A Holiday for Our Lower Nature

As a student of religion, I wonder why it is that the two least Jewish behaviors take place at the same time. On the surface, evoking old hatred and erasing names from history does not accord with a religion whose ‘ways are sweet,’ and drunkenness is not what comes to mind when one speaks of constantly being in God’s presence. And yet, here we are on the same day of the Hebrew calendar — the holiday of Purim — jeering and stomping our feet as someone’s name is being mentioned; and vowing to annihilate the descendants of Amalek just a few days earlier, all while drinking more than enough wine to cloud our judgement.

Maybe this is no coincidence: perhaps Judaism is trying to suggest that there is room for our lower instincts, provided that they are properly channeled — if they are directed to their intended ends. That is to say hatred and deep resentment are part of the human psyche and they can serve a useful purpose, but only if what emerges is a resentment of those who are godless and intolerant, as Amalek was of our young nation.

This interpretation might be supported by an alternate reading of the commandment of “uprooting Amalek from under the heavens”: the mi in this verse is not describing the area from which they are to be wiped out but the source of the initiative. The human emotion, from which this goal of destroying them comes, is below the heavens — seemingly, it is a feature of our lowest qualities. But there is room for those aspects of our character if they are directed at uprooting evil.

Similarly, even drunkenness has a place, provided it reminds us of “ad de-lo yada,” that is, how little we know, meaning that our estimation of what is to be blessed and cursed is sometimes not as accurate as we think. In a world where everyone is certain of everything, maybe there is room for that too.

About the Author
Jonathan Milevsky holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Broughton Park Dialogue Group in the U.K. His book, Understanding the Evolving Meaning of Reason in David Novak's Natural Law Theory (Brill) is out later this week.
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