Let us be merry

Of all the holidays of the Jewish year Purim is the strangest.

purim kids 88 (photo credit: )
purim kids 88
(photo credit: )
Of all the holidays of the Jewish year Purim is the strangest. With its emphasis on drinking, merrymaking, playacting and disguise, it hardly seems Jewish at all. Of all the books of the Bible, Esther is the strangest. With its lack of mention of God or prayer, with its heroine a Jewish girl who marries a gentile king, its ignoring of Jewish practice, kashrut and Shabbat, with its beauty contest that seems somewhat less than innocent, it hardly seems biblical at all. From a Zionist perspective, it is indeed unusual. Not only does it take place in Persia, but its only mention of Zion is a brief reference to the exile with no mention made that it occurs when the restoration of Zion was already a reality. It is also controversial because of the conclusion which seems so bloody. Anti-Semites have denounced it and Jews have been uncomfortable with it, forgetting that the military action there is completely in self-defense. Small wonder that many modern scholars assume that the book is historical fiction rather than history, an adaptation of a Babylonian myth concerning the triumph of the god Marduk and the goddess Ishtar over the god Humman, originating in a carnival-like celebration. Fiction or fact, the book serves well as a depiction of the plight of Jews living in a Diaspora environment where they are the prey of their enemies. We see hatred of the Jews stirred up for no reason but that they are different, the "other." We witness greed and the desire to plunder Jewish wealth bringing about Jewish suffering. The causeless desire of Haman to eradicate all Jews, children and women, is all too reminiscent of the Shoah. The difference is that this is a Holocaust story with a happy ending. The enemy does not succeed. Rather he is hoist with his own petard, hung upon his own stake. And indeed - that's the rub. How convincing is that? How realistic is that ending? The salvation of the Jews comes about by coincidence. The queen just happens to be a Jewish girl who has access to the king, having won a beauty contest. Even though the king has shown little interest in her, she manages to entice him to a banquet two nights running. Haman makes the mistake of lying on the couch where Esther reclines just when the king enters and a eunuch - Harbonah - is there, ready to remind the king that there is a gallows available. This hardly seems like the way to address a serious problem of Jewish survival in a hostile environment. Rather the story reads like a dark comedy, the theater of the absurd. The laughter is bitter laughter. It reminds me of films such as Dr. Strangelove, that succeeds in making us laugh at the annihilation of the world by atomic bombs, or perhaps The Threepenny Opera, that asks us to believe that a disastrous situation can be saved by a victorious hero who comes riding in at the last moment on a white horse. Obviously the story is appealing because of its happy ending. It has served as a kind of a catharsis, letting Jews have the last laugh, rejoicing at the defeat of the villain, just as spectators at an old fashioned melodrama hiss the villain and cheer his defeat. In the face of so many tragedies, it has always been comforting to read of a triumph, far-fetched as it may be. But if we are addressing the serious problem of how Diaspora Jews should go about saving their lives and their community in times of peril, I cannot imagine that this is a serious answer. "Don't worry, it will all work out" is not a blueprint for survival. Depending on someone winning a contest, on a king's insomnia, on a eunuch's suggestion to a stupid king does not sound like a formula for endurance. Perhaps the story is really subversive and its message is: Maybe something like this could happen once, but don't depend on it. When you have an enemy who wants to "destroy, massacre and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women," you had better have a serious plan to combat him - or get out as quickly as you can. As the teaching has it, "don't depend on miracles." Strangely enough this most Diaspora-centered of all books may really have a Zionist message buried within it: The situation of powerlessness and dependence upon the goodwill of others is a perilous undertaking. If Jews are to survive, they must determine their own fate as much as possible. And certainly they must beware of living in an unfriendly environment. With that in mind, we can appreciate and enjoy this merry holiday and this humorous book - as long as we take them seriously. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.