In this week’s parasha, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom adds to last week’s commentary on the problematic nature of Purim, and questions if it should even be celebrated in a “religious” context at all anymore.
By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom
Culinarily, Judaism’s delights go by many names: Purim’s special baked goods are called Hamentaschen (derived from the German Mohntaschen, “pockets of poppy seed”), Orecchi D’aman and Ozney Haman. You don’t need more than basic Italian and Hebrew to realize how low this holiday has brought us: if you hadn’t lost your appetite hearing Esther requesting permission for the Jews of Shushan to hang (or possibly impale) Haman’s ten sons and enjoy another day of carnage, during which they killed 75,000 more people (defenseless, to be sure, as “no one stood up to them” – chapter 9, verse 2), knowing you’ve been eating someone’s ears is sure to make you sick to your stomach. Then again, drinking to excess, some people’s way of observing this holiday, has been known to produce the same result, and I find that just as revolting.
Last week’s Torah teaching by my friend and colleague Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, which is still on the website, was an impassioned plea for a redefinition of Purim: that the memory of our close escape from genocide at the hands of Amalek and Haman should motivate a universal condemnation of genocide, that from “never again” to us, we learn “never again” to anyone. And since Purim leaves it mark on the Shabbat that follows it just as colors the Shabbat that precedes it, I’m devoting this week’s Parashat HaShavu’a teaching to follow up on Moshe’s theme with the suggestion that by cleaning up our act first, we will be in better shape to achieve his dream. A quick glance at this week’s Torah and Haftarah readings will help pave our way:
Some things simply cannot be said. When Moses tries to rationalize the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to their bereaved father, Aaron, in parashat shimini, the text tells us, vayidom Aharon – Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3). No clearer rebuke to Moses’ insensitive pontificating could ever be written, and if that is the case for inopportune theodicy, it surely applies to the outrageous parody that the Book of Esther consists of.
We must be on constant guard against khilul hashem, the desecration of God’s name. This is the theme of this week’s Haftarah (Ezekiel 36: 16-38), which exemplifies purification from sin and the sanctification of God’s name. In our day, there was no greater khilul hashem than Purim 1994, when a kippah-wearing, Torah-educated Jew massacred 29 Muslims and injured more than a hundred while they peacefully prayed.
The joy of Purim demands that we purge this holiday of the xenophobia, the misogyny, and the violence of its texts. We can keep the foods, the costumes, and we should certainly preserve and increase the giving of charity, but no amount of commentary or rationalization can cover up the obvious meaning of the Book of Esther, whose toxicity inspired the above-mentioned atrocity in Hebron twenty years ago, and for which quarantine is the only solution.
What I’m proposing was inspired by a Catholic sister who observed the levity in the streets of Jerusalem over the weekend and commented that what she saw actually wasn’t religious at all. Indeed, the secular carnival of Purim-at-its-best is on the streets, while Purim-at-its-worst, let’s face it, is what we hear in the synagogues. Those of us inclined to liturgical reform could search for and/or compose alternative readings, but I think it’s simpler and cleaner just to join hoi polloi in secular revelry. Mardi Gras isn’t religious, although that’s how it got its start – why can’t Purim be the same?
Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom