Why I stopped celebrating Purim

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had hoped to have power of them, the opposite happened and the Jews themselves gained power on those who hated the,. Throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, the Jews gathered together in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt…….So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies…..in the fortress of Shushan, the Jews killed a total of five hundred men (and they also killed the ten sons of Haman , the foe of the Jews)…..and the Jews in Shushan gathered again on the fourteenth day of Adar and slew three hundred men in Shushan…….and the rest of the Jews, –those in the king’s provinces—likewise gathered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing 75,000 of their foes…….and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking.” (From chapter 9 of the Book of Esther)

On the day before Purim in February 1994, I woke up in my home in Jerusalem to the news that Baruch Goldstein had massacred 29 (and wounded 125) innocent  Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Goldstein, an American immigrant to Israel who had joined Meir Kahane’s far-right anti-Arab Kach movement, was following in the footsteps of the Jews of the mythical town of “Shushan” in the book of Esther in the Bible, who took vengeance on the citizens of their country after having been saved from destruction by Mordechai and Esther, by killing more than 75,000 of the innocent citizens of his city. Goldstein took the messages of hatred, retribution and vengeance of Purim all too seriously.

That was it. I had enough. I did not want to be part of this dangerous and destructive holiday that celebrates our survival as a people at a terrible cost to our humanity and our ethical heritage. I did not want to recall or commemorate this reverse pogrom, committed by ancestors of my people, against another people, with no necessity since the victory had already been achieved by diplomatic means. Nor did I want to celebrate this holiday by shouting down the name of “Haman” like an idiot in a synagogue full of screaming Jews. Nor did I want to get drunk and become a hooligan, so that I would not know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Nor did I want to perpetuate the teaching of hatred and enmity to my children and grandchildren.

Actually, when I grew up in my father’s synagogue — Temple Beth Sholom (“House of Peace”) in Miami Beach, Florida, a long time ago, we were never told the whole story of Purim. Rather, we were given the abridged version, which did not include the horrific part at the end of the book where the Jews get violent and take vengeance on the people of Shushan and its environs (it was a Reform/Liberal synagogue which prefers to teach us ethical behavior and eschewed extremist violence). Ignorance was bliss. It was better not to know the end of the story.

Only when I got to college did I actually read the whole megillah of Esther for the first time, but somehow it didn’t bother me much back then. But after I got to Israel, and heard the last chapters read with gusto and enthusiasm, it began to bother me.

Many of the fellow settlers of Baruch Goldstein in “the Territories” (The West Bank or “Judea and Samaria”) are still alive and well, and they continue to venerate his example every day. One of them, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg — an extremist rabbi who preaches and teaches hatred and vengeance — even wrote a book in praise of Goldstein called Baruch Hagever, which has been a classic among extremist religious settlers, many of whom don’t wait for Purim but incite to hatred and carry out acts of violent vengeance against Palestinians almost every day all year long.  And they have thousands of supporters among so-called “religious” right wing extremist Jews all over Israel (and abroad).

After many years in Israel, I learned about the habit of avoiding Purim by some prominent Jewish Israelis in the past. In particular, Professor Ernst Simon — who was a revered Jewish philosopher and peace activist in Israel for many decades and worked closely with Martin Buber — travelled from his home in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv when it was Purim in Jerusalem in order to avoid the noise, nuisance and nonsense of Purim, not to mention the hateful and vengeful nature of the holiday.

My wife and I will do the same this year. We will go to Tel Aviv to avoid Purim.

But we will be sure to be in Jerusalem for Passover, the great holiday of freedom, in which we welcome all who are hungry to our seder, during which we remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt and why we need to be kind and compassionate to “the stranger” in our midst, since we were slaves in the land of Egypt. This is a holiday I can enjoy and celebrate!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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