The following is a transcript of Episode 92 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, recording on Monday, March 14th, 2022.
So let’s say I woke you up in the middle of the night or accosted you in the middle of the street. Now I’m not going to do either of those things, but let’s say I did. And I asked you what’s the most important Jewish holiday in the calendar. The most theologically significant, the most resonant to the modern Jewish experience. I think maybe you’d say Passover, the holiday of Jewish liberation, or maybe Yom Kippur, the sacred day of atonement. After all, those are the holidays with the real traffic on the base paths for all Jews, regardless of denominational affiliation or whatever kind of Judaism you practice.
And maybe a few would say, Rosh Hashanah. The people who wanted to be edgy, politically, might raise up Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, or then maybe some people would think it’s a trick question and give the answer Shabbat, which is actually a pretty good answer, um, even though it rolls around every week. I’d venture to say that most of you, except those of you who already saw the title for this week’s show and who liked to please would probably not say Purim.
This week’s episode is to tell you why you are wrong and to make the case for why Purim may be the most significant day on the Jewish liturgical calendar.
Just to be clear, although Purim is our upside down topsy turvy day, what we’re going to talk about today is not Purim Torah. It’s utterly serious business. I don’t think you can make sense of Judaism, politics and theology without this theatrical single day semi festival in the middle of the month of Adar lost in the fog of the Equinox and in the panic about the Passover items that are already starting to fill the supermarket shelves.
Here are the basic facts of Purim. It’s a one day holiday. If you happen to live in a city that was walled, a couple of thousand years ago, it kind of is a two day holiday. We won’t get into that today since New York does not count as one of those cities. It’s a one day holiday that’s marked by a few ritual obligations, the principle of which is the reading of the scroll of Esther, which is just about the strangest book in the Bible. The status it achieves not only by not mentioning God at all, even in the moment of deliverance of the Jewish people from the evil plan put in place by the wicked Haman, but also for the books, absolute ribaldry, drinking, sex, political conniving, and those are the good guys.
Purim requires of us to give charity, to give foods to one another and to celebrate with a feast. And in practice it’s full of masquerade. The sum total of how Purim tends to be talked about and observed is that it tends to privilege two populations of people for whom it appears custom-designed: people who like drinking – that’s a big part of the day – and children. But for serious people, sometimes it seems inscrutable.
But the case for Purim is extensive and it can be made with reference to the book of Esther itself, as well as through its ritual performance. By the way, I do recommend as the accompanying reading for this episode, the book of Esther, it’s probably better than you remember, and try to focus on those parts that seem, uh, less relevant to the plot of the story, including the context, the background, all of the in between stuff.
I had a professor in graduate school named James Kugel. And he used to say this line where he said, at one point he was taking a course on a book of the Apocrypha called the book of Jubilees, amazing book from the second temple period. And he said, you know, some Jews say that every word of the Bible is there for a reason.
He said, I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do believe it’s true about the book of Jubilees. So I think that’s true about the book of Esther. Um, it’s an extraordinary and magnificent book and it’s full of little Easter eggs. What I want to do today is offer seven theses on Purim’s importance. And then my guest and I are going to work our way through each of them. Right now I’m going to list them and then we’re going to go one by one together with my guests after I introduce them.
Here’s the seventh theses. Number one, no one is coming to rescue us. Number two, the king is dead, long live the king. Number three, faith in the darkness. Number four, Purim is the high holiday of the skeptic. Number five, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we might die. Number six, are we any better than our enemies? And number seven, empire endures.
My conversation partner today to go through all of these and to chat together about Esther, Purim, and all things related to the season of memory that we’re currently in, is a returning guest to Identity Crisis. You may remember him from the all-star panel of the great American Jewish music episode. Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY at the Orthodox Union. He’s a podcaster. His show now is called 1840. I also think he does a Daf Yomi podcast as well through Tablet. He’s an author of a book on sin and failure and a lot of other articles and, Dovid. Welcome back. And first give me your hot take. Where are you on Purim? Big fan of Purim?
Dovid: I love that intro, if we were doing any other episode, and this is crazy, maybe even take this out, but I’m going to correct you. I am now a rabbi doctor. And there’s no other episode that I would have said that if not, for the Purim episode, shows you how seriously I take that, uh, that was in the Purim spirit.
I am a huge fan of Purim. My childhood, teenage years, and adulthood could be mapped out in my evolving relationship to Purim and how I’ve contended with the day and all of its expectations in a way, and the whole feeling of the day. There’s no other holiday where I feel has grown up with me than my relationship to Purim.
Yehuda: Let’s spend another minute on that. Cause I feel the same. I feel like my Purim as a kid was something totally different. It was like fine. It was fun. My Purim in Yeshiva was the first time I really saw Purim in a serious way. And it was also the first time I ever drank alcohol and I did so in dangerous ways, which I regret, and I’m actually scared of sometimes about that culture.
Um, but I saw a totally different type of celebration of Purim and now as a parent and also, spending my life in Jewish education, I see different aspects of Purim. So what were the, and by the way, I’m not sure I feel that way about a lot of other Jewish holidays. Maybe it’s the masquerade that you can kind of lean into different Purim identities throughout your life.
But what happened with you? Like why did this story change for you?
Dovid: So as a little kid, I’ll be honest. I was afraid of Purim. It was the day where on the school bus kids wore scary masks. There was like an anxious anticipation of what I would confront in school. I was a very timid and anxious kid and I was, I was quite literally scared of the day. And then in my teenage years, I grew up in a home where I would call my father, he was kind of like the bah humbug, the, uh, uh,
Dovid: Scrooge of the Christmas story. Whoever it is who says bah humbug, that was my father. He did not like Purim. He’s a button down, suit and tie, kind of, doctor, who takes things very seriously. And Purim in my teenage years was an act of rebellion. For me to like Purim was to almost forge a new identity for myself.
My Yeshiva years were marked in the same way, but the word that you didn’t use that I think is a big part of your Yeshiva experience everywhere really is like the hype of Purim, the expectations of Purim, how amazing, how wild, how crazy is this day going to be?
And that extended throughout my Yeshiva years until, I almost, in my mid twenties, there was no hype left in me. And Purim felt very empty and felt very superficial, where I would hype it and kind of play into the hype. But I didn’t really feel any of it inside until I learned to embrace a Purim of almost quietness and smallness. Still having the Seudah, the festive meal, still drinking a little bit, but really reorienting the focus of a Purim that I can tell my friends about, which is very external, to a Purim that I could be in a moment and create a moment with singing with, with a meal that doesn’t have a thousand interruptions and people running out and being crazy and they can talk about later, but a meal that for, for this hour, for these couple hours, I could be present in a place and just embrace whatever it brings me. And that’s kind of the Purim I have now.
Yehuda: So it’s interesting. One of the forces that’s very powerful in the difference between, you know, uh, traditionally observing communities and not traditionally observing communities is, Purim is like a weird day also in traditional households, because you do have this big festive meal, which might resemble festive meals on other holidays, but you can be cooking all along it, you can have music playing in the background.
It’s just feels totally different. And that’s, I think it’s one of the forces that makes it feel weird. It’s a holiday, but it doesn’t, it kinda doesn’t have the same rules as other holidays and you’re driving around and dropping off food packages throughout the day. It’s just totally,
Dovid: it’s otherworldly.
Yehuda: It’s, its own thing. It’s otherworldly. Great. That’s a great way to put it. So, so let’s go through my seventh theses.
Yehuda: and I’ll tell you a little bit about each one of them. And then you can, you can tell me what you like, what you don’t like. The overall thesis of this, Dovid, is that I, part of the reason I think people love Purim and hate Purim, cause there’s a lot of people actually who hate Purim, partly because of the politics and the violence and the drinking and the sex and all of the stuff that’s in there, um, is that I think Purim is true and that’s scary. And the first way in which I think Purim is true is this first thesis – no one’s coming to rescue us.
And the central plot point of the book of Esther is that God doesn’t actually intervene in the story. Right. You have to look for it. You have to bring God into the story. We can talk about that a little bit more later, but the, the thing that Mordechai does to try to solve the problem of the Jewish people is he does what diaspora Jews have done around politics throughout Jewish history, which is you first ask, who do I know? How can I get somebody in on the inside? Who owes me a favor? Right, Mordechai had intervened to help the king, and didn’t ask for anything in return. Saved the King’s life, but save that favor for me later. And then the whole story of the book of Esther, I’m sorry to be very crude is, she’s, masquerades her way in, um, and then sleeps with the king.
And then that’s like the best tool of access that we as diaspora Jews have in a period of our powerlessness. So the first big idea about Purim is this very overwhelming realization that like, we like to tell the story of Jewish holidays as, they tried to kill us, God rescues us. But this might be the story of, they try to kill us,
And by the way, in, throughout Jewish history, oftentimes they were right, they’d succeeded. But if you knew the right people and could pull the right strings or push the right buttons, you might be able to work your way out of a particular jam. So how does that, how does that read to you as a, as a theory of the book?
Dovid: I like the title. I think you’re placing too much of an emphasis on the political maneuvering. I think that for me, what, no one is coming to rescue us, is this seminal shift of God being manifest through Jewish peoplehood and through the Jewish community. I don’t think it is a coincidence that of all the books, the one where we are first, throughout, called Jews, and not Yisraelim, and not, you know, the biblical name we were called, the children of Israel. Over here for the first time were identified specifically. We’re kind of in this exilic liminal state in between the first temple and the second temple, and we are called in this period, uh, as Yehudim, Jews.
And I think there’s a lot of significance to that. I think one of the significance is that in the very name and language of Yehuda is the name of God. And I think that this liminal state, in between these exiles, was a moment where we learned how to apprehend and see godliness through communal unity, communal interaction.
It wasn’t just Esther going behind closed doors. It was Mordechai also urging the Jewish people to come together. And I think we have moments like this of stress that we still see nowadays. You know, probably began most famously in 1840 in the Damascus affair, which, um, Abraham Karp said is the first time that we consciously got together the different factions of the Jewish people.
And I think that was like the original moment of the Purim story is like, we have to gather together now. We’re in exile. We’re dispersed. We need to feel that sense of unity because God now is going to be manifest through the Jewish people.
Yehuda: Okay, so you’re you’re so you’re skipping ahead to number three, let’s go to number three and then we can come back to this question of no one’s coming help us. It’s good. It’s good. They’re connected. All seven are connected.
Which is this notion of faith in the darkness. There is a way to read the story, right? And part of what motivates this kind of reading is the Rabbinic commentary on the book of Esther in the Talmud, which suggests that the book is basically a Midrash, a commentary, on the line in the book of Deuteronomy, the scariest curse that’s given to the Israelites, which is, you know, it’s all these curses of you’re going to do terrible things and you’re going to get punished.
But the worst curse of all in the book of Deuteronomy is not, I’m going to punish you. It’s, I’m going to hide my face from you. “Hester estir panai bayom hahu.” For which it’s so obvious that Esther is a play on that, right? This is a time of divine hiddenness and I always think about, when I read that, it reminds me of like, as a parent, especially with little children, right?
Punishment is, when you punish your children, it’s a sign of relationship. The worst thing you can do with your kids is like, ignore them. It’s like terrifying. They don’t know what you think. They know what you feel. And that’s a little bit of that suggestion. God ignores the Jewish people. But the consequence of that ignoring is that you get left vulnerable to the elements.
Right. And the thing that you’re most vulnerable to are predators like the Amalekites and Agag is the descendant of the Amalekites. Haman is an Amalekites. You’re vulnerable to the elements. Not that I’m punishing you by putting you in the hands of Amalek. I’m letting loose that you’re out there.
Now, so I guess it’s a little bit, when you say, the way that Jews respond to that is by creating collectivity. Becoming a Jewish people. I guess it’s a little bit of a Rorschach test for us theologically. I view that as ain’t nobody coming to help us. We’re going to have to help ourselves. But it sounds like you’ve read it a little bit more like theologically, the expression of the Jewish people coming together is an expression of a relationship to God.
Does that sound right? Does, you see God in this story?
Dovid: Yes. I think that we shift in the, in the Megilla, in the story of Esther, to this universe that we still live in nowadays of God speaking through the Jewish people. Where I think other religions in this axial age, when we’re moving away from this open, prophetic revelation, there are other religions who are looking for, whether it was specific messiahs or other, uh, other movements of prophecy. I think there’s something, a deliberate emphasis in the Jewish faith that we now need a God, we need theological meaning to emerge from the Jewish people.
You know, there’s something else that’s prominently absent in the Megillah. People pay a lot of attention to the name of God. I I’m always struck by the land of Israel where, it seems throughout the Megillah, uh, Esther has a lot of opportunities to request after, you know, the annihilation of the Jews has already been thwarted, she could have requested. How about we go back to Israel? That could have been her second request.
Uh, I think there’s something deliberately exilic about this, where the Megillah is a handbook for how to find God through obscurity. And if you look towards the heavens, you’re not going to hear a voice, but if you look towards each other, you can actually make out those whispers of God speaking, through silence, through the collective action of the Jewish people.
Yehuda: Yeah, there’s a Talmudic text to that effect also of, is in the period of divine absence is there real hiddenness or is it like God is obscuring God’s face as it were, with the back of a hand? In other words, is the feeling of a shadow a feeling of distance or absence. But I guess there’s two paradoxes that are embedded in what you said about this as a diaspora or an exile story.
You’re right. I believe it’s the only biblical book that we have, where the entire plot takes place outside the land of Israel, the land of Israel is not referenced. So it’s clearly a story about diaspora. There’s two tricky parts of that. One is, one of my favorite lines in the whole book is that Haman says about the Jewish people, “Yeshno am echad mefuzar umeforad bein haamim,” there is one nation that is dispersed and scattered among all the people. So he sees a collective unity of the Jewish people that the Jewish people rarely exhibit. And that’s the kind of classic trope, that antisemites see us as being more collective than we see about ourselves. Right?
If all the Jews are scattered throughout these 127 provinces, we’re not really thinking in collectivity and diaspora, but our enemies do. That’s kind of one interesting dimension to this. The other though, is Greek speaking Jews in antiquity have their own version of the book of Esther, which appears in the Apocrypha. And God’s in it. Like diaspora Jews when they were telling the story, wanted it to be a really pious story.
So maybe this isn’t really a diaspora story. Maybe it’s Jews in the land of Israel, looking at their diaspora Jews and making fun of them. They’re not part of the covenant. They’re not part of the theology. They’re kind of on their own.
Dovid: I actually heard that recently, the suggestion from some scholars that the entire Megillah is almost like a play and an absurdity of mocking it. I have mixed feelings about that. The first time I heard it, I was like. Hey. Wait a second. Like don’t you don’t you make fun of the Megillas Esther. I think there’s something profound to that.
I I think history has born out that the Jews in Israel who were looking at these fledgling communities that they assumed, rightfully so at that point in time, would disappear. I think ultimately, you know, the joke is on that perspective, we haven’t disappeared even within the exile, even within that absence and the fact that it was written in that way, even initially, as an absurdist take of like being written out. And then it being reinterpreted to be written back in, in and of itself seems to be a Purim miracle of sorts.
You know, that, that it was initially written as an absurdist take that we’re not a part of this theological narrative. And through the powers that the story kind of highlights in these subtle ways about the need to construct theological meaning in your own life, we reconstructed the story to have that theological meaning, which is kind of the, the greatest superpower of the Jewish people.
Yehuda: Yeah. Now that I think is true. That’s I think extraordinary, the desire to see God in a story that may not even have been the way it was written to be. I do read this as a parody, as a satire of sorts, and I think everybody is being mocked.
Uh, you know, I’ll give you an example in the, I believe it’s the fourth chapter of Esther. Um, right after the decree has come down that the Jews are going to be killed. It describes that Mordechai, uh, the first thing he does upon hearing the news is, what? Do you remember.
Dovid: He tears, he tears
Yehuda: He tears his clothes. In other words, when a Jew gets threatened, the first thing that a Jew does is sit shiva.
Yehuda:That’s like absurd, right? It doesn’t organize. That’s the second move, but the organizing even takes place, and now here, Esther is being mocked also, she hears that this has happened. And the thing she’s most worried about is that her Jewish uncle appears disheveled. She’s embarrassed by his performance of his theater.
And so she has to clean him up before she can respond. I don’t know. I think, I think everybody’s being mocked in terms of our instincts, but I think you’re right interpretively that the decision to read this book with a theological valence is almost a rebellion against the conditions that prompt the kind of writing of this book.
We want to see this story as something different.
Dovid: I think that’s the entire background of Esther’s plea at the very end of the Magilla and certainly through the Talmudic interpretation, that she begs for this to be included within the Canon. And initially, uh, the rabbis did not want to include this story as a part of the Canon. And I noted, actually in an article that I wrote for Tablet magazine when we concluded Tractate Megillah that, there’s a beautiful explanation, I heard from the Ibn Ezra, uh, where the Ibn Ezra actually writes, it’s very mundane, that the reason why the name of God is missing from the Megillah cause it was initially written as a letter, like a personal correspondence that they sent out to all the communities and they were afraid that it would get thrown out and discarded.
And I look at the entire give and take and dialogue to include this personal letter, retelling the story, as a part of the canon, as this enduring exilic angst and dream of, will our transient temporal stories in this long unending diaspora have the dignity and merit to be included in that great grand canon of the Jewish people?
And that to me is a real part of the tension. And what Esther came as a reminder is that even your personal letters that may be discarded, that may be thrown away, this too, has the theological weight and dignity to be a part of the great Jewish Canon.
Yehuda: That’s awesome. We’ll come back to that. Cause it comes to the high holidays of the skeptic point.
Dovid: I’m getting killed on the, on your structure here.
Yehuda: On my list. I know, my list. Um, all right, let’s go back briefly to number two, probably the best example of what you’re describing, which is the desire to see theology in what is ultimately a secular story, is the king is dead long, live the king. Which is the attempt to read every time that it says Hemelech, referencing to the king, there is a tradition sometimes to chant that, to sound like it’s actually not about the earthly flesh and blood king, but that it’s a reference to God.
And the most famous expression of it, is, I believe it’s the beginning of chapter six, when it says on that night, “balailah hahu nadeda shnat hamelech,” uh, the king’s sleep was disturbed, right? The king couldn’t sleep. And that’s this theological suggestion that God got the message and it echoes, right, it echoes with the book of Exodus where it says, you know, God heard the suffering of the Israelites and then in response it says God actually has to be kind of prompted to return into history.
So on one hand, that’s that pull is there to what you’re describing. On the other hand, it helps us understand how so much of this book is about the masquerading of truth. Why not just say that, right? And that’s the invitation to masquerade is to say no, nothing is quite what it seems. And when you’re in a masquerade, sometimes you can figure out who’s behind the mask and sometimes you totally get it wrong. And that’s a dangerous position to be in.
Dovid: I I hope it’s okay to respond in this direction, but there’s a comedian who maybe some of your listeners may remember. Uh, his name is Gary Shandling, Gary Shandling was famous for all of these meta comedies. He had the Gary Shandling show, which was a self-aware show that he was on a show.
He had this show called the Larry Sanders show, which kind of gave birth to the Office and Parks and Rec where you realize that there’s a camera present on the show itself. So I wrote a different article, happens to also be for Tablet, about how Gary Shandling embodies Purim.
It happens to be his yartzeit, uh, is on Purim. He, he died, his yertzite, I think is a, this the sixth yertzite. Uh, he died on Purim and I was very deeply moved by a documentary that Judd Apatow made called the Zen diaries of Gary Shandling. And the reason why I bring this up is because I think that this, you know, the king is dead long, live the king, uh, the idea that we are all so to speak actors now playing apart, masquerading that in the absence of a king, we now need to play that part, that the king is serving two functions. It has this meta component that we know that we live embodied lives, but we are also characters in a much larger, unfolding story.
And I think the comedy and life, frankly, of Gary Shandling, I’m sorry to get so emotional and theological about this so oft-forgotten comedian, uh, really embodies that idea.
Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, it’s, again, this, all the characters are Rorschach tests also. So it, when Mordechai asks Esther to get involved, right. And this is also one of the most loaded and famous lines of the book is, if you remain silent at this moment, salvation will come to the Jewish people from someone else, and you and your household will be destroyed.
And again, it’s this, how do you want to read that? Do you want to read that as it’s a great motivational speech? Because it is. In history, motivational speeches, it’s the best, right?
I actually read it as a threat. We’ll figure out another way. You and your household will be destroyed, but we’ll figure out a way, do you want to be on this side or not?
And then when Esther decides what she wants to do, you can pick up on her behavior. She has people fast for her. Is that because she’s praying or because she’s mobilizing, is she organizing. And again, like, I think you said it, you said it elegantly. Are we the king? Right. And the king is such a buffoonish character that he makes room for the possibility of human beings picking up that work.
And maybe that’s covenant, ultimately, that God will do what God will do, but make space for human responsibility to actually fill out the rest of the story.
Dovid: I think threat is too strong of a word. I think it is a poignant choice that we are still faced with today. Again, if the theme of this is Esther as exilic strategy guide, then I think all of us in the exile, in the diaspora, in the world that we live in today are faced with the same choice: Do you want to be a part of this larger story? Do you want your personal letter to be a part of this?
It doesn’t have to be. And there are many people who chose otherwise. It’s not a threat so much that your family will be destroyed, it’s that your family will be lost. And that you’re not going to be a part of this story. You’ll have a different story. You may have your own letter, but if you want to incorporate that personal letter, that love letter to Judaism that you write in the confines of your home and the tri-state area, in South America, in wherever you’re living, um, you need to make a choice to be a part of a larger story.
And if you are not going to be a part of that larger story, you’re going to be lost and your family is going to have to find another way to preserve their narrative.
Yehuda: You know, there’s a little bit of a long lost minhag, a custom that Jews used to do, which was their own Purims. So something would happen to your family and on the anniversary of salvation, right, of being saved from it you would make your Purim. I learned this from my principal in my high school, Rabbi William Altshul, every year, he celebrated Altshul Purim.
And he would like bring in Entenmann’s donuts and we would sit around and he would talk about like, this happened. I don’t even remember what it was. It was a terrible incident in his family’s past, and they would celebrate it. And I think you’re, you’re hitting on this of, there’s a kind of empowerment to say, I decide to make this moment a moment of the salvation of the Jewish people, even just through the prism of my own story, because, that’s not an act of separating from the Jewish people. It’s actually an act of attaching my destiny. Ultimately like the destiny of the Jewish people is the destiny of our families, what we decide to do.
Dovid: I could not agree with you more. I’ve always noted this interesting contrast. And these two holidays to me are almost the yin and yang. They’re like old friends, uh, Purim and Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the day where we mourn the loss of the temple, where we began exile and, it’s always struck me that there’s a very deliberate effort that days of mourning should be included within Tisha B’Av.
Don’t make your own familial Tisha B’Av, you know, when we went through the Crusades and there were a lot of polemics and discussion following the Holocaust that we should try to subsume all tragedy under Tisha B’Av.
And Purim is the exact opposite. Purim is, we encourage you, like your family went through something, make your own, have your own special Purim. Doesn’t matter the day, it could be in Sivan, could be in the, later on in the month of Adar or whenever it is. And I think it speaks exactly to the point we’ve been discussing, which is the notion of taking your personal, even temporal exilic, experiencing and using the lens of Purim to have it be a part of the larger canon of the Jewish people.
Yehuda: Amazing. So we’ll come back to this a little bit more, uh, near the end on this idea of the high holidays, the skeptic. Let’s go ahead to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die. Right? This is a big part of the story is eating, feasting, the book opens with a feast that lasts for weeks and weeks.
Drinking, uh, features throughout the story. Um, and as a result, one of the mitzvot of Purim, one of the obligations is to drink until a person can’t tell the difference, uh, between blessed Mordechai and cursed Haman. Which of course has, you could imagine, the interpretive tradition around this, do you actually have to be so blind drunk that you can’t know the difference, does a certain amount of wine create the suspicion that you might know the difference, et cetera.
But there’s no question that the physicality of the story and the ways that we’re supposed to commemorate the story or mark the story are linked. I tend to read it again because I see this as an anthropocentric story, is that we’re leaning into both, this is one of the most embodied biblical stories. Right. Food and sexuality run through this book and the way in which we kind of acknowledge that we are human and not divine is by imitating or replicating that physicality, which brings with it enormous freedoms. The way that we are loosened by alcohol. And also enormous perils and dangers.
The king needs to be drunk, both to be persuaded by Hamas to do what he does. And he kind of needs to be drunk slash seduced by Esther in order to be brought back to the Jewish peoples’ side. So I’d love for you to just reflect on the physicality, both of the book itself, but also of the way that we are that we’re meant to celebrate it for better or worse.
Dovid: So I’m going to drop another theory that I don’t think I’ve ever shared and that you could cut me off in the middle. You’re more than welcome to, uh, to just cut my mic. My other theory is that the book of Purim and the story of Esther is a retelling in many ways of the story of the golden calf.
Uh, the story of the golden calf and the story of Purim both begin with a miscalculation in time, the Purim story is they miscalculate how long the 70 year exile is going to take. The story of the golden calf begins with a miscalculation of how long Moshe Rabbeinu, uh, Moses goes up to the mountain to accept, they think he` would come back in 40 days and pandemonium breaks loose.
Both the Jewish people in the golden calf, and in the Purim story say, uh, we are now lost. We no longer have a leader. This exile’s going to take forever. And if you fast forward to the end of the story of the golden calf, there is a really, Purim-centric imagery, where Moses literally asks God to see his face and they have this intimate moment together, he says, God, show me your ways. And God says, I will show you my back, but I will not show you my face. Almost, you’ll be able to see me in retrospect, you won’t be able to see my face. And Moses does two things afterwards. One is the description and one is the action.
Number one, right afterwards, he puts on a mask. He masquerades. The second thing is that he doesn’t realize how lofty and how intimate that moment is. So the language that the Torah uses as “U’moshe lo yada,” Moshe did not know, “Ki keren or panah,” that his face was illuminating. And I believe the lo yada means to not know, but it’s the language that we use throughout the story in the Megillah, of “ad d’lo yada,” that we’re supposed to drink, become inebriated, have this physicality until we don’t know.
And I think the climax of both of these stories has a deliberate parallelism in our response to nihilism, in our response to a world that seems to be meaningless. We create a universe and rituals that are all meaningful and we are able to eat and drink.
And again, let’s just be clear with the, keep on mentioning the sexuality part. I don’t know what your Purims were like as a child or as an adult. Mine did not have a great deal of sexuality though. And obviously, it features in the story.
Yehuda: No, but I’m talking about the boundary crossing.
Dovid: The boundary crossing, for sure.
Yehuda: The boundaries are at risk. Yeah.
Dovid: Yes. And I think the whole story of the Megillah comes from a, there is a certain antinomianism, this breaking of the normal fixtures and boundaries of law and ritual, that is very deliberate. Again, disclaimer to my listeners. I just don’t want to get any letters. This is not a dispensation for sexual debauchery, but there, there are different levels of debauchery. And I do think that it is our response that when confronted with a world and the possibility that everything is meaningless, let’s create, if for just a moment, a world where everything, including physicality and materialism, can be meaningful.
Yehuda: I have a hard time with aspects of that read. I like it spiritually. I, first of all, I love the golden calf read. I think it’s really interesting and I want to spend more time on the different texts. I guess I struggle with this story in particular because the protagonists in the story are not doing what you’re describing.
Esther does not emerge as a character who is preaching temperance. You actually have to clean up Esther, as the rabbis do later on to talk about her – she never actually touched the king. You have to clean her up in order for her to be useful, as an image and as a template. And also, and here’s the real problem, much of the performance that Jews have done of the celebration of Purim, for hundreds of years, has actually been with a drinking that is connected to debauchery.
So you have to make a move away from how this holiday has been traditionally celebrated. You have to read it against the text, it seems to me, in order to get to the place that you want to do, which is more like a kind of a stoic read of, we have a healthy relationship with our physicality, as opposed, you know, us versus them. I just, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with the fact that like, you’re going to see all over the Jewish world, and, later this week, a tremendous amount of fall-down drunkenness as envisioned by some of our sources as the proper performance of the mitzvah.
Dovid: Well, there’s a lot more to unpack there. First I would say that the interpretations of Esther do not excuse all of her behavior. There is an antinomianism to the character of Esther, particularly the last time, the time when she approaches when she has not been called, is not excused hlakhically and is seen as an antinomian boundary crossing, where she goes in and offers herself to save the Jewish people, which does not have a great deal of halakhic premise.
The other thing is, yeah, maybe I’m a kind of a flailing, just optimist when it comes to the drunkenness and my ability to see Jewish imagery, even in our most, uh, lowly of states. You know, we mentioned earlier, the turning point in the Megillah is God kind of awakening from his sleep. And I think there is definitely a theme throughout the rituals, particularly drinking of the role of sleep in almost falling back asleep and imitating, so to speak, that sleeping God, so to speak, and how even in our exile and even in our sleep, we are able to apprehend God, so to speak.
I think there’s something to be said that the way Maimonides, Rambam, describes prophecy is that the prophets used to go to sleep in order to prophesize and connect with God. And maybe our exilic prophecy is with all of the absurdity and chaos of what it means to live in exile. Maybe the only taste of that prophetic world we can have is, you know, drinking a little too much. God forbid nobody should endanger their health. Uh, and taking that nap and looking at all of the silliness and absurdity of what goes on on Purim and finding meaningfulness there as well, which, you know, stretches different people in different ways.
And to say it’s not a stretch, would obviously that’s a part of it. Stretching ourselves, being able to find godliness in there too.
Yehuda: Right. I mean, we talked about masquerade before and I, our family, does masquerade in a very significant way, uh, on Purim with elaborate costumes. I think it’s part of the fun, but, in seriousness,
Dovid: Will you be announcing on this show what you’re masquerading as this year?
Yehuda: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Um, no spoilers, but I think it’s supposed to be serious fun. By which I mean, symbolic fun. In the same way that like what we do on the Pesach Seder, it’s like, oh, we’re doing this for the kids. No, you’re doing it for yourself. And how you communicate it to your kids, you learn a lot from that yourself.
And I think by the way, the same thing goes for the food. So again, I don’t do that much drinking now. And certainly not with teenagers in the house, and I certainly don’t want to model that for them, but we do some dumb foods, like stupid feasting. So like we, you know, with our hosts for our Purim Seudah, for whom we’re not going to be with this year for the first time in 10 years since they moved to Israel, but like one of the
Dovid: Same with me. We’re also, we’re all getting abandoned for people who are sick of the exilic story.
Yehuda: Exactly, they read this book too seriously. One of the things we do every year for our Purim Seudah was batter and deep fry a kishka. Which is like a stupid thing to eat, but like, it helps to channel the chapter one of the Megillah, of like a kind of feasting that was no limit.
Okay. So let me go to the next one, which is this question of, which I think might aggravate you, so hopefully it will.
Um, so if you’re going to mock the powerlessness of the story of the Jewish response in chapter four, I think you are equally bound to mock what the Jews do when they actually have power. That to me is the ultimate turnaround of the story, is that by the ninth chapter of the book, you’ve created basically a situation of mutually assured destruction, to borrow a Cold War term, and the possibility of detente.
Because of the stupid, bureaucratic Persian laws, the king cannot overwrite the previous genocidal decree against the Jews, but he can put out a second decree, which is the Jews are allowed to fight for themselves.
What should happen is everybody lays down their weapons. What instead happens, by the ninth chapter, is a kind of carnage of violence perpetrated by the Jews on their neighbors, with now, the support of the regime. And what’s amazing is they keep going back to the king and they say, uh, we have more people we want to kill.
And the king signs the permission to allow them to do it. They asked for permission to hang Haman and the 10 sons of Haman, which they do. And it’s hard not to read, one of the punchlines of this book, is, a great deal of your life experience as the Jewish people in exile is going to be powerlessness. And as you know, some Jewish thinkers warned throughout Jewish history, the minute that it turns about, you’re not going to be as good as you think you’re going to be.
What do you make about that? About this story as being about not only the morality of powerlessness, but also perhaps a cautionary tale about Jews actually getting power.
Dovid: I think there may be elements of that. It’s definitely not a part of my lived Megillah memory or experience. I definitely spend time and think, though I probably don’t have an answer that is as profound and satisfying. Most people, when we tell over the Megillah to our children, kind of stop with, you know, the plot being foiled, maybe they’ll do the Haman and, and the sons getting hung.
Most people don’t talk about the second request of Esther and, and it wasn’t peace. It wasn’t to go to Israel. It was to have retribution against their enemies. And then there’s like a final PS that has something to do with tax law, which is how
Yehuda: Yeah, we’ll get to that. That’s empire.
Dovid: Which is how the, the Megillah, the Megillah ends. And maybe we could talk, we’ll talk more about that in a moment. To me, I think the subtext of this. And again, this is not satisfying and I have no idea in history, whether or not this actually happened. I know Professor Elliot Horowitz in his famous book, uh, Reckless Rites, I believe, makes a lot of the violence in the memory of Purim.
It is not something that has ever resonated with me, though I did read, I’ve given classes on the book. I like it a lot. I’m not condemning the book. It’s just not something that ever resonated with me. To me, it is the desperate need, the yearning of people, to see that there is some retribution, some manifestation of justice in this world and embodied justice is how this story ends.
AndI think in a prophetic world, you’re scared whether or not you’re going to go to heaven or hell, and I think in exile you’re scared, maybe there’s no heaven and there’s no hell. And part of what retribution, within the lived experience in the Megillah, is showing the Jewish people, is the ability to, to glimpse or have some measure of divine Providence, some measure of embodied justice in the world. Uh, that’s, to me, kind of how the story, um, wraps up.
Yehuda: I mean, divine justice is great. I, I would rather we be a little attentive, especially when there is a state of Israel with a strong army. I want us to be attentive to the times when the fantasy of vengeance also has its own as its own pornographic consequences. I mean, I, I was in Yeshiva in 1994 and I was there for Purim the year after Baruch Goldsetin had opened fire in the mosque, on Purim.
And it wasn’t a coincidence that it took place on Purim. That you could read a book like this and do something as grotesque as that. And of course, those are incredible outlier incidents in Jewish history. Of course it is the case that we’re only 75 years into a project of Jewish power at the place that it is.
But I, part of why I’m so magnetically drawn to this book is because chapter nine would have made no sense to anybody throughout Jewish history, except as a language of justice, that they couldn’t envision for most of Jewish history. And then you get awakened to the possibility that maybe, since 1948, the piece of Torah that we’re also supposed to glean from this book is a piece of the book that now makes sense for the first time. That we’re acquainted with the possibility that we’re not just warned of, be careful, they’re going to come to get you. We’re also warned a little bit about, be careful when you have the capacity to come and get them.
Dovid: I can appreciate that. Again, it’s not at the center of my Purim memory and Purim experiences. And obviously that’s being filtered, not through deep scholarship, but just like, you know, the stories that I grew up with, but I can appreciate that there is a subtext in this story about the responsibility of power itself and not, you know, w we use the language in the Talmud of, we are still servants of Achashverosh. We are still kind of living in the shadow of this story and perhaps part of the shadow, which this story casts, is the responsibility, and how circumspect we have to be when the crown lies on our head.
Yehuda: Yeah. So that leads to the, to this last one, which is about, empire endures. So you alluded to the very strange last chapter of the Megillah, it’s only four or five verses, and the chapter 10 starts with Achashverosh levies a tax upon all of the provinces and I’ve been in shuls where people boo when that comes up, they finish booing Haman, they boo the, they boo the taxes, yeah, depends on the politics.
Dovid: Good shtick
Yehuda: Some people cheer. Depends, which, you know, um,
Dovid: Good shtick.
Yehuda: It’s hard to shake the feeling of, well, there’s something absurd about that. Like the drama is over. Um, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what’s really happening here is well, empire persists. The world was not turned upside down.
In this case, we like to think, “v’nahafochu,” the world was upside down, but only this incident, with respect to the Jews was upside down. But the real lesson is that the empire will go on and it will continue to be the regime that it is. And who are we relative to that story? How do you read that last section of the book?
Dovid: I honestly, just to be clear, I did not know that you were going to ask this question. I have a, uh, I would say a mild obsession with the notion of “mas” and why the Megillah ends on this. Though, I think the direction with the deeply mystical imagery that it draws for me may resonate less and be less relevant to your listeners. But Lord knows that’s not going to stop me from sharing it because, because I’m incorrigible like that.
Yehuda: You’re here.
Dovid: Uh, to me, “mas” has mystical imagery, which is that the letter mas is made from the Hebrew letters, mem and samech, and maybe we’re ending with some questionable Purim Torah. A mem is a square and a samech, most notably is a circle.
And I think that the notion of reconciling squares and circles, which is really what the number PI is all about, which is the irrationality, the transcendence of a number that can’t be expressed by any fraction, is the enduring question that Purim poses to all of us.
Where “mas” represents the ever reaching quest of the Jewish people to square the circle, to reconcile the mem and the samech, the mem being the square, which, I, in my own mind to affiliate with more sequential earthly bounded nature, and the circle being infinity, being something that is transcended where God embodies all of us and finding a sense of self in a purely godly world.
Once you glimpse at the rest of the Purim story and realize we’re all playing parts and God’s been the puppeteer the whole time, and then having to move back into the mundaneness of everyday life with all of the responsibilities and freewill and choice and what you just mentioned, you know, taking responsibility for the power that you rightfully have. To me, that’s the question of the empire continues and we still need to put an effort to square that circle.
That we can’t leave the Purim story and say, well, God runs the world, so now I guess, whatever I do that, whatever antinomianism I’m involved with, whatever power I have, I can do it because the moral of the Purim story is that I am an agent of God. You have to press the brakes and realize that there’s still something bridging the gap between the mem and the samech, that taxation represents, bridging the gap between our sequential bounded power of human beings and that transcendent agent of God that’s represented where the king, is also the king of Kings, is still something we need to reconcile, integrate and contend with.
Yehuda: Fascinating. I have a much more mundane read, which is, much more mundane, which is, empire empires, and that’s where the antidote of matanot l’evyonim, gifts to charity, that’s where building a social net among the Jewish people. That’s the Jewish people’s response to empire. Because ultimately that’s what Jews did throughout Jewish history.
They kind of segmented, most stories didn’t end with the Jewish queen in the halls of power. Most of them ended with either this terrible thing happened to us or crisis was averted. We can’t really control that. And ultimately the message is, the empire is going to continue its tax scheme.
And we may find ourselves again on the wrong side of this Vizier or that one, but maybe we can remedy the am echad mefuzar umeforad problem. Maybe we can remedy our dispersion, our disconnection from one another. Maybe we can build at least holistic societies where we care for the vulnerable in our midst. We don’t have to wait to be mobilized to respond that way. We actually are capable of building ethical model societies within our midst. Charit. Essentially, it’s a way of saying until there’s a radical overhaul of the political known world, charity is the antidote by which communities construct themselves.
Yeah, go ahead, and then, then my last comment.
Dovid: I don’t,I don’t think that’s mundane. I think that’s deeply profound. And I think that’s very much in line with everything we’ve been discussing, where peoplehood, agency, empire, needs to now be constructed through the Jewish people and the way that we reconcile, you know, our own human agency and that divine transcendence is through the charity, communal building that’s happening on the grounds. And I think that’s quite beautiful and quite profound.
Yehuda: So let me end with the one I skipped over before, which is I find this to be the high holiday of the skeptic. We’re different people theologically.
Dovid: You and I?
Yehuda: I find myself much more, you and I. Um, I find myself much more on the side of, of skepticism. And one of the things that I’m drawn to in the story is how much the text foregrounds how arbitrary sometimes this stuff is.
That’s why the whole story is premised on the throw of the dice that Haman does, as if to say, it’s not just the date of the persecution, it’s just, that’s sometimes how it goes. This is why our tradition weds Purim to Yom Kippur. Cause that too is premised on the drawing of lots between the goat that is sacrificed in the temple and the one that is thrown off of a cliff.
There is a kind of topsy turviness, a lack of predictability. In fact, our tradition also says that post redemption, Purim’s still going to be around, maybe to remind us of the difference between a world in which things are clear, and that’s the redemptive world, and the times where things feel deeply arbitrary.
And I find that so enchanting, precisely cause it’s broken, I find that enchanting cause it feels to me like the one time of year where we see things with clarity, for what they are, and we just accept them. So I, for me, this is the high holiday of the skeptic. You’re less of a skeptic than me. Is it, you know, what, how do those, how does that story of that high holidays connect for you?
Dovid: That resonates with me deeply. I would maybe change a little bit of the language, but I love the contrast to Yom Kippur. I think in many ways, what we do during the high holidays, we dress in all white. We show up to synagogue, even when we’re not normally accustomed to it, we accept upon ourselves certain stringencies, we’re more careful.
Yom Kippur to me is the holiday of striving, of fake it till you make it, of trying to become something that you may not be the rest of the year. And Purim, and you ended on this, is really the holiday of self-acceptance, of finding God where you are, in your exilic, diasporic life, in your skeptic’s mind, in your world what seems to be totally absent of God and your life, in many ways, it seems to be absent of God, of looking in that mirror and saying, even here, I don’t need to dress up in all white. I don’t need that, those stringencies and that striving, but even in that place of where I am right now, through that self-acceptance that I think Purim embodies, a God can be found here too.
Yehuda: Well, we’ll end with that. Listen, friends. I don’t know if we persuaded you. Here are two Jews who see the world quite differently, but both of us seem to have a love of this strange, bizarre Jewish holiday. One that I would love to see be taken as seriously as the high holidays or any other time of the year.
So thanks for all for listening, we wish you a deeply, freilichen Purim, which is the way of conveying that Purim, after all of this serious business, um, also is, and it’s meant to be the Jewish holiday of joy. And special thanks to my guest Rabbi Dr. Dovid Bashevkin, for being here today.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC with special thanks to Cory Choi, assistance from Miri Miller and Shelhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after episode airs, to find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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