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Sunday, 16 March 2014

Purim's Subversive Vision

There’s a curious Purim-related story in the Talmud about two scholars, Rabbah and Rabbi Zera. One year they got together to celebrate the festival and they became – as is the custom, in fact the halachah, the religious requirement – completely drunk [rat-arsed is I think the technical term]. So drunk that Rabbah attacked Rabbi Zera and killed him. On the next day, the Talmud goes on, Rabbah prayed on Rabbi Zera’s behalf and brought him back to life. The next year, Rabbah went to Rabbi Zera and said “Will my honoured teacher come, and we can again celebrate Purim together.” To which Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle doesn’t take place on every occasion”. (Megillah 7b)
Once bitten, twice shy is the expression that comes to mind. Just a couple of bits of biographical information about these two characters. Firstly, Rabba, a third century teacher in the Babylon religious academies, was famous for always starting his lectures with a joke, or a humorous story, to get his students in a relaxed frame of mind. (It’s one of the few useful practical tips that I ever picked up from the Talmud). And there’s one quotation in the Talmud from Rabbi Zera that is worth reflecting on: ‘One should never promise a child anything which one does not intend to give it, because this would accustom the child to untruthfulness’. (Sukkot 46b)
That’s a piece of difficult (but practical) child-rearing wisdom, the psychological importance of which it has taken us another 1700 years to really appreciate. Parental sadism comes in many guises, often unconscious, but here’s an example of everyday casual sadism that parents can try and do something about: don’t make promises to children that you know you aren’t going to keep. You may feel it makes  life easier now, but you are storing up trouble, for them and for yourself.
Let’s return to the story. Obviously, although the characters in it are real historical figures, it’s a fable - not quite a parable, but a piece of imaginative playfulness: we know that once they are dead, people don’t come back to life, whether you pray for them or not. So what is the story getting at? Is it a critique of the dangers of drunkenness? Is it an implicit acknowledgement – a  millennium and a half before psychoanalysis and Melanie Klein - that aggression, murderousness, is just below the surface of even the most educated or pious of human hearts?  And that it doesn’t take much, just a few drinks,  to loosen up inhibitions and for this innate and powerful energy in us to burst out in violent and destructive fashion?
Maybe this little Talmudic tale Is  dealing (in semi-humorous fashion, humour being one of the archetypal Jewish defenses against pain) with one of the complex strands of feeling that lies underneath the celebration of Purim. Perhaps it is addressing the darkness at the heart of the Book of Esther, a book which has as its anti-hero a genocidal character intent on the elimination of a whole people because he finds one of them, Mordecai, objectionable. You will recall how, in the Biblical story, Mordecai doesn’t bow down to King Ahasuerus’s right-hand man, Haman, who has been raised high above the other officials at the court.  In other words, Mordecai the Jew won’t give enough respect to Haman the Agagite.
What we need to remember (the text keeps pointing to this) is that they are both outsiders within Persia – the Jew and the Agagite. And Haman’s personal insecurity as an outsider is demonstrated when his feelings about the other outsider spill over into a wish to kill them all off. Haman can’t do away with, eliminate, his own outsider status, however high he rises in the Persian court. But he can project his own demons onto the Jew – as has been done countless times through history right up to the politics of Hungary (or Iran) today – and then Haman the Agagite attacks the person (and the group) whose difference mirrors his own. And in an instant, the personal has become the political. And so in this strange book of 10 brief chapters, set in the diaspora (the only Biblical book that is), we have a story filled with banquets  and drinking, dancing girls and Oriental opulence – and the beginnings of genocidal anti-semitism.
This is why this little festival, that’s over almost before it begins, is one we don’t really take seriously, maybe can’t take seriously. We have to make it for children, and concentrate on the fun and the fancy costumes, make it into a Jewish Mardi Gras, have a bit too much to drink maybe, but not so much that we, like Rabbah in the Talmud, discover the depths of our own aggression. And yet our brief Talmudic tale invites us to look at this dark core of Purim. After all, it tells of one rabbi killing another one: as if to say Jews can be murderous too, we are human too. And  this picks up the last chapters of the Book of Esther which tell us how the Jews were given permission to defend themselves against the pogroms that were, the story says, unleashed against them through the King’s decree, the decree that Ahasuerus agrees to, prompted by Haman’s murderous rage.
This permission to defend themselves comes in a second decree that the King issues, because once the first royal decree is spoken and sealed it can’t be unspoken, revoked. Once the knowledge is out there that genocide is conceivable as a policy of state, it can’t be unthought. All that can happen, the story illustrates, is that the people under threat are allowed to defend themselves. And this they do, and a bloody massacre ensues, as the story narrates how the Jews, the potential victims, become the aggressors  and kill 75,000 of their enemies. In Liberal synagogues they used to omit this part of the text – if they celebrated Purim at all - and one can understand why they had qualms about the story. But it is a text that needs to be read if we are to think about the universal nature of human aggression – and that Jews are not exempt from the most primitive of human emotions.
But there’s something more that needs to be said about all this. And it’s linked to our Talmudic fable, or I am going to link it. It’s in the punch-line, Rabbi Zera’s wry, dry, sardonic response to Rabbah’s follow-up invitation to celebrate Purim with him the next year: “A miracle doesn’t take place on every occasion”, each time you need it. One of the things you might know about the Book of Esther is that – and it’s unique in the Hebrew Bible because of this – it does not contain within it the name of God. God is completely absent. The rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t quite cope with this and they hastened to show how although God’s name was missing, God was nevertheless hidden inside the story, hinted at  in particular phrases in the text, like “help will come from another place” (Esther4:14). And they pointed out that Esther’s name is closely related to the Hebrew word for ‘hidden’, ‘concealed’, ‘secret’, nistar.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, God is always present even when He seems to be absent. But I think that the writers of the Book of Esther were in a sense more radical than that, more daring. For they created a story, a fable – and it is a fable because these characters aren’t historical figures, the names Mordecai and Esther seem to be based on the names of the Middle Eastern gods Marduk and Astarte – they created a fable filled with a deadly diasporic seriousness.
And the seriousness is that it portrays how a whole people, the Jewish people, need to depend not on the Holy One of Israel, God, and his miraculous interventions into history on their behalf. That’s the Pesach story, the foundational story of national liberation. But that era has gone, say the authors of this subversive book: what the Jewish people have to depend on now is their native wit, their sechel, as Mordecai does when he reads the times right and decides how to intervene; and they need to depend on their personal courage, as Esther does, courage and self-sacrifice; and they need to use everything they have at their disposal, and in Esther’s case that includes her sexual allure. Anything and everything that is human needs to be brought into play, the authors of the Book of Esther show us, to ensure Jewish survival in an era in which God is no longer involved as it was thought He was in days of old. 
That’s why the Book of Esther is perhaps the most contemporary of Biblical books. It places Jewish continuity, Jewish survival, in our own hands; and it became a sacred book, part of the Hebrew canon, in a way which suggests that the authors thought: this is how holiness works now, through the human.
But I think they did something even more daring in their telling of the story, even more daring than illustrating how the divine now works through people, in what they do, what they say, how they behave, what they risk, what they sacrifice. The Book  also shows that this kind of human activity might not be enough to ensure our survival as a people. It may also be the case that our fate, individual or collective, also depends on luck, or chance. Because time and again in the story the events revolve around chance happenings – or what we think of as chance happenings.
Remember those two minor characters Bigthan and Teresh? They plot to assassinate the king, and Mordecai just happens to be there and overhear them when they are plotting, and he gives the information to Esther who reports it to the king in Mordecai’s name. It didn’t need GCHQ to listen in to all the conversations going on in the country: Mordecai just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Chance, luck, co-incidence, ‘beshert’? But the whole story revolves around this incident, this random, chance event. There’s nothing in this story like you find in the rest of the Bible: “And God said to Mordecai, ‘By the way there’s a plot brewing, and this is what you must do...’”. The miraculous – if that’s what we want to call it, though the story doesn’t – is all happening within the realm of the human, the everyday.
And chance keeps on turning up in the tale. So there is the night – and it is placed at the epicentre of the 10 chapters at the beginning of chapter 6, as if this is the hinge around which everything revolves – the night when the king can’t sleep. It could happen to any of us. What is more ordinary than that? A character can’t sleep and he wants something to distract him and he orders the court records to be brought to him, the recent chronicles of the times, and the page he turns to – chance, fate, luck, the sheer sacred randomness of life – the page he turns to tells about the plot against him and who gave the tip-off that saved him, Mordecai the Jew. And the story moves on, catalysed now by this new knowledge the king has and his decision to reward our man Mordecai.
He was told this before, by Esther, but he didn’t register it; but now he reads it and history turns on what he reads that sleepless night. And the lowly Jew is raised up and becomes the new right-hand man – and the high and mighty Haman is brought low – brought low by (ah, irony) being hung up on a tree,  a tree prepared (again, irony) for his mortal enemy. Everything is turned on its head – and in fact the verb ‘turned’, ‘overturned’ (hafach) keeps popping up in the text.  Nothing is as it seems. Everything can be turned into its opposite. This is life now, the authors intuit and hint at throughout their tale. You can use your native wit and your seductive charms and your bravery – and they can take you so far. But you also have to reckon on chance, contingency, luck, randomness – there is no divine Being controlling it all, the Biblical authors suggest.
This is a frightening, disturbing vision. And we might well want to hide from it. To put on our masks, to dress up as other than we are, to drink until we can no longer recognise the difference, as the rabbis of the Talmud decreed for us,  between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’. To recognise – if only on one day of the year - that murderers can become victims, and victims murderers; that the secure boundaries we imagine between good and evil are not so secure; that good and evil may be categories we need to construct for ourselves in order to exist in society but we shouldn’t assume too much about their solidity: they are liquid qualities, fluid as wine. So the good that Mordecai did required Esther to deceive the king by withholding her Jewish identity, untruthfulness here (pace Rabbi Zera) being a virtue – and all of this slippage between good and evil takes place in a world where God does not appear as He did in former times, or was said to do. We can no longer depend on miracles to save us – this is Rabbi Zera’s amused (?) but profound recognition.
What we poor, confused mortals are then left with on Purim – what anchors us within this elision of normal boundaries, and in the absence of miracles – is that other Purim tradition, that  is already spoken about in the Esther text, where  what is decreed is  a time ‘of feasting and gladness, a time for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9:22). Misloach manot – small gifts of food for friends; and mattanot l’evyonim –financial donations to the impoverished, who are always with us, always in our midst.
What we are left with are small acts of kindness, beyond good and evil. The dramas of history can sweep us away, the rulers of the world can issue decrees that destroy our lives; and then build them up again. But meanwhile, while the wheels of history turn, on the ground, what we are left with, humbling and holy, is friendship and generosity. It’s all we have to rely on. Let’s treasure it.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 15th 2014]


  1. Bobby Silverman17 March 2014 at 00:05

    I love Howard's analysis of Purim. It actually elevates it from a minor festival to something much more important. I am reminded of the equivalence it is given in rabbinical teaching with the Day of Atonement the full name of which is Yom ha Kippurim - by a play on words ' a day that is like Purim'. Howard Cooper has plumbed the depths of truth that can be associated with this teaching.

  2. Many thanks for this wonderful blog/sermon. It gave me some quite new insights into Purim!