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Adam S. Ferziger
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The dilemma of Israeli Purim 

How can a nation rooted in ideas of self-rule and self-defense celebrate at a time of fragile uncertainty? Focus on hope, not victory
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza set a symbolic Shabbat table with more than 200 empty seats for the hostages, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 20, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza set a symbolic Shabbat table with more than 200 empty seats for the hostages, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 20, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The two holidays in the traditional Jewish calendar most identified with outward joy are Simhat Torah and Purim. Since the heinous events that took place this past Simhat Torah, October 7th, more than 130 Israeli citizens remain hostages, nearly 1,500 have been killed including close to 600 soldiers, and thousands – among them many reservists – continue to battle Hamas in Gaza and defend the northern border. Yet, in a few days, the “happiness bookend” of Purim will be celebrated throughout Israel. 

The Jerusalem municipality, for example, is going ahead with a major parade that includes thirty floats. For some, this massive celebratory display when so many are suffering is reprehensible. Tom Barkai, a leader of the Jerusalem advocacy group for the hostages including her own relative, was unequivocal in condemnation, “This event is a poke in the eye, a gut punch, and a knife in the heart for the families and citizens who support us.”

Indeed, many are asking: How do we experience Purim joy, when we are in the midst of so much sorrow?

One approach, expressed with great sensitivity by Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, the head of Beit Midrash Migdal Oz, is to recite a liturgical declaration voicing sympathy and asking permission from those most directly impacted to participate in the festivities (Hebrew link). This is a fitting response that addresses the emotional difficulty of observing a holiday of merriment this year. But the ongoing losses and captivity of the hostages pose a challenge to another more foundational element of Israeli Purim.

Purim is the archetypical holiday of Jewish exile. Unlike every other book of the Hebrew Bible, which either takes place in the Land of Israel or relates directly to eventually settling there, the Book of Esther focuses on the goings on in Shushan and throughout the Persian empire. Arguably Purim’s central theme is the correlation between Jewish collective welfare and the whims of the local ruler. To be sure, rabbinical literature and tradition highlight God’s “hand” in the miraculous turn of events. Nonetheless, as implied by the heroine’s name Esther, which resonates with the Hebrew word mustar (hidden), in the exile, God’s presence is “masked” behind the vicissitudes of political realities. 

For Jews living in the Diaspora, Purim was an isolated day of hope. Lacking military power and political autonomy, they drew strength from the story of their forebearers who had survived and even flourished under similar exilic circumstances. Diaspora Jews had little expectation that their restricted positions within their majority societies would change dramatically, but they aspired toward an improved existence. My late colleague Elliot Horowitz asserted that when they had the opportunity to take vengeance on their enemies, some Jews followed the lead of the Esther story. This was far from the rule, and Jews’ political condition remained tenuous to the core. 

The advent of the State of Israel recalibrated the meaning of Purim. As we have so viscerally been reminded, Israel does not lack brutal enemies. In fact, as Horowitz also noted, numerous voices have sought to draw connections between hostile Arab entities and the Amalekite Hamans throughout pre-state history. But Jewish sovereignty should be understood to have reset the equation of a vicious enemy attacking defenseless Jews. Today, when Jews in Israel are threatened, or worse, actually brutally murdered and tormented by their enemies, the State of Israel fights back with military force. 

For Israeli Jews, then, Purim still contains within it the theme of deliverance from enemies, but it is to a great degree a celebration of the end to the circumstances that made the Purim story so reflective of Diaspora Jewish life. The ultimate triumph is that Jews no longer need to depend primarily on palace manipulations in order to overcome their adversaries.

This perspective does not account for every detail – Israel is not a superpower that has full control and it must navigate its relationships with its influential allies. Nor is this understanding the precinct of every significant faction in contemporary Jewish life; there are certainly very committed Jews who do not perceive Israeli sovereignty as fundamentally changing Jewish dependency, since ultimately it is God who is in control.

For those who acknowledge and identify with the historical turn reflected in Jewish sovereignty, however, this year’s Purim celebration presents acute difficulties. On October 7th the IDF was caught unprepared. Israel’s sovereign body was assaulted and violated. Since that horrific moment, a remarkable generation of young people has stepped up, motivated to protect Israel’s citizens. Yet so far that strength has not yielded the desired results. Until the hostages return safely and security is achieved, a sense of helplessness will pervade throughout Israel. In such a situation, not only does full-blown celebration engender concerns of callousness, but it raises questions as to whether Israeli Purim is truly different from its Diaspora predecessor.

This year, a fitting Israeli Purim will reassert a theme that was once more central to the Purim experience: the focus on hope for better times. We cannot celebrate our victory over our enemies because we have yet to achieve that goal. Nor can we revel in our sense of independence, since at this juncture our efforts to take our destiny into our own hands have not succeeded. For this year, at least, we can celebrate the hope that just as in the original Purim story Mordecai was confident that, “relief and deliverance will come to the Jews,” we too can rejoice in the hope that we will reach deliverance. An emphasis on hope rather than on a victory that is currently elusive is not only more in tune with the present atmosphere throughout the country, it signals our deep wishes for the fate of the hostages rather than standing in numb indifference or worse.

As Jews have cited and responded to the Book of Esther and at the conclusion of each Shabbat for generations: “For the Jews there was light and joy, gladness and honor (Esther 8, 26) —so let it be with us!”

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.
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