Posts Tagged Purim
More than history, the Jews have memory.
In his marvelous little book, Zakhor (“Memory”), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes that Jewish historiography ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, revived only with the Continental Enlightenment and its reach into the communities of France and Germany.
Jewish memory, by contrast continues on, making sense of current events by analogy with Biblical ones. It’s a method not entirely alien to American history itself. The New England settlers saw themselves as latter-day Israelites, guided by God across a forbidding body of water, fleeing a corrupt Egypt to establish His kingdom on Earth in a new land. Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States feature the Israelite crossing the Red Sea. Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (I have not read it, so I can make no recommendation one way or the other) chronicles the role of Moses in American thought, American memory.
But if America could draw on a new founding to make Moses its central prophet, the Jews, in exile, usually turned to a different Biblical story, the Book of Esther. Scattered, everywhere a minority, at the mercy of temporal powers who were usually not friendly, the Jews frequently found reason to compare their situation to the Jews in the Babylonian exile, rescued from extinction by Divine Providence hidden in natural events, hopeful of soon returning home.
It was not unusual for local communities, and even families, to celebrate such rescues by declaring local “Purims,” often recording the events in local chronicles by paralleling the very words of the Book of Esther.
Even though there is now a Jewish Commonwealth for the first time since 70 AD, the current Purim Parallel practically writes itself. Genocidal theocratic Persian seeks nuclear bomb for destruction of Jewish people, twists current world power’s leader to its own ends to obtain such. The comparison was given an added push by the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – on Tuesday, the day before the Fast of Esther, commemorating Esther’s own fast before she approached the King to plead her case. Most of the commentaries I’ve seen put Netanyahu in the role of Esther, braving the dangers of speaking truth to power (in the old Lefty phrase) in order to save his people.
I don’t think that’s quite right.
Netanyahu’s role here much more close parallels that of Mordecai, imploring Esther to do the right thing and risk her own position and comfort to save her people. Netanyahu deftly explained why the approaching deal is a bad idea, why it’s a threat to Israel, but also – more importantly, given the audience – a threat to the United States. He appealed to the common civilization and shared values between Israel and the United States.
But thought Bibi can persuade, he cannot directly influence. He has no vote in the US, he must act through others, igniting a serious debate where there had been none, inviting others to bring to bear direct political pressure.
Which means that you and I, friends, are Esther.
It is incumbent upon us to act, to persuade Congress to oppose the agreement when it is reached, to retain or increase sanctions, to prevent the administration from giving power, legitimacy, and trade to our enemies as Americans and Jews.
It is our role to step out of our comfortable positions in a wealthy, friendly, welcoming society and use what influence and power we have to prevent any agreement that even contemplates an Iranian bomb from being anything more than a dead letter.
Given this, the actual words of Mordecai’s plea are even more ominous for an American Jewish community used to security but facing new demographic and ideological threats:
Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows if you became Queen for such a time as this?
There is actually a dispute as to how to translate Mordecai’s last sentence. Some translate it as, “And who knows if you will remain Queen a year from now?” meaning that Esther might lose her position as Queen. Others translate it as, “And who knows if this isn’t the reason you became Queen?”
The two translations aren’t necessarily at odds: the calendar date for the actual massacre was a year off from Esther’s approach to the King. Mordecai could have been arguing that if Esther didn’t fulfill her purpose in being Queen, God could easily enough arrange for her fall from power and its protections.
There is, or should be, a growing unease among Jews in the United States, this exceptional home for us with its exceptional relationship to us. Too many Jews have traded in their Jewish identity for a Democratic Party one, replacing eternal transcendent values for temporary, political issues of the day. A small minority, the 10% who are Orthodox, are having the great majority of the children, and with even Modern Orthodoxy teetering a little unsurely, the future of Judaism in the States looks potentially smaller, poorer, and more inward-looking.
The President, in his desire to reach a deal with Iran’s mullahs, has put Jewish Americans, but especially Jewish Democrats, in a position of having to choose between identities many had come to see as identical. There are any number of powerful and influential Jewish Democrats, and who knows that they didn’t achieve these positions for such a time as this?
Rabbi David Fohrman points out something I hadn’t noticed before. Two tribes – Judah and Benjamin (plus some Levites, but leave them aside, they’re not a full tribe here) – are actually in exile in Babylon. Those are the only two tribes left in the southern Kingdom of Judah after the northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered a couple of centuries earlier.
Mordecai was from Benjamin. Esther was from Benjamin. But the decree was phrased as “Yehudim,” Judahites. Haman didn’t care about tribal differences, but Mordecai would have caught the wording. Benjamin and Judah had often had a somewhat tense relationship. Would Esther think that the decree didn’t mean Benjamin, that she and others from her tribe could ride this out?
Mordecai’s demand means this, too: we’re all in this together, Benjamin and Judah. Don’t think this doesn’t mean you. It does.
Similarly Netanyahu is telling American Jews: don’t think this doesn’t mean you. The Islamists, the anti-semites, the BDS-ers and the campus radicals have it in for all of us. You may be secular, you may be comfortable, you may be wealthy, you may even be intermarried or atheist, it doesn’t matter. They mean you, too.
And to non-Jewish Americans, Netanyahu is saying the same thing: the Islamists are coming for you, too. This is a civilizational war we’re fighting, and we’re part of the same team. Some of you may think you can buy safety by cutting a deal that puts Israel at risk, but you can’t. And you’re putting your country and your children and your future in danger if you try.
Will the American Jews extend themselves on behalf of the Israeli Jews, or will we huddle together, trying to ride out the storm?
There are some, Alan Dershowitz, AIPAC, Larry Mizel & Norm Brownstein, who have risen to the occasion. Since 2005, I’ve been on the email list for Jewish NOLA, and its president, Michael Weil, sent out an email this afternoon very supportive of Netanyahu’s speech and its message.
Too many, however, including our own JCRC here in Denver, the ADL, and other organizations charged specifically with advocating for Israel, have taken the safe route. Happy to opine on just about any partisan political social or economic issue, they have fallen silent, ostensibly afraid to make Israel “partisan.” In doing so, of course, they are acquiescing the an administration that has chosen to politicize Israel to try to isolate it, because it stands in the way of its Middle East Grand Strategy. They have, perversely, allowed Israel to become the one topic they won’t discuss.
That’s not good enough.
There is one final parallel. The Purim story doesn’t end with the King revoking his decree and saving the Jews. In some interpretations, the King is prevented by Persian law from revoking a decree, in others he’s too proud to admit a mistake. Regardless of the reason, the King instead issues another decree – a change in policy, if you will – permitting the Jews the defend themselves. It’s a striking thing, a King risking the internal stability of his empire by permitting a subject people to take self-defense into their own hands on a national scale. But he does it, confident that he’s not unleashing chaos, but rather encouraging justice.
Too often, we have valued stability in the Middle East above all else (indeed, stability is given as the reason for welcoming a nuclear-tipped Iran into a role a regional hegemon). It would take a brave president indeed, or at least a confident and secure one, to welcome an Israeli effort to defend itself against an Iranian bomb. It may mean waiting until the next president, who, while not repudiating whatever agreement this one reaches, winks and nods at such an effort.
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, known to us by the acronym “Malbim,” from his initials, wrote a much-beloved commentary on the Book of Esther. As with most rabbinic commentaries on the Bible, it goes line-by-line, so it falls to the reader to pull together the themes. Fortunately, there’s a more accessible translation, Turnabout, by Mendel Weinbach, which weaves the Malbim’s commentary together into a coherent narrative, faithful to the original.
It opens like this:
The king looked down from a palace tower and sighed. Achashveirosh was a king with a problem. He had power and wealth, and ruled over the entire known world, all 127 nations in it. But he did not like the limited monarchy which characterized his reign. He hated to hear foolish talk about the king’s responsibility to his subjects. How he longed for the absolute power of a Sancheirev or Nevuchadnetzar, who treated their subjects as slaves and had the freedom of doing whatever they desired with them. And talk of wealth! His finance minister was always cutting down on his personal spending with the argument that the national treasury belonged to the people and that the king was only its guardian. How wonderful it would be to have the powers of a Pharaoh and to know that all of the nation’s riches were his own to use as he wished. But it wasn’t the finance minister alone who annoyed this king. Whatever he did he always had to ask some minister or other for advice or approval. Every time he planned some drastic move he was reminded of the laws of the land. So he dreamed of the day that he would no longer have to worry about ministers and laws, and he could exercise his royal judgment freely.
Then this, later on, as the rationale and fallout from his plan to punish Vashti:
The parliament of ministers must be stripped of its power to issue and approve legislation. Henceforth, the king must rule by ukase. His royal decree will automatically become the law of the land, without the approval of any ministers, and it will be recorded in the permanent statutes of the kingdom.
Of course, the Malbim lived in various parts of the Russian and Turkish empires, from 1809-1879, and Turnabout was published in 1971, making both the timelessness and the relevance of the commentary all the more remarkable, no?
I’m always reluctant to re-read religious texts with a political slant. The Left has, for the most part, sought to replace religion with politics with the sort of baleful results we saw in 20th Century Europe and Russia. Even today, the American Jewish left uses such Jewish concepts as “Tikkun Olam” to justify pretty much the entire leftist political agenda, and JCPA General Assembly resolutions to that effect almost always find some Torah text to torture into testifying on their behalf. So to the extent that I’m edging across a self-imposed line here, the people it’s most likely to unnerve are the very liberals who’ve gotten used to thinking of the Torah as their personal political property.
But to the extent that Judaism has a political holiday, Purim is it. The internal power and factional politics of the Persian Empire, the Jews’ place in a multi-ethnic society, Megillat Esther is steeped in politics, and thus, human nature.
So for those who think that voluntarily disarming Jews is a good idea, consider the manner in which Ahasuerus’s decree of doom is reversed. Not by repeal, which the text tells us is beyond the King’s legal authority. Instead, it’s negated this way (8:11):
…that the king had given to the Jews who are in every city, [the right] to assemble and to protect themselves, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish the entire host of every people and province that oppress them…
We don’t need to carry the argument to the reducto ad absurdum of the Holocaust or the Holocaust-that-wasn’t in the Megillah to make this point. Even in the US, from time to time, anti-Semitic riots do happen.
The President of the United States has invited the instigator of two such riots to the White House to advise him on economics, and granted him a television interview. Both the Crown Heights riots and the Freddy’s Fashion Mart riots were anti-Semitic and Sharpton’s handiwork.
The ADL was founded as the result of one such riot that turned into the lynching of a Jewish man – in spite of the efforts of the authorities to prevent it.
And Seraphic Secrets’s hair-raising description of being defenseless during the Rodney King riots in LA, when the police abandoned the field, should drive home the point that riots need not be anti-Semitic in nature to be deadly.
In a country where we have that right by law – the same as all other citizens, and without any special royal dispensation necessary – why would we voluntarily cheapen Jewish blood again by disarming ourselves?
So tomorrow night and Sunday, when we’re celebrating our victory over our enemies, let’s also spare a thought for the fact that, unless we choose to give it up, here in the US, we have as a matter of course the very same rights that gave us that victory.
Today is Purim, the holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jews over Haman’s genocidal faction in ancient Persia, during the Babylonian exile. As always, there are questions.
On most holidays, Jews recite a set of Psalms of praise and thanksgiving collectively known as Hallel. We do recite it on Chanukah. We do not recite it on Purim. Why?
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik argues that the reason is that Chanukah established Jewish independence, and therefore regaining control over our own destiny. Purim, on the other hand, was a reprieve, but one that left our fate in the hands of a king and a system that had been proven arbitrary. (The difference between Fate and Destiny is one that Rav Soloveitchik explores in greater depth in an essay, later released as a short book, by that name, Fate and Destiny.) Purim thus established the “Fiddler on the Roof” scenario, the shtetl paradigm, that would come to dominate and define Jewish existence for most of the next 2500 years, interrupted only by the 2nd Commonwealth.
And arrested again by the establishment of the State of Israel.
While many times Ahashveraus, the Persian king, is depicted as foolish, rather like the king in Aladdin, the rabbinical commentators see him as considerably more malevolent, anywhere from looking for a reason to exterminate the Jews to hostile, and willing to let himself be persuaded in the matter. They note that it was under his rule that reconstruction on the Temple came to a halt, under obstacles and threats from the throne.
Which brings us to today.
While history doesn’t repeat, President Obama is certainly doing a fine, fine Ahashveraus impersonation when it comes to Israel. His hostility is manifest, and even if he’s not willing to take positive action himself on the matter, he doesn’t seem very interested in doing anything to impede Israel’s neighborhood enemies. His recent on-again-off-again veto or not of yet another Security Council resolution on Israel was designed as much to show the Israelis who was in charge, as though Israel really believes it can willingly alienate an American president. His lecture to American Jewish leaders that they need to “search their souls” on Israel’s (and their) desire for peace, made the implicit threat almost explicit.
Much of the point of Fate and Destiny is the difference between being active in your future, and being passive, at the mercy of other people and forces. (I’m not sure if the essay, written to provide a theological basis for Orthodox support for Israel, uses the Purim-Chanukah comparison. Undergoing an Omahavian exile myself, I don’t have access to my copy.) Unfortunately, then, as now, too many Jews are more comfortable acting under those parameters. It is too much like a replay, at a national level, of the deals-for-today that Jews had to make for centuries for their communities to survive.
Instead, we should be acting forcefully to shape our own future. Forcefully doesn’t mean recklessly or insultingly. But as an Orthodox Jew and a patriotic American, I believe that Israel’s interests & principles, and those of the US coincide far, far more often than they collide, and lucky for me that they do.
Right now, when we have a President who shows himself to be uncertain at best about American interests and principles, the temptation is to try to ride things out. But such decisions, taken cumulatively, have long-term consequences. It’s one of the reasons why I supposed Sharon’s disengagement strategy – it was an attempt to seize the initiative and set the terms of the debate, and but for his age and health, it might have succeeded.
We need to remember that we do have another choice. We are lucky to live in an age when we can choose Chanukah over Purim.