I’ve been thinking a lot about my teachers lately, almost all of whom were influenced deeply by Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away last week in Jerusalem at the age of 81.
It was from one of my most significant teachers, Rabbi James Ponet, that I first learned about Rabbi Hartman’s understanding of Purim as the Jewish holiday of friendship.
The connection may seem counterintuitive at first. A holiday of debauchery, disguises and narrowly averted disaster, yes. But the holiday of friendship?
To share Rabbi Hartman’s Purim Torah, at least as I understood it from Rabbi Ponet, I have to take you back to Jerusalem in the summer of 1993. It was my first year teaching with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and I was privileged to serve on the faculty that summer with Rabbis Ponet, Avi Weinstein and Michael Paley.
About 30 of us were crowded into a room upstairs at Bet Ticho, the beautiful restaurant and art gallery that once served as the home of Jerusalem artist Anna Ticho. In the 1920s and ’30s, her home became a gathering place for intellectual luminaries like Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, whose photographs hung on the wall above us as we listened to a teaching by Rabbi Ponet.
He was drawing a contrast between the writers and thinkers who used to gather at Bet Ticho, and those who were influenced by the theology of Rav Kook, whose home was on the same street, just a few doors down — but worlds away.
Rav Kook’s worldview flowed from a deep faith in God’s promise of redemption; he saw the unfolding of human history in general — and 20th century Jewish history in particular —as an inexorable process leading toward the fulfillment of that promise. But the intellectual circle that gathered in the home of Anna Ticho, as described by Rabbi Ponet, did not inhabit Kook’s religious world of spiritual certainty and redemptive promise.
Instead, Rabbi Ponet taught us, they inhabited a spiritual universe that was much closer to the world of Megilat Esther — and, my pounding heart knew immediately, a world much closer to my own. A world unredeemed and uncertain. A world in which even the name of God does not appear except through hints hidden between the lines of the text. A world in which the pivotal call to action comes in the form of a question — the question delivered indirectly in a message from Mordechai to Esther: “Mi yodea im la’et kazot higa’at la’malchut?” (Who knows if it wasn’t for just such a moment that you became queen?)
That teaching has stayed with me all these years, and that verse is still the heart of the Book of Esther for me. It gave me a language for my religious commitment to uncertainty; it helped me embrace ‘not-knowing’ as a spiritual path rather than a personal failure of faith.
A few years later, in New Haven, Conn., where we had the joy of celebrating many Purims while working together at Yale Hillel, Rabbi Ponet taught me a related piece of Purim Torah, this time in the name of Rabbi David Hartman.
It was a year after Purim had been forever transformed — and tainted — by Baruch Goldstein in 1994. Goldstein’s horrific act, of course, flowed from his own reading of the same Book of Esther that we were reading in the far reaches of the New Haven diaspora. But his was a reading that allowed him with breathtaking — indeed, life-taking — certainty to walk out of the mythic landscape of ancient Persia into the Cave of the Machpelah, where he opened fire on scores of innocent Muslims at prayer, killing 29 and wounding 125 others.
What did it mean to read the Book of Esther after that, I wondered?
If Goldstein’s religious certainty led him to that act, what did my own commitment to religious uncertainty require of me?
For Hartman, Rabbi Ponet taught me, the answer lay in the central mitzvot of the Purim holiday. Aside from reading Megilat Esther, there are three other religious obligations associated with the holiday. They are Mishloach manot (sending treats to friends and neighbors), matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor) and se’udat Purim (sharing a Purim feast with people we love).
What are we obligated to do in a world where confusion, cruelty and capriciousness often conspire to hide God’s presence?
We’re asked to take care of each other. Feed each other. Be responsible for each other. Rejoice in each other’s companionship.
What does Purim obligate us to do?
In a chaotic and unredeemed world, it asks us to befriend one another.
As this Purim approaches, I feel a deep debt of gratitude to Rabbi David Hartman, the teacher of so many of my teachers, “yehi zichro baruch.” May his memory be for a blessing.