one of divine providence, but of arbitrary life and death outcomes.

How does a person live in and respond to a world with such arbitrariness? Well, I think the real answer is you get smart and you get political. You organize. That’s what Mordechai does. He stores up favors with the king in order to be able to call them in later. He plants his people in the palace committing even his closest young relative to hide her identity and use her body to get close to the king and win over his heart. He sends Esther his sleeper cell messages and activates her with a threat. If you act now, great. If not, you’ll die off maybe we’ll be the ones responsible for that and will find somebody else. He plans a methodical process of carrying favor with the king. He wins and then he takes over.

It is, in many ways a secular story masking itself as a religious one. It’s a holiday of self-reliance. But with self-reliance in a secular frame comes also another risk, which the Book of Esther doesn’t hide the risk that the very blood lust against which the Jews have to defend themselves, the real existential threats that we are up against, the origin story of a history of antisemitism that we’re still in the middle of, that all of these might make us violent in return. 

The ninth chapter of Esther is the Jewish people’s version of the Inglorious Basterd’s vengeance fantasy. As Mordecai becomes more powerful, once the enemies of the Jews have stood down, the Jews go on a murderous rampage, and then they ask for permission to do it again.

Every year you’re gonna hear apologetic treatments of this part of the text by people who don’t wanna see it for what it is. For those who assume that this couldn’t possibly be a biblical text, if the plain meaning was true, those readers will say that the Jews in the ninth chapter of Esther acted in self-defense. Or maybe they’ll call it a preemptive strike because after all, it says that they struck with force against those who quote wished evil on them. 

But I’m sorry, readers. The Book of Esther says it like it is. It satirizes both ends of the Jewish condition. Both the omnipresent reality that the Jews are just out there alone, subject to the winds of history and to the next criminal psychopath who might come along to threaten us.

And we are also out there alone to our own devices capable of acting in whatever ways we want. If there’s no providence, there is neither reward nor punishment. No one is coming to save us from them, and no one is coming to save us from ourselves. 

You know, some people like to think that the Jewish holidays come along at exactly the right time for when we need them. I’m not really a chicken soup for the soul kind of person, so it’s not my kind of message, but it definitely feels like Purim this year found its moment. Everything is upside down, so I suppose it’s the right time for a topsy-turvy holiday. 

Like many of you, I’m sure I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Huwara, the town in the Northern West Bank, where a group of 400 or so, mostly young settlers, went on a rampage last week following a terror attack that killed two Israeli Jews. It was the picture of self-righteous vigilantism. Perhaps the most haunting image was not just the murder of an innocent man, the pillaging, the arson, but a recording that went viral on Twitter of a group of the marauders saying the Maariv evening prayers in front of the burning fires, piously reciting the words of the Kaddish.

My colleague, Rabbi Emily Goldberg Weiner, wrote on Facebook about the cruel irony of saying that particular prayer in that moment, a prayer that starts with an appeal to God’s mercy and compassion. You have to really be not paying attention to the words. To think that, to pray as you commit such acts constitutes an act of piety. 

On Twitter, I joined together with many others who refer to the incident as a pogrom. This marshalls the language that became most famous for describing the experiences of Jews at the hands of marauding others back in Eastern Europe. The use of that term created the dumbest of all distractions. Those who started policing the use of this term as though we Jews own it, nevermind that there’s a long history of other usages and that Jews have for a long time been perfectly willing to share the term with others who fall victim to these kinds of populist outbursts of violence. It’s not the first time that this has happened, that Jews have done something like this, and it probably won’t be the last. 

I was struck by a particular irony that I haven’t seen anyone talking about yet. Nablus is the Arabic name for Neapolis, the Roman name for the ancient new city, built on a site known to Jews from the Hebrew Bible as Shchem. 

Shchem was in the territorial allotment of the tribe of Efraim, who was the son of Joseph. In Joseph’s dying moments, he granted Shchem as a bonus city to Joseph. They have a special connection that Joseph and the city of Shchem, and to this day, it houses a pilgrimage site to Joseph’s tomb, which also constitutes a settlement in the midst of occupied Palestinian territory.

But Shchem, of course, itself has a dark and ignominious history that’s awakened by our 21st-century equivalent in its outskirts in Huwara. In the Bible, the town of Shchem takes its name from one of the princes who lusted for Jacob’s daughter Dina, and forced himself on her. He negotiated with Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levy for her bride price, which included having himself and all of the men of the town circumcised.

On the third day, while they were reeling over in pain, Shimon and Levy blazed through the town and massacred the men in retaliation for the indignity caused their sister. Jacob is furious at them and even maintains his fury for them on his deathbed. It seems pretty clear that these actions cost them what might have been the rightful leadership roles that their place in the birth order would’ve earned them among their brothers, but their answer to their father lingers in the text, unanswered, “will our sister be made a harlot?”

On October 14th, 1953, a group of Israeli soldiers entered the Palestinian village of Qibya, which is also in the Northern West Bank. And at the time, under Jordanian control, located probably about an hour from Huwara. It’s not far from Modi’in, if you know the current map of Israel. It was a retaliation operation led by Ariel Sharon, and it responded to a terror attack where Palestinian infiltrators from Jordan had thrown a grenade into the home of a Jewish woman in Yehud, killing her and her two children. The retaliation was brutal. They killed 69 people, mostly women and children. 

Well before this week’s story that took place in Huwara, which feels like a sad continuation of this same history, I had frequently returned to a short essay on Qibya by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a piece called After Qibya, which we’re gonna link to in the show notes. Leibowitz himself wasn’t a pacifist, but he was acutely attentive to the moral stakes involved with having power, with the awareness that the state of Israel, with the responsibility for warcraft in the interest of self-defense, was a moral crucible for the Jewish. 

As he writes, “Only the decision of who one who is capable of acting and on whom rests the responsibility for acting or refraining from action can pass the genuine test of morality. We, the bearers of a morality which abominates the spilling of innocent blood, face our acid test only now that we have become capable of defending ourselves and responsible for our own security.” 

But Shchem, in the same essay, jumped out at Liebovitz too, as an important precedent or test case, much the same way that I heard a little bit of Qibya and a little bit of Shchem and a little bit of the Book of Esther, when I read about Huwara last week. And what Leibowitz says about Shchem is incredible. Leibowitz notes that the Bible makes clear that Shimon and Levy had a way of justifying their actions. That’s that sentence, will our sister be made a harlot? 

And he goes on to say that the point is not to establish whether or not there’s an explanation or a justification. There’s always gonna be an explanation. And justifications, especially in the midst of violent conflict and following a lethal terror act are easy to come by. The point is not whether it can be explained or justified. The point is just whether it’s right or wrong. And not just Jewishly, but obviously to anyone, as Leibowitz writes, “There may well be actions, which can be vindicated and even justified and are nevertheless acursed.” 

Jews of today, like the Book of Esther, we live uncomfortably with all the following realities. There are people out there who actively seek our destruction, and they’re making plans all the while. We are the beneficiaries of a politics of the past century that entailed Jews essentially deciding to go at it alone, giving up on the dream of a divinely led process of redemption and taking instead the reins of a secular one. That’s Zionism. 

We are powerful and capable of not only defending ourselves but inflicting harm on others. That turnabout phrase of Purim, that was laughable once, asher yishletzu hayehudim hema b’soneihem, that the Jews might control their haters is utterly plausible, for maybe the first time since the imagined days of Mordechai clad in royal garb in the streets of Shushan.

All of these are now the true realities of living as a Jew in the 21st century. And what do we do with Purim as a result? I know people today who won’t do Purim because of this, because on Purim Day in 1994, Barach Goldstein read these words and then went to open fire on praying Muslim worshipers in a mosque on Purim.

I know people who probably won’t do Purim this year because of the Maariv service in Huwara, and I wanna say to them, but how do we not? Purim is now and now is Purim. The world in many ways is in our hands and we are alone to figure it out. 

It’s funny to me that people think Purim is a kid’s holiday. It’s fine, you can dress your kid like a firefighter, sure. But this is actually the most adult holiday we have. There are two holidays like this, Purim and its analog, Yom Kipur. Yom Kipurim, a day that the rabbis analogized to Purim. Both days are about a reckoning with a fate that feels not entirely in our hands. Lives hang in the balance. There’s the drawing of lots on both days. Both days are heavily costumed. The two days manifest in either sensory overload or sensory deprivation. Both days hinge on the question of whether God will or will not intervene for our atonement and our redemption, but both of them also come down to the same message. 

Given all that you know and all that you don’t know, how do you wanna live your life? I think we get drunk on Purim for two reasons. One, to escape the bitter truth. It’s telling us about our loneliness. And the second, that we might access the topsy-turvy world it speaks of, one in which good and evil are much more proximate to one another than we like to think. That they’re easy to mix up, that they can be accessed through a change in consciousness.

Is there really a difference between the good person and the bad person, or does power, opportunity, and motive intoxicate us so easily that we can discover, more quickly than we might think that we are not who we think we are? 

There’s a way out though, and it’s also offered by the megillah. The ritual obligations of Purim are not just that you’re supposed to read its story, certainly not just to get costumed, but most importantly, to give charity to the poor and give foodstuffs to our friends and neighbors. And I’ll say this to my listeners now, if you’re still with me through this lament, if you don’t get to synagogue for Purim, it’s fine. But do try to do these two things, giving charity to the poor and giving foodstuffs to friends and neighbors.

The explanation behind the obligation for this on Purim stems from a pretty deep cut of intra-biblical midrash. The book of Esther is basically quoting here from the prophecies of Zacharia, as my teacher, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag taught me. But the upshot is that Jewish societies have control over their own destiny, Jewish societies that dream of redemption, Jewish societies that experience power, are required to always interrogate whether we are as compassionate as we are meant to be. As your power increases, so might the gap increase between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, as your freedoms increase, so might diminish the social bonds that we’re meant to maintain with members of our community.

The antidote both to the message of theological loneliness that characterizes this book, and the message of unbridled Jewish power that defines its low point is compassion. The sense of responsibility we should have to others. When we alone are responsible for one another. And the reminder that the telos, the end game of Jewish survival is not the opportunity for vengeance, but the responsibility to loving-kindness.

That’s it, I think. When Jews do bad things, one common impulse is to say, not in my name, to pretend that Jews can’t be the same as others. Nonsense. The religiously serious answer is to say, what do I need to do to build a bigger world of compassion and kindness as a response? The answer to a world in which you are not sure whether God sees you anymore is to take seriously the responsibility to see others. If the world is upside down, maybe the final message of Purim is, so straightforwardly, just do the kinds of things that turn it back over again. 

You know, Jews have always dreamed of redemption that it be a Messiah riding in on that horse rather than just Mordechai. In fact, I find something depressing about it just being Mordecai on the horse every year. There’s also a pretty serious risk of idolatry if all those Mordechai’s become convinced on top of the horse that they are Messiahs, or worse. Purim first terrifies us by suggesting that Messiah may not be coming. But then it also invites us to ask what redemption might we bring to the world ourselves?

Thanks for listening to our show. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.

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