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Purim and the birth of the interpretive tradition

The story of our complicated lives: God is hidden, reality is uncertain, and events are open to interpretation

According to our Sages, Purim signifies a significant change in the attitude of the Jewish people towards how we encounter God. This shift is analogous to changes in our own time.  In the First Temple period and prior to that, God was perceived to intervene in human events in direct and sometimes miraculous ways. The primary mode of religious guidance was prophecy. In the story of Purim, however, the people are saved through the very human intrigue of Mordechai and Esther. God, we assert as a matter of faith, orchestrates events behind the scenes.

If one were to lose their donkey in biblical times, as Saul did, they would turn to the prophet for assistance (I Samuel 9).  In the post biblical era, however, we rely upon the principles spelled out in tractate Bava Metzi’ah for claiming lost property. This curious point characterizes the shift of which I speak; a movement from queitistic acceptance of the Word of God toward human initiative powered by a healthy sense of autonomy and faith in our own ability to interpret our situation.

The following well known aggadah emphasizes this shift:

Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: […]the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus… (Shabbat 88a).

This aggadah is saying that the story of the Jewish people in Persia, the mortal threat posed by Haman, and their deliverance at the hands of Esther and Mordechai, precipitated a paradigm shift in how we come to understand our relationship with God and the Torah. The giving of the Law at Sinai was characterized by an overwhelming divine presence which in effect deprived the people of their free will. In the presence of such intense Spirit, the People had no choice but to accept the Torah. Generations later, this way of relating to Torah and its authority no longer reflected the reality of the people. Historical reality no longer abides such intense divine presence. After the destruction of the Holy Temple and living in history as we have come to experience it – the Hand of God hidden in the terror as well as the day to day – the people required a relationship with God which they found meaningful and real which spoke to their experience. The God of miracles, of thunder and lightning no longer spoke to them. They required and found a subtle God who reveals Himself through the interpretive process of life.

I wish to flesh out three characteristics of the post biblical era which emerge from the Purim story.

  • God is hiddenHaman […] the enemy of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, the lot) to consume them and to destroy them. (Esther 9:24)

The casting of lots is central to the story; the name of the holiday, Purim, is derived from this episode. The Purim reality is experienced as truly random and bereft of meaning. This is the human experience in the face of the perceived absence of God.

  • Reality is uncertain – When Esther hesitates to take action for her fellow Jews, Mordechai says, ” And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). This indicates that the situation is uncertain and requires faith.
  • Events are open to interpretation – The story unfolds over 10 years and can easily be read as a random chain of events sprinkled with curious coincidences. Meaning is inserted into the story through human interpretation – attributing developments to Providence.

Thus hiddenness of God, faith and the need to interpret reality are inextricably bound together. In the pre-Purim world characterized by clarity, “faith” in God is very challenging and comprehension of divine prophecy obviates the need for human interpretation.

In the words of the Mei HaShiloah (1800-1854) “That which is not hidden does not require faith; only that which is hidden requires faith” (Beshalah)

God’s interaction with Israel in the biblical era was characterized by prophecy. The relationship with God in the post-biblical era is characterized by interpretation. It is no coincidence that the development of our vast Oral tradition took place in the post-Purim environment.

How is this insight relevant for us today?

The mode of interpretation is based upon two principles which resonate for us.

  • Along with the hiddenness of God a heightened awareness of human autonomy and empowerment emerges. This is coupled (in the good scenario) with a deep sense of sacred responsibility and humility.
  • Interpretation begins with the self. In the words of the Tanya, 

“…for man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand – all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of will or the essence of wisdom or of understanding… and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself” (Sha’ar Hayihud Veha’emuna, ch. 8).

And similarly in the Meor Eiynayim of R. Nachum Chernobler (1730-1787) People see in the Torah according to who they are as human beings. He in whom evil resides will see evil in the Torah.” (Shmot)

We continue to live in the same theological universe as Mordechai and Esther. When we absorb the two principles above we can become aware of the spiritual potential inherent in the new era. Since the Purim story, humanity has become even more self-aware as autonomous and empowered. This historical process makes religious belief very challenging. Providence can easily be denied and the burden of “proof” rests with the believers. At the same time, though, the situation presents exciting spiritual opportunity. Rather than founding our faith on exterior phenomena such as miraculous history or the beauty and order found in the universe, we can begin with our enhanced sense of ourselves as the anchor of our faith in God. It becomes up to us to invest ultimate meaning into our lives by accessing ourselves when it comes to interpreting reality.

We should not underestimate the difficulty in the move from exterior-based religiosity to a faith which is rooted in personal experience.  The 21st Century is a very confusing time. Ideas and values which were taken for granted for many years are no longer certain. We can sympathize with those who need to anchor their religious commitments and beliefs in Certainty.

Though the way of certainty grants comfort to some, it is alienating for many. It is unfortunate that as a consequence of our insecurities and feeling of being embattled, much of religious society has regressed to the pre-Purim authority based model which longs for Certainty; this is insufficient for our contemporary reality. Those who study halakha deeply know that it is an interpretive process in which we bring ourselves (our conceptions, sensibilities and even our biases) to the holy texts we interpret. Our human qualities are the filters through which we perceive the divine revelation. Such is the nature of Divine revelation today – it can be no other way. In order for the Torah to survive and thrive we need to embrace the subtlety and responsibility of the post-Purim era.

About the Author
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem. It is a beit midrash for advanced rabbinic studies for men and women. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל, and received smikha from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל at Yeshivat Har Etzion where he studied for ten years. Rabbi Hefter taught Yoreh De'ah to the Kollel fellows at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the first Torah MiZion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. He has written numerous articles related to modernity and Hasidic thought. His divrei Torah and online shiurim can be accessed at www.har-el.org
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