A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Passover I - Presenting the Past

Passover begins on Saturday evening, April 19th. I will be writing about it frequently between now and then. This post is just to point to an overarching issue with Passover.

More than most holy days, Passover cuts right to the core of the dilemma facing the modern Jew: I want to be Jewish, but how do I make any meaning out of the Jewish past? Can I really get myself worked up about a period of slavery and liberation that happened - if it happened - three thousand years ago?

We are caught between an urgent need to experience the transcendent (ok, let's just say it: God) in our lives and a sense that we must enrobe ourselves with the trappings, habits and customs of our tradition.

We often feel that we have to make a painful choice between the past and present. We try to find meaning in the present by seeking connection with the eternal in an immediate, unmediated way. We wanna feeeeel it. This usually leads us away from Judaism because, well, God usually hangs out outside the synagogue, at least where most of us come from. Meditation, yoga, seeking peak experiences in the natural world....each of these is powerful because it is satisfies our desire to move beyond the painful plainness or painfulness of our daily lives. Anyway, we can do this, OR....

We feel like we can try to be Jewishy, repeating incantations in Hebrew, putting on prayer shawls, mumbling about a merciful God, reading bizarre stories about an angry God, and generally try on the ill-fitting suit that is Jewish tradition in order to satisfy our need for warmth. Maybe this feels nice, and we alleviate our guilt that we are lousy and irresponsible Jews if we don't do this - but let's be honest: it's a drag.

David Hartman, an American-born Israeli, modern-Orthodox thinker, writes about this modern predicament in his book A Living Covenant. He says that both of these impulses are Jewish impulses: the desire for an immediate connection with God and the reality that we can establish this connection through our tradition. Exploring the verse from Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will adore Adonai; the God of my father and I will exalt God" (from the Song of the Sea, the big number the Israelites sing as they cross the Red Sea) he writes,

Traditional Judaism has always contained a vital dialectic between “This is my God and I will adore Adonai” and “The God of my father, and I will exalt God.” (Exodus 15:2). Loyalty to the God about whom our fathers [and mothers] told us does not exclude the discovery of new insights and experiences that lead one to say, “This is my God.” The past does not exhaust all that is possible within one’s...relationship with God.

In other words, we don't have to choose - we find what we're looking for in the present through the past. That sounds like a Spinal Tap lyric.

But one thing is for sure - if you read the Haggadah on Passover and you come away with: 'Wow, cool story. Sucks to be the Egyptians; pass the matzah,' you haven't found the present in the past. It takes effort, creativity, it requires asking questions of people who know more than you, it means finding good stuff to read, inventing imaginative approaches to the stories and rituals.

With the desire and the effort will come the understanding that we do not choose between transcendence in the present and an understanding of the past - these are inextricably bound. And if you read carefully - if you come prepared - you will find your own story inscribed in the pages of the Haggadah.

Time Out for Fun

In the spirit of friendly ecumenism, a seasonally-titled Frank Zappa special, "Watermelon in Easter Hay." (The Orthodox Church's Easter is in late April, so we're not too late). Enjoy a beautiful song.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

And I Feel Fine....

Wow. What a rude awakening. A beautiful shabbat ends, and I turn on my computer to find out that the universe may collapse. Bummer.

What a tricky cost-benefit analysis. Some great benefit to us may come from new knowlege....but there is a small chance that all matter will be consumed into nothingness.

The theological implications of this are pretty heavy: is it possible that God created a world for human beings that could be completely eliminated not by evil but by miscalculation? Questions about the persistence of evil in the world are old theological stomping ground. We know how to wrestle with the question of the relationship of God to a human species determined to do harm. But a species that destroyed all life (and all matter, and time) because of an error in calculation?

I was studying today a beautiful passage in the Talmud (in Berachot 5a-5b - apologies for the lousy link but there's no better English trans. online) about the meaning of human suffering. The authors wondered whether human suffering could be some kind of expression of divine love. Could it be that God punishes us now to reward us later? Is God refining us in some way, or testing us? To put this in language that is maybe more palatable to some of us: "can individual suffering be given meaning if it leads to greater understanding, awareness, or peace-of-mind?"

Maybe I will write about this later, but the passage is so beautiful because while the Talmud asks these theological questions, the rabbinical characters who are enduring the suffering seem to have no use for theology. Contemplating the possibility that the sufferings are "afflictions of [God's] love" they say that they that even if they are, neither the suffering nor their potential reward are desirable. That is, "I don't care if you can invent some theology that makes me feel better - I don't want your theology; I don't want God's reward; I'm miserable!" The story ends not with theology but with one rabbi extending a hand to his suffering friend to raise him up. Only human solidarity and kindness can be an answer to human suffering.

In any event, this kind of meditation is just massively insufficient to address the problems raised by this article. There's not even room for human solidarity if everything goes away. Wow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jewish Guilt - More Thoughts on Sh'mini

We each have to confront dead-on the errors we have made in the past. What if we could "sacrifice" these errors - that is, change them from bad to good by demonstrating that we have learned from our mistake and have changed enough that we have become a new person? For most of us, this does not mean sacrificing animals. But the question is whether we each have a 'golden calf' moment in our past - some damage we have done, privately or publicly, that we want to undo.

I wrote earlier about the need for Aaron to confront the mistake of the golden calf. The first sacrifice he is required to make after assuming the role of High Priest is a sin offering of a calf - which can only remind him and everyone watching of the episode of the golden calf. He has to confront his very public error and do teshuvah - that is, he has to answer for his mistake.

One way of being stuck and destroyed by a past mistake is by refusing to confront it, just wanting to "move on" before you have changed yourself in the way that is necessary - that is, before you have earned the right to forgiveness. We all know people who just constantly repeat awful behavior, who continue to hurt others people because they refuse to confront what they have done and take responsibility.

There is another way to be stuck - by dwelling on past mistakes and not permitting yourself to move past them. Another version of this (I think) is failure to believe that you can become something you are not, the refusal to accept that you can change and become better.

This is Aaron's problem. Several commentators write that he was too afraid to approach the altar to begin his role as High Priest (it doesn't look like this in the Torah; but the idea is based on the fact that Moses commands Aaron "Approach the altar!" and the rabbis wonder why Aaron had to be told to do so....they conclude he must have been hesitating for some reason). In a midrash we read
Aaron was ashamed and afraid to approach [the altar]. Moses said to him, "Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen." - Sifra 1:4
This imagined conversation hints at Aaron's awareness of his past failures, as though he is saying to himself 'I can't possibly do this - look what a lousy person I am.....I'm really supposed to be in charge of the sacrifices? Have people forgotten who I am?"

Ramban gives an interpretation with imagery straight out of a Spinal Tap (or Ozzy) concert. He imagines that when Moses saw Aaron hesitating, he said to him....
"Have courage! Come and do your service!" For there are those who say that when Aaron looked at the altar he saw the image of an ox. Because Aaron was afraid so Moses approached him and said "My brother do not be afraid of whatever you are afraid of. Be brave and approach [the altar]"....because Aaron had the sin of the golden calf upon his soul and this sin was fixed in his mind....so it looked to him like the image of the calf, so he held back from his atonement. Therefore Moses said to him "Be bold, because God wants you to do this!" - Ramban on Leviticus 9:2-3
In both of these reimaginings of the situation, Aaron is paralyzed by his memory of what he had done. His brother Moses pushes him through this guilt and hesitation. I favor the second one because it involves Aaron hallucinating a terrifying horned animal, but the basic point is the same. The first part of moving beyond past errors is doing the work to correct ourselves, to become different internally so we understand our error.

But the second, crucial part, is not becoming stuck in the self-abuse and guilt. We have to have the confidence and courage ("Be Brave!") to accept that we are not owned by our past and we can once again be "pure."

So, be brave!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Cow! Thoughts on the Torah Portion (Sh'mini)

This is the Outback Steakhouse section of the Torah - detailed descriptions of the flaying, roasting and (sometimes) eating of animals designated for sacrifice. Sacrilicious. Amidst the carnivorous worship is a very hidden story of personal change and the courage it requires.

In this week's portion, the High Priest Aaron - the guy who will be in charge of all of the animal and meal sacrifices for the whole community of Israel - begins his priestly duties (along with his sons, who are also priests). This is the big moment: for weeks, we've been reading about the construction of the tabernacle (the sanctuary used for sacrifices and worship in the desert) and about all the instructions for the sacrifices in mind-numbing detail.

Of all the people to head up the priesthood! Aaron, the guy who made the golden calf. This is like Homer Simpson being put in charge of The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, or, as I wrote last week, Elliot Spitzer heading up investigations into prostitution. The wrong guy for the job. Everyone knows this: Moses, Israel, God. You can imagine them all standing around silently looking at their shoes as Aaron steps forward, whispering to one another "how awkward is this?"

Just as everyone's toes are curling with embarrassment, Moses tells Aaron that before he can start, he has to make a sin offering to purify himself of sin. The animal he has to sacrifice for the purification: a calf. The calf here and the calf of the 'golden calf' fame are the same word in Hebrew: egel (pron: AY-gell).

Long before this moment, way back in Exodus, and before the tabernacle had been built, the ceremony that was to be performed when the tabernacle was finished is described (see Exodus 29). But in those instructions, which were given before the episode of the golden calf [for those who care - this is according to Ramban; see him on Vayikra 9:2-3], there is no calf, only a bull (par) and other animals. What gives?

The most obvious answer, and the one the medieval rabbis loved, was that Aaron is supposed to atone. In the arithmetic of screw-ups, this purifying calf atones for the corrupting calf of gold. An act of goodness can resolve ('bring closure,' in the banal contemporary expression) a moral crisis. It is significant that the sin offering was a calf - because we can't become better in the abstract. We have to confront or be reminded of the precise circumstances of our failures. We let ourselves off the hook with vague promises to be better, to be nicer, yadda-yadda-yadda. Our failures, however, are specific and change requires that we think of their details to overcome our failure.

It could also be a brutal reminder to Aaron: this calf you made to worship, you see that it represents nothing more than this thing, this animal that you are about to kill. Flesh and blood that will be gone tomorrow. This is a stark theological lesson in the problem of idolatry. The problem with idolatry is not that God is offended (though we are told that God is "jealous") but that it is essentially false. Idolatry is about raising up something to the level of eternal that is really just fleeting. Money, cars, status, baby cows. Aaron is being reminded to the passing nature of the matter that he worshipped.

Eliav is crying...more later

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jew Are What Jew Is - Part II

I wrote about identity a bit last night. Barack Obama's speech ("A More Perfect Union" - text here and video below) was a beautiful and courageous meditation on the topic of racial resentment. Obama was addressing a topic of identity. He was asked, in effect, "how could you sit in the pews of this apparently racist Reverend Wright?" and answered by speaking honestly about his experience as a person who moves between racial communities and the insights that has given him.

That is of course only a small part of his theme. The speech was without a doubt the highest moment of politics, and the best political speech of my adult life. I know, I'm just joining the chorus of people who went crazy for the speech, but it was the real deal. Anyway, the speech is below.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jew Are What Jew Is: Jewish Identity

Frank Zappa has a 1981 song (and album) called "You Are What You Is" in which he imagines a white guy who takes on the trappings of black culture in order to become black, and a black guy who tries to become white (he buys a pair of Jordache jeans and learns to golf). The chorus chides both of these guys for crossing the boundaries of their identities:

You are what you is
You is what you am
A cow don't make a ham
You ain't what your not
So see what you got
You are what you is
An' that's all it is

I'm pretty sure Zappa is satirizing the reactionary voice of the chorus - a guy born to an Italian father of Greek-Arab ancestry, who destroyed musical genres and them fused them back together, who was an accomplished rock musician restless enough to compose jazz and avant card symphonic music couldn't possibly be telling people to stay in their place.

Jumping back and forth between identities is an essential feature of Jewish life. This Shabbat afternoon we had a great group of people over from Kulam (the 20s-40s something group that I run for Congregation Har HaShem). The topic: Jewish identity (a group was going to see the play Beau Jest - featuring Kulam's very own Emily Norman - which deals with questions of Jewish identity and boundaries between Jewish and mainstream culture).

This was a chance for a group of Jews to talk about their experience navigating the boundaries of Jewish identity and to eat...bagels. Several boundaries were uncovered in our discussion. People wrestle with the relationship between their identities as Jews and participants in the broader culture; identities as Jews within a antisemitic environment; their identities as religious vs. secular Jews; identities as Sefardic Jews in a largely Ashkenazic culture; and their experience as non-Jews among Jews (not everyone in the group is Jewish). What a miracle that in 2008 Jewish people are around and have the luxury to explore the meaning of Jewish existence.

(Several premises and false premises went unexplored, among them the division between Jewish and something called 'mainstream' culture and the division between religious and secular Jewish identity. This is a topic for another post. This was my fault and choice; I wanted to have discussions about the experience of identity, not discussions about discussions about the experience of identity).

For the most part the conversation was lighthearted but I know that crossing over between these boundaries takes its toll on the lives of modern Jews. Most painfully and commonly, some relationships are broken because the thoroughly assimilated Jew couldn't make peace with his/her partner's non-Jewish upbringing - and couldn't admit it. There are other ways in which Jewish unease (or guilt) in the face of non-Jewish culture takes a social or professional toll (see Meet the Parents, a movie that I don't think ever mentions Judaism but that could only have been written by a Jew).

To be Jewish is to hang out on the boundary of multiple cultures, feeling puzzled (or guilty) about whether one is Jewish enough or too Jewish. This was true even before something called 'Judaism' existed. In D'varim (Deuteronomy) the Israelites are warned to stay away from the any shikseh and shegetz who live in the land of milk and honey. God is the concerned Jewish mother here: "Sure, you'll start just dating. But I promise you it won't end until you're murdering and worshiping false gods!" Obviously in the Talmudic period anxiety about the relationship between Jewish culture and the host culture was even more pronounced. Modernity added to the perplexity by making it possible (eventually) for Jews (and anyone else) to choose identity, or at least group affiliation.

Immanuel Levinas critiqued the modern Jew who would carefully weigh the value of Jewish culture through "the language of the university" before deciding whether to embrace Judaism fully. This "language" was Judaism as it was presented in scholarly or philosophical, sociological terms - that is, as it is described from the outside. Levinas did not want us to demand of Judaism that it provide us with a handily summarized "system or doctrine." Rather Levinas wanted Jewish identity to consist in the exploration of Judaism on its own terms, on a deep level. In short, to engage with Jewish texts (and, maybe to engage with Jewish tradition).

He also suggests that Jewish identity should not be seen as a choice but rather as a responsibility:

Far from being a serene self-presence...Jewish identity is rather the patience, fatigue and numbness of a responsibility - a stiff neck that supports the universe. - Levinas, "Means of Identification," in Difficult Freedom, p 51
"Stiff neck" is both a reference to God's characterization of the Israelites in the Torah as being disobedient and also, I'm guessing, a reference to the Jewish refusal to completely disappear into the larger culture. Levinas' basic point is important. Young Jews are benefiting from a Jewish renaissance right now. This rebirth will only matter, though, if Jewish identity becomes nothing more than another consumable....
I'm all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer -
a guaranteed personality.
- The Clash, "Lost in the Supermarket," London Calling
The struggle is to create something powerful and lasting out of Jewish culture, a vision of a world renewed and the responsibility to help create it. Identity is too puny a word for this, suggesting as it does the individual's exploration of culture. Jewish culture is meaningless in such a context, because Jewish tradition insists that we see ourselves as part of a people and part of the human community. So, indeed, Jew ARE what Jew IS.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thoughts on This Week's Torah Portion (Parshat Tzav)

Does God Care if I Go to the Clambake?

Why be Jewishly Observant?

We all are confronted with the arbitrariness of the commandments. Why do this? Does God really care if I eat oysters or cheeseburgers? That’s ridiculous. Maybe. In the Torah this week we we are faced with this problem dead on. The powerful narratives of Genesis and Exodus are far behind us, and now we are in the nitty-gritty of the sacrificial laws. In other words, the Torah is not just fun any more. So, why does God care if Jews sacrifice an animal in this way? Or that way? Here? Or there? Or why would God care about sacrifice at all?

With our awareness of other cultures (in other places; at other times) we find it impossible to believe that any culture can be right on how to worship God, so, we conclude, they must all be wrong.

We’re not the first to wonder about the nature of Jewish observance. In a commentary on the Torah, we read, “What difference does it make to the Holy One whether one slaughters and animal from the front or the back? The mitzvoth were given solely to refine created beings.” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1)

Our ancestors apprently also found it hard to believe that an eternal being beyond time and space would care about the physical particulars of worship. Yet they saw the rituals as a method of refinement of human beings. Discipline, consciousness-raising, whatever. The point was that Jewish law was and is a method for purification and refinement of the soul. We cannot become holy in abstraction – we can’t plug our brains into the ether and live like angels. We are stuck in the particulars of our situation, our messy materiality – so our rituals are, too. But they aim at something higher. God may not care about the particulars of observance, but those particulars can make us care about God – and so refine us.

A favorite heavy-hitter, Immanuel Levinas, addresses this same idea. He writes,

In the Talmud, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai is questioned by his pupils about the reasons for the rites concerning the lustral water in Numbers, and takes refuge behind the authority of the divine commandment. But he adds that, without authority of this commandment, ‘Contact with a dead person does not make one impure, nor does lustral water purify. No intrinsic power is accorded to the ritual gesture, yet without it the soul cannot be raised up to God.

Levinas goes on to write that it is the particulars of the commandments that give them their meaning:

[….] “Ben Zoma said, ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: Hear O Isarel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’ Ben Nanus said ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Ben Pazi said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: You shall sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk.’ Rabbi, their master, stood up and decided: ‘The teaching as according to Ben Pazi.’”….The law is effort. The daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage that is calmer, nobler and greater than that of the warrior. –Immanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p18-19

Is Jewish Observance a Drag? Or Are You?

What is the power of the commandments, of Jewish ritual? An interesting discussion by two commentators on this week’s parshah shows an interesting disagreement. In Leviticus 6:11, the Torah states: Every male of Aaron’s descendents will eat [of this sacrifice]; it is an eternal law for your generations. From the offerings of Adonai that are of fire, whomever approaches them yikdash. I’ve deliberately left yikdash untranslated because it is about this word that there is an important disagreement.

The plain reading of this verb would be “will be holy” – whomever approaches them will be holy. That is, when the descendents of Aaron eat this, they will become holy. This is the reading of Saadia Ga’on, a 9th century commentator and leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia, who interprets it as “shall become holy.” He understands it to mean that by king part in this mitzvah, a person is given holiness. Rashbam, a 12th century French commentator explains this word by writing, “before one approaches [the altar] he shall be pure.” He thinks that this verse lays down a requirement that all those who will take part in this ritual are required to perform the necessary rituals of purification before they begin.

Though this verse is discussing a particular law of sacrifice for a particular group of people, still we all face this issue. We have all of these rituals and customs that are handed down to us by our tradition. Do they make us holy by virtue of the act itself? Or is it that we have to (or have the opportunity to) purify ourselves in order to do them. That is, do the rituals (in line with Rashbam’s reading) require us to look into the mirror and ask ‘How should I act; what kind of person should I be?’ before taking on part of the tradition? In this sense, the rituals are an excuse to be holy, though they do not make us holy necessarily. Should we really observe Shabbat in the same state of mind that we are in the rest of the week? Or should we prepare ourselves, purify ourselves, become holy first? Rashbam’s interpretation might lead us to demand of ourselves a change that can make Jewish observance more powerful – instead of our demanding that Judaism be more powerful in order for us to desire to change.

Shabbat Shalom - do something beautiful for Shabbat.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thoughts on Purim


Some brief observations about Purim. Pardon me if I ramble a bit – I’m observing the Fast of Esther (the what? See below) and so I’m a bit tummy-tied.

Purim is a powerful and mysterious holy day but one that is widely misunderstood and mis-observed. We tend to think of it as a day (or night) when children dress up like animals, queens or kings, or pastries, and adults stand around and watch their kids delight in what John McCain yesterday referred to as the Jewish “version of Halloween.” If adults think it bears on them at all, they think it is the night on which God, quoting AC/DC, commanded the Jewish people to “have a drink on me” and to get w-a-s-t-e-d.

In fact, Purim, like every other Jewish holy day, holds a mirror up to the theological and ethical situation within which we find ourselves.

Chaos and Peril in the Story of Purim

The recitation of Megillat Esther, the book of Esther, is at the center of observance of the day. A quick read of this book is pretty sobering. It is about the attempt of a powerful person (Haman the King’s assistant) to exterminate the Jewish people who lived within a particular kingdom. He would try to do this by commanding non-Jews to rise up and “destroy, massacre, and exterminate” (Esther 3:13, JPS translation) the Jews within all the provinces.

Haman, the bloodthirsty man who seeks the elimination of the Jews, decided upon the date for this murderous uprising by casting lots, pur, which in the plural is purim. At the center of the story, then, is a stark reminder that chance governs our fate – or at least the sense that we have that this is so. The story suggests that chaos is the governor of the world, and the Jews are at its mercy. We each experience, in dark moments, this sense of chaos – that we live in a world ruled by chance, and all we can do is carve out some kind of security and meager happiness for ourselves at the card table of life before we are dealt a joker.

Underlying this moral chaos is the chilling absence of God from the story. Only the Song of Songs shares this distinction of having no mention of God in the text (although the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs is most often seen as a metaphor for human-divine intimacy). This silence hangs heavily over the narrative as the horror unfolds, reminding us, perhaps, of the apparent absence of God from our own lives, or from the history of the 20th century (several people have mentioned that Esther’s name can be linked to the Hebrew root meaning ‘to conceal or hide’ and that God is hidden from those who most need salvation).

The Fast of Esther – observed today, as I’m writing, the day before Purim begins – is a reminder of the sobriety (!) of this festival. Because fasting can be understood as an attempt to move God to action, but also as a reminder of our own need for moral purification, this fast builds a bridge between the frightening theological implications of Purim and its ethical requirements.

Purim and Moral Responsibility

The story also reminds us of the many mass-exterminations of Jews throughout history and of course in the shadow of the Holocaust the story has a particularly grim resonance. To countless generations of Jews, Haman has represented every Jew-hating bloodthirsty individual and government that has sought our destruction. Haman’s comeuppance and the eventual uprising of Jews against their persecutors served as a useful revenge fantasy for a millennium.

Reading it today, though, the story calls to mind the insane hatred that leads to what we now call ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Jews can not allow the Purim story to be one of Jewish persecution alone. Not with genocide in Darfur – and not when we can do something about it.

Because this story is also about the responsibility that comes with power. Queen Esther – who has been chosen by the King to replace his disobedient wife – is a Jew in secret. No one, not even the King, knows that this woman is a product of this despised people chosen for extermination. When Esther learns of the decree against the Jews, though, she refuses to help. That is, she absolves herself of the responsibility that comes with her proximity to power. The author of the story makes clear that King Achashverosh is at the mercy of his advisors. This man is not a calculating, or clever, agent of change. We are led to believe that Esther could certainly change his mind if she so chose. Her initial refusal to act is a moral crime against her own people. Mordechai (who raised Esther but is not her father) sends her a note harshly reminding her of her obligation and reminding her that her own fate is bound up with that of the Jewish people.

What might this part of the story mean for us, Jews living in the most powerful nation in the world, with more political agency than any generation before us? Can’t we see in Esther’s refusal to act, and in Mordechai’s reprimand, the story of our own political passivity – and laziness – set against our shamed awareness that we ought to do something? Mordechai’s reprimand is addressed to us. Traditionally, we are commanded to make gifts for those in need on Purim – a reminder that we are not merely celebrating on this day but that we are responsible for the suffering of others. We should do this – but we can do much more. You can act by calling Becky O’Brien at Congregation Har HaShem, 303.499.7077, and asking how to help; or you can go here: www.savedarfur.org.

Celebrating Purim

This all sounds pretty heavy, and pretty far from a good time. Against this crazy backdrop, though, we are indeed commanded to celebrate. In fact, the entire month of Adar (during which Purim falls, thanks to the lots cast by Haman in deciding when to kill us) is supposed to be a time of celebration (neat fact: my son’s Hebrew initials spell ADAR). We are commanded to celebrate with much food and enough drink that we can no longer distinguish between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman.” We erase distinctions on this day in which Jewish lives and the moral universe was thrown into chaos. Thus the costumes that conceal our identity and drinking until moral categories vanish. (McCain’s equation of Halloween to Purim was actually right on. Apparently Samhain, the Pagan festival that was likely the original Halloween, was seen as a day on which the boundaries that normally structured our lives – principally the boundary between the living and the dead – were eliminated. It was thus a time of great danger and fear, which we now commemorate by eating candy and dressing like Britney Spears).

The reduction of Purim by so many Jews to hamentaschen eating, vodka drinking, and costume wearing is ironic. The story of Purim is framed in the Book of Esther by celebration – it opens with a huge banquet and eating and drinking and closes with merriment – so that the morally troubling elements of the story are cast against raucous partying. The moral dangers highlighted in the book – the danger of bloodthirsty and powerful people out to kill, a murderous public, inattentive leaders, people who refuse to accept moral responsibility and, yes, the frightening revenge (of the Jews upon their persecutors) that screams out at the end of the story – take place against this background of frivolity. In the story, this creates narrative irony and perhaps a message about the bind within which we find ourselves: tragedy and mindless playfulness are partners in human experience all the time. But the deeper irony is that we have chosen to commemorate Purim by this celebration alone while ignoring the deeper meaning of the day. Mordechai would be bummed.

Having said all this, you would not be doing your duty as a Jew if you did not eat and drink and act crazy tonight. But we have to wake up in the morning, a letter from Mordechai in our hands.