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Purim the ‘Most Ambiguous’ Jewish Holiday

Remember the book of Esther from Sunday school? The boys yawned and waited for the lesson on Daniel, but the girls loved the beautiful queen, an exemplary heroine who saved her people. Victims become victors in Esther.

However, there is much more in the book of Esther, whose story created the Jewish festival of Purim (March 14). Christian theologian Harvey Cox calls Purim the “most antic, noisiest and most ambiguous Jewish holiday.”

Esther is not on many Protestant radar screens. God is never mentioned. Only the Methodists include it in the three-year lectionary cycle. Luther thought the book had “too much heathen naughtiness.”

The Talmud urges Jews to drink so much on Purim that they can no longer distinguish between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” In an effort to combat alcohol abuse on Purim Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb cautions that Talmud may not mean getting intoxicated, just “getting a buzz.” I never heard that in Sunday school.

At one level Purim is lots of fun. The food, the costumes, and the noisemakers are all part of Purim, and are echoed in “Marbim b’simcha“–“may your gladness be multiplied”–the traditional greeting for this holiday.

Jewish layperson Anne Heyman sees the bright side of Purim, a holiday of community and family. Her children enjoyed the three-cornered pastries filled with goodies like hamantaschen or Haman’s ears.

Food and feasting are important throughout Esther, giving rise to the tongue-in-check summary of many Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!”

First read Esther aloud at one sitting. You will discover the origins of Purim and have obeyed one of the four mizvot or commandments for the holiday. The others are exchanging small gifts with co-religionists, giving to the poor and partaking of a Purim festival meal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, in The Tapestry of Time–A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events, calls attention to the feminist issues in Esther from beginning to end. Chapter 1 introduces Queen Vashti, who refuses to be a sex object, loses her crown, but keeps her self-respect.

In Chapter 9 Esther, the new queen, has done what she must do to be a survivor and save her people. She finds herself silently vying with her kinsman Mordecai for power over how to mark the holiday.

The men get the last word in Chapter 10. Rabbi Bea Wyler, Germany’s first female rabbi, suggests dedicating the Fast of Esther on the day before Purim to this incomplete liberation of women.

Rabbi Emeritus Joel Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore, Md., sees Purim as the first official Jewish response to anti-Semitism and more. It is “a statement of connectiveness–of Esther to the Jewish people, of Jews to one another, and ultimately, of all people to all others.”

Klagsbrun Francine, author of Jewish Days, wrote, “As long as one monster is allowed to remain out there casting lots, who knows who will be the next victim?”

Cox worries about the violence that seems to be sanctioned in the story of Purim, which ends with Jews killing 75,000 Persians. In 1994, when Purim coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish American-Israeli, murdered 29 Muslims during their Friday prayers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Cox calls for a distinction between real violence and what might be called “ritual violence,” asking if symbolic violence causes real violence, or does it substitute for or displace it?” Cox’s Jewish wife, Nina, says, “Get the bad stuff out with foot stomping and noisemakers (at Purim) rather than doing the real thing.” Cox argues that Purim is “a story of redemption, not revenge.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg has a carefully nuanced approach to redemption. “Purim is … a model for the experience of redemption in the rebirth of Israel. In this era, too, the redemption is flawed–by the great loss of life, by the officially ‘irreligious’ nature of the leadership, by the mixed motives and characters of those who carried it out, by the human suffering it brought in its wake, and by the less-than-perfect society of Israel…. In an imperfect world, one must be grateful for partial redemption. Celebration inspires the people to perfect that redemption.”

Rabbi Mark Loeb of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore  traces the power of humor in Judaism in general and in Purim in particular from medieval communities through the chamber opera Brundibar performed by children in the concentration camp at Terezin on down to contemporary Purim sketches. Purim is like a pressure valve for diffusing the tension between the heads of synagogues, schools or government, and those under them.

Purim is set in Persian citadel of Susa. Arthur Magida, author of the forthcoming book on rites of passage, Opening the Doors of Wonder, links Susa and the U.S.A., when he writes, “My worry is that as a nation–I’m talking now, not about a nation of Jews, but a nation of Americans–we are too sober the year ’round. With an administration in Washington determined to invade our privacy, wage war on a screwy pretext, protect the rich and neglect the poor, with an administration that has elevated incompetence and smug, righteous arrogance to record levels, lessons galore can be gleaned from Purim.

Purim emboldens us to mock the mighty, challenge the foolish and topple the dumb. Purim may be a terrific excuse for levity and hilarity, but just as court jesters were often the true wise men in a king’s retinue, so, too, the foolishness of Purim can be our compass toward a world which we miss right now–a world of greater sanity, and greater peace.”

John Ewing Roberts is associate scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and pastor emeritus at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore, Md.

For more on Purim see Rabbi Irvin Greenberg’s The Jewish Way, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events, and Harvey Cox’s Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year.