Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Two Views of Purim; and a Notable Omission

King Ahasuerus welcomes Queen Esther
This evening is the start of the festival of Purim. Here are two very different takes on the holiday.

A Jewish Carnival

It's a holiday of the absurd, says Deena Aaronoff: a Jewish carnival. Social hierarchies are suspended, gender roles get mixed up, power roles are reversed, and adults are supposed to get drunk to the point where we can't tell right from wrong. We exchange food baskets, we give charity to the poor, and, of course, we tell the story of Esther.

Carnival days in medieval Europe suspended all rules and authority in mock celebration, thereby reinforcing the very power structures that are ceremoniously upended for a circumscribed period of time. It reminds us we live in an established order, and that this order is of our own making; it works through compliant behavior.

We celebrate during the day instead of in the evening. It's wacky.

The custom involves wild costumes that break taboos which we observe the rest of the year. Children dress as kings and queens, men dress as women, serious people wear crazy costumes. It reminds us that life is a performance, that ultimately our business suits are also a costume.

And hamantashen. (Did Persian officials really wear triangular hats? Nah!) It's all good; it's Purim.

Values are inverted. We are frivolous, we suspend judgment. What is good is bad, what is up is down. Alcohol helps.

The story of Esther is also a story of reversal of fate. The word comes from the Persian "pur," for lottery. Two courtiers are set to assassinate the king; instead they are found out and hanged. Mordecai is a descendent of Jews brought to Babylon in captivity, yet his adopted daughter becomes queen. Mordecai saves the king, yet he is ignored. He is slated to be killed, yet he triumphs. The whole Jewish people are set to be annihilated, yet they come out on top. "In every generation....;" but not this time.

It raises a Purim paradox, concludes Aaronoff. The story is absurd; it's a Persian sex farce with a jealous king, a manipulating queen, twists and turns and crazy fortunes to rival Shakespeare. God makes no appearance in this story. Does it all unfold to some purpose or end? Is there a plan in the lottery, or are we sunk? Is the whole thing a matter of crazy chance?

A Manifesto of the Jewish People

It's a tale of assimilation, integration, and the assertion of Jewish peoplehood, says Shraga Bar-On, who wrote his PhD thesis on the book of Esther. 

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent Babylonian exile of the Jewish elite (597-586 BCE) came as Israel unwisely got caught up in power plays between the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians. The long lived Assyrian empire gave way to the Neo-Babylonian empire, which lasted not quite a century, roughly from 626 BCE to 539 BCE. Cyrus the Great took over Babylon in 539 BCE and this formally ended the Babylonian captivity. Jews were given permission to return to Palestine. But many of them did not. 

Neo-Babylonian Empire 626-539 BCE
In fact, many Jews did quite well in Babylon. The story of Esther, consensus has it, is set in the reign of Xerxes I, who ruled from 486-465 BCE. Mordecai, "the son of Jair, son of Shim'e'i, son of Kish, a Benjaminite" appeared quite comfortable in his life there. He adopted Hadas'sah, the daughter of his deceased uncle, who was a very beautiful girl. The extent of their assimilation in Persian society is marked by the fact that Mordecai assumed a name after a Persian god, and Hadassah changed her name to Esther after a Persian goddess. They did not speak of their Jewishness. 

Esther reached the pinnacle of success in this Persian world when she became the new queen, and Mordecai was now very close to the king's court. Life could not be better.  That is the story of assimilation. 

But fortune changed. Mordecai crossed paths with Haman, the Ag'agite, the son of Hammeda'tha, who was promoted to be the king's chief counselor. It is the position Mordecai coveted. Mordecai would not bow to Haman, and Haman became furious. 

Haman began to incite in classic anti-Semitic fashion and "Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus." 

And as noted, there was a reversal of fortune. It involved Mordecai and Esther embracing their Jewishness. Esther remained queen, Haman and his sons were hanged, and Mordecai became the King's chief counselor. Mordecai, Esther, and all the Jews were out of the closet now as proud Jews. They are proud and successful diaspora Jews; like Jews in America. That is a story of integration.

They are not Zionists, Mordecai and Esther. Notably, they feel no need to return to Israel. They have it good. They have power. Their Judaism is a worldly Judaism of the diaspora. And they have the confidence to fight back against anti-Semitism.

A Notable Omission

I like Bar-On's tale of assimilation and integration and diaspora. 

We must note, however, that this story does not end happily for Haman and his people. The story does not end with justice. Mordecai and Esther obtain a decree from the king that "allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods...." See Esther 8:9-14. But when the appointed day came, this 14th day of Adar, there was nobody to rise up against the Jews because the Jews were strong. Nevertheless, even though they were not attacked, "the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men,"  Esther 9:5-10. 

In the provinces the Jews slew 75,000 of those who hated them. And then they made a feast.

Haman's hatred of the Jews is offered as justification for the slaughter. In the video presentation (link above), Bar-On mentions Haman--and the audience begins to boo. That is their appointed role in this make-believe world of Purim. School kids act out this role everywhere with gusto and rattles. Haman is despised. He is the villain who has everything coming to him. He and his people. He is the symbol for "In every generation there will arise one who wants to smite the Jews..." Woe is us. 

For Netanyahu last year it was the Iranians and their nuclear program. This year it's knife wielding teenage girls at checkpoints and Israeli peace activists like Breaking the Silence. For Ari Shavit, in his My Promised Land, it was the Iranians and the nuclear bomb, and Arabs surrounding Israel on all sides. They hate us; they will always hate us. "In every generation...." It is used to justify the occupation, now 50 years long. 

"What is Mordecai's problem?" asks Bar-On rhetorically at 18:55 of the video. Mordecai was jealous of Haman, he suggests. He wanted to be the king's counselor. And this is true as far as it goes. "But Haman, Haman is taking Mordecai to a larger context," Bar-On continues. It is a context of age-old anti-semitism. "Haman .... is a paradigm for anti-Semitic claims," says Bar-On. 

"This is the story of anti-Semites. You can try as best as you can to assimilate, but they see you as separate!" That is how Bar-On defines the problem presented by Haman, by anti-Semites. Mordecai and Esther are a minority in the Persian environment. What should they do? Assert their Jewishness, stand their ground, and fight off the anti-Semitism, that's what they should do.

I think that is right. The danger is that in asserting a "muscular Judaism," by fighting back too much we become blind to justice. 

What Bar-On notably omits from his talk is that Haman has reason to hate the Jews. He is a descendent of king Agag of the Amalekites. And part of the story is that when the Jews first conquered Palestine, back in the days of king Saul, they did it with genocide and ethnic cleansing. With the help of God, to be sure. But it doesn't make it any nicer; it doesn't take away from the fact that the Agagites have reason to be antagonistic with the Jews in this story. 

Here is the relevant section from Samuel 1:15:
"And Samuel said to Saul, 'The Lord sent me to anoint you king of his people Israel; now therefore hearken to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'
"So Saul summoned the people and ... lay in wait in the valley. ... And he took Agag the king of the Amal'ekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the failings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed."
And there are those in Israel today who look at these words and think, we came in 1885--and the Palestinians "opposed us on the way, when we came up out of the diaspora;" and they think the Palestinians "opposed us as we pushed into the West Bank and Gaza in 1967." And they think "the Palestinians still oppose us." And so they think "We will utterly destroy them, and we will not spare them." In a recent Pew survey 48 percent of respondents said that they favor expelling Arabs from the land. Bar-On knows these things and said nothing in his talk on Haman. It's a notable omission.

Yes, there has been a reversal of fortune. But life is absurd. We live in an order of our own making, as Deena Aronoff suggests. We look at Haman and he was ultimately a loyal subject to his king. He had a wife. Normal domestic relations. His enmity was grounded in bitter experience.

It's Purim. It's a topsy turvey world. It reminds us that right wing government is not ordained. And it is not forever.

Happy Purim to all.