Beware: Purim can make you paranoid

Have we lost the plot of this weekend’s festival by over-emphasising antisemitism, asks

By Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, February 25, 2010
Purim paraders in Israel: masks  originate in the idea of God hiding His face

Purim paraders in Israel: masks originate in the idea of God hiding His face

Purim encompasses a paradox. On the one hand, we unashamedly celebrate the downfall of the wicked Haman - a descendant of the Amalekite nation whose memory the Torah commands us to "obliterate" - and exult in the victory of the Jews. On the other, we are specifically exhorted to blur the difference between "cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordecai" through drink and merriment; sending out an altogether different message of reconciliation and closure.

In practice, this contradiction is often resolved in favour of concentrating on the rather more triumphalist and even sectarian themes of the festival as opposed to the more universal ones. But there is a danger that comes with that emphasis. It can begin to reinforce an us-versus-them mentality, which can then lead to over-simplistic comparisons between the Purim story and our modern era. Haman becomes a composite of our chief enemies, while his minions become the lurking antisemites of today.

Given our long history of persecution, that instinctive connection is understandable, but the current reality, difficult as it may be, is probably a great deal more nuanced than such stereotypes. But more than that, if we are to consolidate good relations and build bridges of understanding between Jews and non-Jews, then we must exercise caution before forming such visceral comparisons and particularly before hurriedly imputing antisemitic intentions capable of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While a good deal of the "new" antisemitism does indeed masquerade as anti-Zionism, it is still unhelpful to assume that anyone who criticises Israel falls automatically into that camp. Likewise, as unpalatable as it may be, we Jews are not beyond reproach as individuals and a community - and must be prepared to listen carefully to the terms of any criticism before levelling blanket accusations of antisemitism.Even when the charge is true, resorting to it hastily is often a "nuclear option", which may preclude more subtle and effective means of exposing hatred.

An even more sensitive accusation - but no less reliant on quick-fire simplification - is that of "Jewish self-hatred". To be sure, those who use it sit in judgment on the Jewishness of others in a typical us-and-them fashion. Although this may well be understandable when it comes to certain emotive and touchstone areas of Jewish identity and loyalty that cut close to the bone, nevertheless the term can engender a dangerous rush to judgement on the character of others and, for that reason alone, must be used with the utmost caution. Of course, it can also be hypocritical, for many who use the accusation would not necessarily stand up well if their own fidelity to Judaism were put under the microscope.

Purim is more about spiritual alienation than anti-Jewishness

The colourful Purim narrative - which never fails to capture the imagination of young and old - may indeed appear on a cursory glance to be about simple ideas of us versus them and good versus evil. But at a deeper level, the sages suggest that it is far more about the story of our own spiritual alienation from core Jewish values and subsequent redemption, than it is about the politics of anti-Jewishness.

The Talmud, moreover, explains that, beyond the dramatic storyline, Megillat Esther is ultimately a tribute to God's hidden hand behind the veil of earthly events. In this sense, all the characters are incidental to a much bigger motif painted on a universal cosmic canvas. The widespread custom of donning masks and dressing up in costume on Purim - a practice first reported in the Middle Ages - has as its origin the idea of God "hiding His face", echoing the talmudic explanation; and pointing toward a rejection on this festival of those things we assume to be obvious.

From these beginnings, one can trace the surprising development of the genre of Purim parodies, where Jews would affectionately poke fun at themselves by producing parodies on the Talmud, liturgy, and other familiar pillars of Jewish life. Normally, this would be sacrilege; except that on Purim such light introspection is actually encouraged.

One Purim "tractate" (Masechet Purim) follows the form of the tractate Pesachim, which deals with Pesach, except that all the stringent laws about removing chametz are now applied to non-alcoholic beverages, which are not to be tolerated on the holiday!

The Purimspiel, was a rowdy play on the Megillah story traditionally performed on Purim. These productions deliberately took great liberties with plot and characterisation; such that Mordecai might appear as a pathetic buffoon, Haman a tragic figure, and so forth. Such irreverence could, of course, only be tolerated at Purim but points, like the exhortation to blur "cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai", to a specific and even contrarian rabbinic agenda.

Little surprise, then, to discover that in recent years it has suddenly become more difficult to find these parodies; the "tractates" which used to be routinely reprinted before Purim, as well as the other extreme forms of irreverence and self-parody. Might this be indicative of a certain defensive mood that has overtaken Jewry? Does it represent the disappearance of nuance in favour of a decidedly more black-and-white perspective? If so, then we should be concerned at what Purim may have become.

By obliging us in our celebration of this unique festival to break down the stereotypical barriers between Mordecai and Haman, and indeed to parody some of our own certainties, the rabbis were implicitly recognising the very real danger of losing proper Jewish perspective and lapsing into facile jingoism. They deliberately chose, in so many ways, to redirect our focus away from paranoia and reductionism toward the possibility of more timeless, conciliatory, and even universal spiritual messages.

Reuben Livingstone is rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue

Last updated: 5:00pm, February 25 2010