The danger of not getting hammered on Purim
There’s a lot to like about Purim. Normal middle class decorum is suspended; dressing up encouraged (providing a one day a year outlet for closet transvestites); drinking mandated; satire traditional; God relegated and mindless fun is order of the day. It serves as the Jewish Mardi Gras, an outpouring of emotion and play before the preparations for Pesach begin, but also a Jewish All Fools Day, where everything is turned on its head, one in which Purim shpiels offer an explicit opportunity to satirise rabbis and others in positions of power. What’s not to like? There are always those, usually of a Yekkishe bent, who find the whole thing an embarrassment that violates their deeply held notion of decorum. People like these insist that Purim should be ‘just for the kids’, they frown upon excessive (or any) drinking, and they’re damned if they’ll wear more than a token costume. For them, the point of Purim (if they deign to mark it at all) is to read the Megillah and remember the story of Jewish survival – all the customs that have grown up around the festival are barbarous relics of our folk culture.
Bullshit. The customs of Purim represent the only (safe) way to read the Megillah.
The book of Esther is a thumping, juicy tale – a Arabian nights fantasy of banquets, sex (Ahasuerus ‘tries out’ each of the applicants for queen for one night each) intrigue, confused identity and murder. It’s a dystopian vision – to read it straight is a monstrosity. While the immorality of the Persian characters was emphasised and embellished by Rabbinic commentaries, the behaviour of the Jewish characters is harder to justify. The heroic couple have Persian names ( The name Hadassah for Esther is only used once at the start) and are evidently based on the Babylonian Gods, Ishtar and Marduk. Mordechai has few doubts about pimping his niece/daughter out to a gentile king, and no Jews seem to have any qualms about the resulting intermarriage. As if to hammer the point home, unlike all the other books of the Hebrew Bible, Megillat Esther does not mention God once. Its a fun world, but a dark one.
So far, so petty. Who needs a Biblical text to be morally upstanding? The notion that the heroes of the Bible are flawed is familiar from countless (and usually mind-numbing) drashot and sermons.
But it gets a lot nastier. While most Jewish readers remember the main story of Esther they conveniently gloss over the end. Haman has been killed, Esther is safe, but there is the small matter of Haman’s decree that the Jews should killed on the 12th of Adar to deal with. As revoking royal edicts is not the done thing, the king gives Esther and Mordechai the chance to write a new decree. They take the opportunity with gusto, and write a decree giving them the right to ‘destroy, massacre and exterminate’ (8:11 JPS translation). This they do and after two days of violence (they get another day of killing in Shushan, you know, just for luck) the text tells us that they’d killed 75,000 of their enemies.
Contemporary Jewish readers, when pushed to deal with this, make a number of apologetic point:
a) It was a more violent time, everyone did that kind of thing. Yes, ok, but why read it now?
b) It’s all fictional, don’t take it so seriously etc. Yes, true, but we still read it don’t we?
c) It’s ok – they were really bad people. I wouldn’t have included this given it’s obvious stupidity, if it wasn’t for the fact that this does get said “Since the Jews were given a unique chance to attack their enemies, it was appropriate to take the opportunity to kill those people who would undoubtedly take the opportunity to kill them if such an opportunity would ever arise”
d) Cut the last bit out altogether. This approach was practiced by Chief Rabbi Marcus Adler, who produced a Bowdlerized version of the story in 1877. It’s bold, but also unsatisfactory, if the remainder of the text is being read – it’s a case of ignoring the problem rather than dealing with it
d) The behaviour in the story was self-defence. This is seemingly the best case, and the most common apologetic. Let’s examine why it’s wrong
There is little textual evidence that, by the time of the violence, the Jews of the story are under any threat whatsoever. Haman’s plot is discovered a full 11 months before his decree is due to be carried out; from then on the Jews have all resources of the Persian state at their disposal, with the King giving Esther the right to ‘write with regard to the Jews whatever you see fit….and sign it with the King’s signet’ (8.8). There is no description of gentiles planning their attack or of fear on the part of the Jews, on the contrary: “There was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them (8:17). During the violence, the text describes the Jewish side as in total control: “The Jews got their enemies in their power” (9:1), No one could withstand them [the Jews], for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples” [9.2], “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies
From this, it should be obvious that, according to the text, the Jews are not acting self defensively, they kill at best pre-emptively, and at worst, in an unprovoked massacre. The only point of counter textual evidence is the use of the term ‘enemies’ – which some take as a clue that the gentiles deserved to be massacred, along with all their women and children (8:11). This is clutching at straws – the text is clearly written from the perspective of the Jewish side – the fact that it calls these people enemies simply reflects on the perception of the Jewish characters. If we all had the right the slaughter all those we deem our enemies……..
Isn’t what you’ve written rather dangerous?
Yes. So to be very clear. This story is MADE UP. There’s no evidence that it ever happened. I think that if Persian Jews had actually done what the story says there might be some records of it in Persian sources. But there’s always a danger, when writing about the Hebrew Bible, that naive readers (and believers) will think that this is how JEWS REALLY ARE. In this mindset, one simply looks at the text of the ‘Old Testament’ and one understands ‘the Jew.’ This is nonsense, but has a long ignoble history. Some Christian thinkers saw their own antisemitic outlook reflected in the pages of Esther. Martin Luther fell in to this trap: “I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much” (In Elliot Horowitz’ translation of Luther it reads “too Jewish”). German bible scholar Carl Heinrich Cornill wrote in 1891 that in Esther “all the worst and most unpleasing features of Judaism here are displayed without disguise”, and this trend reached a hideous nadir in Nazi Germany, when, for example De Sturmer connected the case of a Jewish chemist alleged with torturing a cat to “the slaughter of 75,000 Persians in the Book of Esther” (Saul Friedlander Nazi Germany and the Jews). Just before his execution following the Nuremberg trials, Julius Streicher cried out ‘Purimfest 1946’. This was a chilling to claim that the book of Esther was being reenacted , a vile absurdity given that no Jews died in the book of Esther and the Nazis had just murdered 6 million. Of course the idea that something said by a prominent Nazi is automatically invalid is about as convincing as the ‘Hitler was a vegetarian’ line of argument, but this does give us cause to tread more carefullly. Let us say categorically: to assume that one can learn about Jews from the pages of the bible is an insane piece of essentialism; large parts of the bible are fictional, Judaism has never been solely defined by the Bible, and crucially, Jews are as different from one another as any other group. Jews are not intrinsically violent because Jews are not intrinsically anything. Those who practice Judaism choose to read and interpret the biblical texts – they are not the subjects of them, and cannot be defined by them.
So it’s all ok then?
Not quite. The trouble is that many contemporary Jewish readers practice an essentialism of their own, viewing the passivity of the Jews in the first half of the story as representative of Jewish experience in the diaspora and the gentile characters typical of antisemites through history. This is, though few seem to realise it, simply the reverse of the antisemitic essentialism outlined above. The belief often has the discursive result that Jews (especially in the diaspora) are seen to be always and everywhere victims of violence and never aggressors. The relatively small amounts of political power held be Jews historically render this attitude understandable – but Jews, like gentiles are individual agents; there can be no textual predictor of how they will behave. Sometimes, the urge to argue that the Jews in the Esther story are acting in self defence rather than in attack stems from the underlying (and often unconscious) that Jewish violence is, and always will be purely in self defence. This is a theological essentialisation posing as textual or historical analysis. It might have been reasonable when Jews had relatively little political power, and the book of Esther could be enjoyed as a revenge fantasy that would and could never be enacted, especially in periods of intense persecution. In a position where a state calls itself a Jewish state, with a army that draws on Jewish texts for its code of ethics this is just not good enough. This was made especially clear in 1994 when religious settler Baruch Goldstein walked in to The Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and shot 29 Muslims at prayer. On Purim. The date is unlikely to have been a coincidence. While most of the instances of Purim violence by Jews through history, as documented by Elliot Horowitz, are highly petty (such as tipping urine out of windows on to gentile heads), the text is transformed into something much more dangerous when Jews hold political power within a highly militarised society. In too many ultraorthodox circles, comparisons between Palestinians (and liberal Jews) and Amalekites are commonplace. Most recently, the extremist religious work ‘Torat Hamelech’ (condemned by most of mainstream Orthodoxy), which justifies violence against Palestinians, draws upon the book of Esther and its commentaries.
So what do we do, drop the whole thing?
That was the approach of many enlightened and reformist inclined Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the British Liberal Judaism movement, who explicitly hoped that Purim would die out. They were concerned primarily by the festival’s lack of decorum, but some, like Liberal Judaism co-founder Claude Montefiore articulated moral concerns, describing the end of Esther as ‘a massacre of unresisting gentiles’ and arguing that “if the Bible had not included the book of Esther it would have gained rather than lost in religious value and moral worth”. In a recent and amusing post on the blog Micha’s Paradigm Shift, the author, through the voice of Vashti, reborn as a psychoanalyst, advocates:
“Complete abstinence from the festival of Purim. Start the detoxification regime now and start to sober up”
It’s a tempting suggestion. But it’s flawed. Instead of sobering up we need to drink more.
There are many reasons why we shouldn’t dump Purim – it provides a bacchanalian moment which the Jewish year otherwise lacks, as well as offering an annual opportunity to undermine the unthinking decorum that stifles middle class Jewish society. To drop it would stink of the Yekkish/pseudo-Protestant attempt to rob jewishness of all its weird, transgressive and subversive elements in order to recast it as a religion of reflection and bourgoise morality. A rich, thick, inebriated, dirty jewishness has a chance of remaining a compelling way of life, a souped up liberalism with watered down ritual does not. Our call is for radical rather than liberal Judaism, the whole-life Jewishness of the east end rather than the narrow, worship-led Judaism of the west. To be true to this we have to reread rather than abandon, to subvert from within rather than walk away.
More specifically, weird, and perhaps unjustifiable rituals can play important psychological roles – the practice of Tish Ba Av (largely abandoned by Liberal and Reform Judaism) provide a ritualised, collective outlet for loss – the idea of mourning for the temple becomes merely a hook for bringing out, and being permitted to dwell on, our darkest psychological baggage. Similarly, Purim provides an outlet for our besest instincts toward violence and revenge. The fact that these instincts are not pleasant does not mean that most of us don’t have them. If we deny them an outlet at Purim we run the risk of them surfacing elsewhere.
The trick, of course, is to provide a safe outlet. And this, strangely enough, is what the rabbinic customs of Purim create. They prioritise gift giving, both to the poor and to friends. The reading of the Megillah, word for word is commanded – because through reading we get to express our violent instincts without engaging in any violence. It is, in Jeremy Schonfield’s description “ the classic rabbinic posture of transforming actions….words into speech-acts which take the place of perfomance”. Similarly, the commandment to wipe out Amalek is transformed in an injunction to simply read the passage expressing this, and Pesikta Rabbati 12.9 has God say: “ My children, you need only read every year the passage concerning Amalek, and I shall reckon it for you as though you were blotting his name out from the world”. Do not kill: only read – we could do a lot worse for a summation of Jewish ethics.
Further more, there is a crucial Talmudic injunction to drink on Purim – until one cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’ (Megillah 7b). This is not talking about becoming a little tipsy – to get to such a point of confusion one needs to be absolutely paralytic. We should be so wasted that we can barely remember the experience of reading the megillah the next morning, it is just a nasty, violent dream. This is an appropriate ritual for reading such a bloody, godless text – this is the only way to read Esther. In Schonfield’s bold suggestion, the commandment hints at the fact that there is little moral difference between the behaviour of Haman and Mordechai – a thought that would be too scary to contemplate if we weren’t too drunk to dwell upon it. We recreate a dark world, god is absent, we boo, we cheer, and we express (textually) our bloody fantasies: all drenched in leveling, blurring and salvational alcohol.
This seems to me a plausible defence of continuing to celebrate Purim and continuing to read the Megillah – in this and no other way. But, given the horrific ways the text has been, and continues to be read, a few further steps are necessary. Non-orthodox Jews should be quite explicit about the fictional nature of the text. Orthodox Jews who cannot bring themselves to make this step should follow the approach of Rav Kalonimus Kalmish Shapiro, (1889-1943) who argued that ‘the violence at the end of the text is specific to the story and should not be expected or desired at any other point in history’. The convention of expanding the definition of Amalek to ‘enemies’, be they Palestinians or Iranians (Netanyahu hilariously gave Obama a copy of Esther as ‘background reading on Iran’) has to be stopped. Finally we must firmly take on the prevailing ‘settler Judaism; (which extends far beyond settlers) which attempts to make literal what rabbinic Judaism deferred, metaphorised or turned into a speech-acts, be it reading the promised land as an actual destination, Jerusalem as real estate, the messiah as a man set to arrive imminently or the practice of reading of violent texts as mandating actual acts of violence.
There is one further, subtle, but significant step – a way to read a critique of the text directly into our public reading of the text. It’s a technique that relies on a high level of cultural literacy, but this has never been a problem in Judaism, where all the best stuff is reserved for those who are prepared to dig beneath the surface. There is a tradition of using cantillation as commentary, creating a new meta-text in performance in which the music may convey a meaning different to the text itself. This tradition is essentially an oral one and is utiised in the reading of the Megillah, when certain verses are traditionally sung to the trope for Eicha, (Lamentations), a tragic text describing the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. This has the effect of giving certain verses a tragic overtone; we read them but they are transformed in the process. I suggest we could adopt this practice for the end of the Megilah, reading 9:1-19 in Eicha trop, using the music associated with violence against Jews to portray the violence the Jews in the story perpetrate against others. To demonstrate distaste in a way which doesn’t condemn us to a watered down ritual life without bacchanalian excess. We continue to read the text but we subvert it from the inside. It’s a small step, but, in an era of Jewish political power, it’s the least we can do.
N.B. No gentiles were harmed in the writing of this article
Elliot Horowitz Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence
Jeremy Schonfield Esther: Beyond Murder
Jill Hammer A Violent Ending