Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim: The Diaspora Mentality


“It can’t happen here.”  

“Come, let us wipe them out from among the nations so that the name of Israel will not be remembered.”

Psalm 83  

“So many Hamans, only one Purim.”


Once again Purim is upon us, a time of spring-fever hilarity and drunken silliness. The only holiday of the Jewish calendar when it is not only permitted, but practically commanded that we drink enough so that we do not know the difference between Mordecai, the hero, and Haman, the villain. And what’s not to celebrate? On the surface, Purim is another one of the quintessential Jewish holidays that can be summarized thus:
They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.     

But scratch below the surface of the formula, and look again. Purim is antithetical to the joy of Pesach, when we rejoice in our liberation from slavery, and our obligation in every generation to understand that it was we, ourselves, who came forth from Egypt. Rather, Purim is more than slightly hysterical, as we read the Megillah and remember that in the Diaspora, the Eternal G-d of Israel is silent, hidden even in the face of our total annihilation.  Even the circumstance of our peril in Shushan was governed by the capriciousness associated with the false gods of the nations, the date of our destruction—13 Adar—being chosen by the casting of lots, called purim.  And the villains do not have the solemn power of a Pharaoh and his priests, ready to duel, gods against G-d, over the fate of Israel. A drunken king willing to mortgage away his kingdom for the price of a half-year long drinking party and his vain chancellor who struts and fusses his way to the destruction of the Jews of Persia; that’s what we get in this Diaspora tale of precarious redemption. And even that is not accomplished by the strong hand and mighty arm of the Eternal, full of power and glory. No, in our Diaspora redemption, the King is too weak to even rescind the death decree, but the Jews of Persia are granted a special dispensation to defend themselves against those commanded to destroy them.  

Purim is very much a Diaspora tale, and in the Megillah itself we see all of the stereotypical manifestations of what R. Soloveitchik calls “the galut (exile) mentality.” The tale could be pulled right out of a newspaper from Europe today, or any other place and time in which a highly assimilated and comfortable Diaspora Jewish community is suddenly made aware of how small, vulnerable and hated it really is.

Even the heroes are Diaspora heroes. When Hadassah is entered into the “Miss Shushan” contest to get the king a new queen, she goes with a less “Jewish”name, Esther, which means “hidden.” Her uncle, the Court Jew Mordecai, counsels her not to reveal her identity, so that she remains hidden in the court of the King. The attitude of the Jews of Shushan is also typically that of assimilated Jews of the Diaspora. As R. Irving Greenberg puts it, when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman in the street:

“. . . they were confident they had nothing to do with ‘Mordecai the Jew’ types who would not go along with Persian rules. It was a rude awakening to discover that Haman designated all Jews as his target. Even more shocking was the discovery that the respectable [King] Ahashverosh, who would never kill Jews—some of his best friends were Jews—passed the ring to Haman without hesitation and was ready to stand by indifferently while the mass murder proceeded. The Jews of Shushan discovered the bitter lessons of the Diaspora: It can happen here, and we are one. (The Jewish Way).

When the destruction of the Jews of Shushan is announced, Esther and Mordecai’s responses are echoed down through the whole sorry history of Diaspora Jewry. Mordecai weeps, Esther decides that it is better not to stand out (“Shah! Be shtill!”), and the Jewish community is divided on the seriousness of the peril (“They don’t really mean it.” “This is the land of Schiller and Bach.”) It is only when Mordecai takes action, sending a message to Esther in which he says:

“Do not think that you alone of all the Jews, will escape into the King’s house; for if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s household will be destroyed. Who knows but that you have come into the King’s Household for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 13 – 14)

And so Esther does act, and deliverance comes because of her action. But her actions are not the confident and direct acts of a prophet like Moses, but the careful and hesitant self-abasement of a court Jew in the uncertainty of exile:

If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it pleases the King, let my life be given to me at my request and my people spared at my pleading . . . If only we had been sold to be slaves, I would have been silent for merely suffering bondage, I would not have wanted to cause damage to my king . . .” (Esther 7:3 – 4).

The hysterical hilarity of Purim is a celebration of the momentary relief of a people who know that evil has been averted but not destroyed; that the wheel is still in spin. Haman hangs today, and the Jews are saved, but tomorrow there could arise another son of Amalek--who embodies the pure, destructive will to annihilate the Jewish people—and genocide come upon them like a bolt out of the blue.

This Purim, as I drown out the name of Haman with a swing of the grogger, and eat my Hamantaschen accompanied by a nice Moscato, I also remember this about Amalek: he is the symbol of idolatry, the claim to an absolute power that is contradicted by the very existence of the Jew. As R. Greenberg puts it:

“Premature messianists. . . are angered by the persistence of the Jew who thereby gives the lie to their presumptions. Idolatry is tempted to make the Jew disappear and thereby clear the way for its own, uncontested dominance. The twentieth century has made the matter even clearer. Whosoever would be God must destroy the Jews totally. As long as one Jew is alive, the Jewish denial of all but God remains . . . the temptation to become God is overwhelming, therefore a plan to murder every last Jew becomes conceivable—and doable.” (The Jewish Way).

And I think about the rising unrest in the world, and the empty promises of Utopia that come from the right, the left, the Islamists, the trade unions, the political personality cultists, the Occupy movement and the idolater in the White House who said: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Is it no wonder, then, that we are seeing a rise in Jew-hatred all over the world, from Achmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map, to the Occupy Los Angeles teacher who wants all Jews expelled from the United States. SSDD.

And the Jews of the United States, confronted with a maniacal hatred of ourselves and our country, act just like the Jews of Shushan. So many liberal Jews refuse to see Obama’s hatred of Jews and Israel. So many libertarian Jews help Ron Paul sweep the overt anti-Semitism in his campaign under the rug. Jewish self-hatred abounds in the press, in the media. It is hard to understand. It seems crazy. It seems suicidal. It is irrational.

“Do not think that you alone of the Jews will escape into the King’s house—(the party, the movement, the collective) . . .

Utopia is an idol; beautiful at a distance, but corrupt and deadly close-up. And no matter how much the individual Jew might protest and argue that it is not he who contradicts assimilation, the collective, the perfection of human kind, Amalek sees his very existence as a threat, saying:


“Come, let us wipe them out from among the nations . . .”

So many Hamans. Only one Purim.