It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim. The last time was in 2015, when we were in the midst of the Iran negotiations.
Well, since then the world made a deal with Iran. Trump may say that it’s a lousy deal, but he doesn’t plan on changing it soon, certainly not to Bibi’s liking. And as for the guy who’s running Trump, forget about it; Putin is telling Bibi to move on.
That’s the good news. We all know the bad news, and it’s not about Haman, either.
I wrote a few years ago that the real message of the Scroll of Esther should be that diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.
But what do I mean by “the real message.” Every story has multiple messages and morals. The one we choose says as much about what we are about as what the story is about. So my first point is: Progressives are not forced to cede interpretative rights to anybody. It is possible to focus on the particularism and the tribalism in the story. That may be justified, depending on the context. But we should be wary of the demand for relevance. A friend on FB claims that Barukh Goldstein ruined the holiday for him; another friend said the same for a revenge attack on Jewish civilians. A third said that it reminds him of settlers rejoicing over the death of Palestinian “Amaleks”.
When I think of Purim, the first thing I think of is being dressed up as part of a donkey who was led around by Haman, or was it Mordecai, when I was in elementary school. That leads to me think of Scout Finch dressed up as a ham on that fateful evening she and Jem were attacked by Bob Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird. And then my mind switches back to the festivities at the the Krieger Auditorium of the Chizuk Amunoh Congregation, where they are singing,
Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man,
And Haman was his name, sir!
But I regress….
My point is that the words of the Scroll Esther, or for that matter, Jewish liturgy, are not always to be taken literally; in some instances, they are not to be taken literally at all. Why should I, who believe in the divinity of Torah, be bound by what the text says, a text written millennia ago by people whose morality and worldview I only partially share? Yes, there are lessons to be learned — read on, progressive skeptic! — and, yes, there are passages that make me cringe. But at the end of the day, I have chosen to live my life as a Jew according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and according to my memories, the connections with school, family, shul, etc.
It wouldn’t occur to me to abandon a Jewish holiday because of a problematic text. If I did that, I would chuck most of tradition. I would much prefer wrestling with those who take the tradition over to the dark side of particularism, chauvinism, and tribalism. Can we find these things in the Scroll of Esther? Less than in Joshua, more than in Isaiah. But we can also choose to interpret it according to our moral intuitions and reasoning, which is precisely what my cultural heroes, the medieval Jewish philosophers, did. For some, that is an intellectual cop-out (hey, I teach in a philosophy department!) For me, it’s a life choice.
And now, back to Selling Purim to the Progressives 4.0
Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy. It’s not just the Scroll of Esther; it’s the Amalek thing; it’s the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it’s the Hanan Porat “Purim Sameah” (“Happy Purim”) thing (That’s what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.
Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way. And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.
Consider the following:
As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don’t worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can’t shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B- (after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did — providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.
James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters — which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do — then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality. I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.
And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture — and physical welfare– destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.
After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.
Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 12, 2017, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume). It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.