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David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Purim and the awakening of Jewish identity

The question on many people’s minds these days is, how can we celebrate Purim—a day that commemorates the victory of the Jews over our enemies during Persian times—in the midst of a war, which is far from over and with the outcome still unclear, against our enemies today?

Some have suggested that celebrating Purim today is a sign of hope and faith that just as we emerged victorious then, we will emerge victorious today. Nonetheless, I would like to suggest another reason for celebrating Purim today, despite the circumstances or perhaps because of them, which has to do with a theme of the holiday that is as true now as it was back then—the awakening of Jewish identity.

Let us examine the story as told in Megillat Esther, focusing on what it reveals about the nature of Jewish identity at the time. The story begins by describing the lengthy and lavish banquet that King Ahasuerus gave to the officials and courtiers within the hundred and twenty-seven provinces under his rule. The King then extended the banquet to include “all the people who lived in the fortress of Shushan, high and low alike” (Esther 1:5). While only royal wine is mentioned explicitly in the text, I believe it is safe to assume that the banquet included non-kosher food and delicacies as well. And since the text says that the banquet was attended by “all”, we must assume that the Jews partook of this banquet along with everyone else (and according to the students of R. Shimon b. Yochai, Haman’s decree was divine punishment for this egregious violation of Jewish law. See Tractate Megillah 12a). In other words, the Jews of Shushan were apparently not very “Jewish” in their observance of the Jewish dietary laws.

Furthermore, the names of the main characters in the Megillah are not particularly Jewish, to say the least. The name Mordechai apparently derives from “Marduk”, the chief god of Babylon, and the name Esther from the Babylonian goddess “Ishtar”. Now, even if the religious significance of these names was forgotten over time, and even if Esther was also known by her Hebrew name “Hadassah”, the fact that the heroes of the story are known by distinctly Babylonian names points to a great degree of assimilation within Persian society. The extent of this assimilation is reflected further in the fact that, even if Esther was taken into the king’s palace against her will, and even if she had avoided non-kosher foods as some rabbis claim (a claim that cannot be substantiated by the text), her Jewishness was not evident in her physical appearance, as that was revealed much later in the unfolding of the story. Furthermore, the fact that Mordechai’s identity as a Jew was unknown until he refused to bow down to Haman, suggests that there was nothing distinctively Jewish in his appearance either. Finally, while Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, either because of Jewish ethnic pride—Jews should not bow down to a descendant of Israel’s archenemy Amalek—or because of his religious conviction that it is inappropriate to bow down to anyone other than God, the fact that he was the only Jew willing to take a stand on this issue is clear evidence of the sad and sorry state of Jewish identity at the time.

Nevertheless, there was a dramatic turning point later in the story, after Haman was hung, after a new edict was issued permitting the Jews to assemble and fight for their lives, and after Mordechai left the king’s palace dressed in royal garb. It is at this juncture that the Jews gathered together and celebrated as a people, “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (8:16). Indeed, their presence as a people was so commanding that many non-Jews were mityahadim (8:17)—meaning either professing or pretending to be Jews—out of fear for their own safety and wellbeing. Thus, the Jews who earlier lacked an awareness of, or interest in, their identity as a people, had an awakening, and were now proudly taking control of their own destiny.

But the story is not only about the awakening of the Jews as a people; it is about their claiming ownership and responsibility for the development and perpetuation of Jewish tradition. Although the celebration of Purim began spontaneously, and although Mordechai initiated Purim as an annual festival, it did not become binding until the people themselves accepted it as an obligation (see 9:17-28).

Finally, the distinctly Jewish nature of Purim can be seen in the contrast between the feast of Ahasuerus at the beginning of the story and the feast of the Jews at the end. The former held a feast to “display the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty” (1:4) whereas the latter held a feast, in the spirit of Judaism, as an occasion for “sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor” (9:22).

Thus, aside from being a celebration of victory of the Jews over their enemies, Purim is a celebration of the awakening of Jewish identity after it had been forgotten, overlooked or dormant for so long.

And it is for this reason that we should celebrate Purim this year without any hesitation or concern. For although the war is ongoing and with no end in sight, and perhaps because of it along with the dramatic rise in antisemitism, there has already been a remarkable awakening of Jews to their Jewish identity, to Jewish life and tradition, to their sense of belonging and to their connectedness to Jews around the world.

Happy Purim!!

 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content. https://www.facebook.com/Rabbi.Dr.David.Harbater https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-harbater-07425951/?originalSubdomain=il
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