February 26, 2010
Let’s play a word association game. I say one word and feel free to call out the first thought that comes to your mind: Purim..… grogger…. Hamantashchen….., megillah….. spiel….., drinking….. adloyadah…. costumes… Clearly there are lots of positive, fun connections with our Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins tomorrow night and will be celebrated Sunday morning at 10:30 with the Megillah reading and our own version of Purim Idol.
I have some wonderful memories of Purim. It starts in my childhood, as it does for many of you. I recall Megillah readings and the first Purim spiel in which I performed: West Side Shushan- “When you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew all the way, from your first Bar’chu to your last dying day.” As a student in Israel, the whole city of Jerusalem celebrated with an odd custom of patishim- little plastic hammers. You walk through the city and gently bop people on the heads. As a rabbi over the years, some of my most inspiring moments have come dressed in a variety of costumes: Incredible Hulk Haman, The Wizard of Shushan, Darth Haman and too many times in drag as either Esther or Vashti to the chagrin of my children. Purim is fun for all ages.
But only in New Orleans can one teach about Purim by referring to it as akin to Mardi Gras. Think about it: Costumes, drinking, the sanctioned breaking of all sorts of social norms, parades and more. There is another level upon which it can be compared. Mardi Gras is an unofficial, unauthorized response to the serious time of Lent, a last bash before dealing with issues of denial, repentance, death and resurrection. In a similar way, Purim is a communally blessed loosening of social norms, but also in response to some serious concerns. Before we have all the fun on Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes considering the more profound aspects of the day.
We begin by examining how we as Jews function in a non-Jewish society. In the Purim story, the locale is Persia. Jews were exiled from Judah to Babylonia and then migrated to Persia as the Persians took over Babylonia. Mordecai is described as having arrived in that fashion, as well as his ward, Esther. Their status in Persian society was ambiguous. They were treated fairly and based upon the fact that Mordecai seems to be highly positioned, they must have had access to power. He is later described as one of the King’s courtiers. Still, when it came time for Esther to be a potential Queen, we read: “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” (Esther 2:10)
What is going on here and how does this resonate with us? Historically we recognize that in the past prejudice towards Jews existed, but many believed that if we blend in like all others, maybe we will go unnoticed. This was true in 19th century American history as my ancestors, the German Jews, wanted to be like everyone else. People changed names to be less identifiable or gave children good American names. For example one wealthy German Jew in the 1870s named his first son George Washington….. Seligman; the second was Thomas Jefferson….. Seligman, but then came the third son. He was all set to name him Abraham Lincoln Seligman, but decided not to do so. “Abraham” was too Jewish sounding.
Though we live in a time of great acceptance as Jews, there are still moments when we hide our identity. Sometimes it is for the sake of protection, lest we become targets; sometimes it is for advancement, when we are concerned that who we are might prevent what we would like to become, and occasionally it will be to avoid confrontation or simply conversation. Some of these reasons we can respect, while others not.
In our Purim story Mordecai’s advice and her decision to agree were strategic and eventually result in her being in a position to save lives. Though it is just a story, (I hate to break it to you. There is no factual base to this saga.) Still, like many good stories, it serves to instruct us. Their decision enabled them to save Jewish lives from the persecuting Haman. Perhaps that can become our guiding principle. Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life is the only real justification for denying who we are as Jews.
The second and probably the most prominent concern found in the Purim story is that of anti-Semitism and genocide. This is the story of a man, who not only wanted to persecute Jews. It was his goal to totally eliminate us. We call this today, genocide. It all begins with Haman’s words to the King, words which have been reiterated in one form or another for centuries:
“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”
This is the classical presentation of Jews as “Other.” We are perceived as different, all over the world. We don’t play by the same rules, worship God differently, have different holidays, customs, values, and are therefore to be feared, certainly not tolerated. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the great Talmudists of our time writes:
“It was the first display of anti-Semitism in history. Haman and all his collaborators were indeed defeated, yet over the generations we discovered that anti-Semitism may have started with Haman, but it did not end with him. Amalek’s seed is still in the world, and it flourishes even in our cosmopolitan and enlightened era.”
The Purim story prompts us to ask the question: Why has there been and does there continue to be anti-Semitism? Over the years as I have taught on this subject, I provide a number of approaches, to understand the origins of antipathy toward Jews, none of them definitive.
First is nationalism. From the time we were a nation, like all nations there have been conflicts and competitions, attempts to defeat and conquer us. I think of the Biblical stories of the Egyptians, the Philistines and the Babylonians in this way. Similarly, though we speak of religious freedom, the roots of Chanukah are really more of battle between two nations. Jumping two thousand years, I would argue that much of the rhetoric and violence in the world today towards Jews by Moslems is really more nation based than religious.
Of course religion has played a significant role in anti-Semitism, particularly after we had no national base of our own. Judaism and Christianity were competing ideologies at the beginning. However, once Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and became the dominant faith of Europe, anyone who did not embrace that position was a heathen. I need not go into all the various attitudes and teachings about Jews that have been the result.
Suffice it to say that for centuries and for some, but NOT ALL, even to this day, the continued existence of Jews and Judaism is an affront and an ill that needs to be eradicated.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jews do not have all the money. However, going back to the Middle Ages, we have been depicted as avaricious and unscrupulous. The origin of this is the roles in which we were placed: Money lenders- where we all know how much we like to receive loans when needed, but dislike when the loans come due with interest; Tax collectors- a role which to this day, though necessary, is always looked down upon. Ask anyone who works for the IRS. Merchants- in a time when the middle class just started, we became the intermediaries between the rich and the poor. We supplied products, which were attained by bargaining over price, where each side haggled to gain position. Again, I allude to the comparable modern attitude towards car salesman. From those roots and the relative success of Jews in America come the contemporary stereotypes with which we are familiar.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, concepts of race evolved out of Darwin’s teachings on evolution. A biological observation and theory mutated into a formula for Nazi genocide.
I can go on with explanations as to the origins and continued reality of anti-Semitism, prejudice towards us, discrimination and acts of violence. The various explanations over the years mix and mingle depending upon the time and the incidents. However, understanding origins does not change or justify reality. To some extent we delude ourselves if we think that rationality and education can eradicate prejudice. While it might be successful in most cases, it certainly will not in all.
Rabbi Steinsaltz comments further: “The fact such explanations are so numerous proves there is no truth to them and that they merely serve as a veneer for a more basic and hidden matter. That is, just like the existence of the people of Israel, despite all the suffering and distress, is an inexplicable mystery, anti-Semitism is also mysterious.”
This is a rather fatalistic attitude. He argues, that no matter what we do, anti-Semitism will reappear in one form or another. Our continuing challenge is that we know the disease, but not the cure. Sad to say, like many diseases there is no absolute cure, only strategies to work on prevention and then approaches to deal with outbreaks.
We turn to educational programs like the Jewish Chautauqua Society, providing education about Jews and Judaism on the college campuses; Like the Anti Defamation League’s programs on tolerance and understanding; Like Tulane’s Southern Institute, which for many years has brought Holocaust survivors to high schools throughout the south, bursting myths and creating connections.
When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head whether locally, nationally or internationally, we must label it for what it is. We cannot hide or gloss over it, as we have learned that that posture is ineffective. Like Mordecai, we adopt strategies which can deal with it and fight against it. We can use the laws of our land to denounce it for what it is, seeking like minded allies, people of all faiths, in the process. We can enlist our government to deal with global expressions. Ultimately we have learned that we must protect ourselves, lest we underestimate those who would do us in.
And then there is the Purim approach, where when dealing with hatred towards us, we laugh at its absurdity as a way of coping, lest we make ourselves paranoid. We make fun of the perpetrators. We use humor. Recently I heard a recasting of an old joke:
Two Israelis were on a bus each reading a newspaper, when one looked at the other and asked, how could he be possibly reading a Palestinian newspaper. The man responded, “when I read Haaretz, I hear about Jewish struggles, violence and economic woes. When I read the Palestinian paper I read that the Jews are a united community, who control the world, have all the money and all the power. I like their version of us better than our own.” The first time I heard this joke it was about two Jews riding on a subway during World War II and one was reading the Bundist paper. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
My friends, we are Esther. When danger to the Jewish community loomed on the horizon, Mordecai told her, she should not think that she is immune. Rather he asks: “Who knows perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?”
Reflecting upon our relative comfort and safety here in America, we can ask ourselves the same question. We are not as powerful as others think, but neither are we impotent to respond and react when needed.
Let us celebrate Purim with song and joy, silliness and fun. Shake our groggers, laugh at the Purim shpiels, drink until we do not know, eat lots of Hamantaschen, but let us also remember the serious concern that is at its root.