Daniel Landes

Purim perils and pogroms

Settlers pray the evening service, as cars and homes torched by settlers burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

When Adar enters, we increase…

Well, in my Jerusalem neighborhood, mimicking our nation’s descent… we increase in violence with break-ins, vandalism, robberies: the house up the street owned by a death camp child survivor; the apartment in our building of a selfless human rights advocate; the small parking area next door with its recently torched car – all in four days. And we still need to finish out the week (UPDATE: 18 hours after finishing the draft of this article: We now have a car ramming, details unclear).

Our dominant emotion is deep sorrow at the murder of three young Israelis by terrorists… At the Huwara pogrom executed by religious zealots.

Purim excites some and vexes others. Rather: it vexes some that others are excited. They fear the crossing of lines that Purim encourages – “a person is obligated to get so perfumed (inebriated) until he cannot distinguish between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ (the hero) and ‘cursed is Haman’ (the villain). The maddening merriment, wearing of masks and resulting mischievous behavior scares some when, along with costumed, cute, carefully curtailed kids, they see adults caught up in it all.

Gay students tell me that the crossing of lines is exactly what attracts them to Purim. They see conventional identity ripped apart and serial masks donned and dropped. But the crossing of lines that everyone fears is the danger of drunken behavior. Here social conservatives get in the act. Rabbis exhort about humiliations and potential loss of life. They counsel Maimonides’ dictum that “one shall drink wine and fall asleep in his drunkenness.” Asleep and harmless is good advice for all and should be mandatory for some — certainly allows for inability to distinguish between hero and villain, while, alas, rendering Purim a big snooze.

Leftist fear can be summed up in two words — Baruch Goldstein – the fear that Purim and its Megilla (Scroll of Esther) will inspire a wannabe to open fire on a group of innocents, as he did upon a group of Muslims praying at the Hebron Cave of Patriarchs, murdering 29 on Purim day, February 25, 1994. This Purim Torah literally becomes deadly serious.

The more literal translation of “cannot distinguish / vanahafochu” – is “turn it upside down.” Just as the Jewish victory was a complete reversal, we celebrate by inversion – school children pretend to be rabbis, rabbis wear baby costumes and endless variations. Baruch Goldstein was the contemporary, sinister invert: a doctor becomes the Angel of Death, a religious man murders fellow monotheists (at prayer!), and a once promising Talmudist – I tutored Benjy, as he was known, at Yeshiva University – profanes the very image of God.

The Left’s claim is that Purim panders to an aggressive instinct that Jews have (mostly) repressed during the exile. Now that Jews have guns, the Purim paradigm of ruthless revenge will create other Goldsteins.

I share the Left’s fear, but not their solutions, which usually play down Purim – limiting it to a play date for the kids or inducing an ambivalence on the very reading of the Megilla (itself an invitation to drink!).

Reading the Purim story with puckered lips doesn’t work for committed Jews. We know that those who essentially drop Purim often drop most essentials of Judaism anyway. Moreover, they fail to grasp the deep meaning of the story, ignoring the dialectic of our own situation that the Megilla actually addresses.

Comedy is serious. The Purim story is both, as a modern story about absolute power and powerlessness. It starts with the banishment of a woman, Queen Vashti, as she refuses to give up her dignity in face of the absolute demand of the absolute tyrant. Her absolute banishment from power is the equivalent of death. Meanwhile, the Jews have no power, and our heroes hide behind Persian names and behavior. Esther is absolutely beautiful and seemingly absolutely submissive. Mordecai, a court player with an ear for intel and a way to convey it to power – via his cousin Esther, achieves some of that power. And they face the absolute villain Haman from the absolute villainous family of Amalek.

Cut to the chase: Esther’s charms enchant the king to save them, and through sexual innuendo indicts Haman, eventually displayed on the high gallows built for Mordecai. Everything is absolute and everything is upside down. The tension of extermination, which Haman’s grandfather Amalek sought when the Jews left Egypt, attacking their weak flank of women and children, and which the Jews of Esther’s time nearly experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, was what Haman intended for “a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom whose laws are different than those of every other people, and who do not keep the king’s laws, and it is not for the king to tolerate them – if it please the king let it be decreed that they may be destroyed.” Absolute annihilation throughout the civilized world of Jews “both young and old, little children and women,” lets us understand how Hitler pondered if his Final Solution would be stymied, allowing Jews to create a 2nd Purim “in his honor.”

This story is serious comedy. At this juncture Esther must get permission for Jews to defend themselves and put Mordecai in a position to get the resistance organized and enlist the cooperation of the local governmental leaders. Both initiatives were successful – “the fear of Mordecai fell upon them” while the “Jews gathered themselves” for defense.

The story written in an absolute style mediates the situation of powerlessness. It allows for the situation to be absolutely validated as it simultaneously demands an exit from it. It is fantastical in a scope equal to the threat of destruction, which is also real. No wonder it is presented in the humor of the upside down – the original Jewish ironic, comedic narrative. It resembles Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds with its impossible yet thrilling alternate history of WWII; the Nazis fearing the Jewish “Bear” and the machine gunning of a terrified Hitler. Comic, but very serious. Bad taste, probably, but also surprisingly satisfying. It works because it is an updated Purim story delivering the results we fantasize about.

And the Megilla is serious. Esther and Mordecai confront a hostile host society and an implacable bureaucracy. They employ every trick to attain real but not absolute power. Mordecai wears the king’s trappings, but he is not the king. So as the Jews rise to the challenge of power, they demonstrate restraint.

Yes, restraint. There is no mention in this story of torture or of outsourcing the fight via drone warriors. Jews fight fiercely, but legally. And it is repeated “on the plunder they did not lay their hand.” They take the fight only to those who “sought their hurt” and not to those who are taking up arms against them – unlike what the zealots have done to Huwara.

The Jews of that time didn’t forget, in their sudden ascent from powerlessness to power, that the latter is always to be constrained by reality and by morality. They did not cross the line. The problem with Goldstein was – not only that he and his immoral cohorts had a megalomaniacal, racist view of Jewish power – but Goldstein’s discovery that power wasn’t, well, all that powerful. He perpetrated his massacre when he realized that limitation and sought a provocation leading to an all-out war of Jew and Arab which the Jews would be compelled to win and completely eliminate their foes.

I fear that present-day imitators – chief among them Israel’s Minister of National Security, head of the deranged Otzma Yehudit Party Itamar Ben-Gvir (who kept a large portrait of his sainted hero Goldstein hung on his living room wall) and Religious Zionism Chair and Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich – with their extremist proclamations and actions are headed in that direction. The Huwara pogrom is a preparation for the Apocalypse. This (mis)reading of the Megilla power dialectic means tragedy for all. Those who emulate Goldstein bode disaster for their own.

Baruch – I’ll remember the day before Purim when we fast in contrition. But on Purim itself, let’s read the Megilla seriously, send gifts of food to those we have problems with (I’m looking for a member of the infamous council of Kohelet), bestow gifts of money to the absolutely powerless, and pray to the Designated Driver of our lives to get us all home safely.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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