Why Purim is more than a story of us and them

This weekend's festival seems to play to our tribal instincts but the rabbis had a more multicultural message.


By Rabbi Natan Levy, March 16, 2011
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Dramatic revelations in the royal court: Esther tells her husband, King Ahaseurus, about Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews

Dramatic revelations in the royal court: Esther tells her husband, King Ahaseurus, about Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews

Chosenness does not play well on television. The small screen is the place to pass the world a Coke, not to call them "goyim". So, when Louis Theroux asked a Jewish vintner if he, a gentile, might stir the kosher wine in the midst of his recent BBC documentary on West Bank settlers, the ensuing dialogue caught Judaism at its most disturbingly tribal.

The vintner, in keeping with halachah, said that Theroux could not even touch the wine. "Why not?" asked Theroux, "Is it because I am unclean?" Our wine, our parochialism, our claim to chosenness has been a Jewish problem since the first diaspora in Babylon nearly two and a half thousand years ago.

It is one thing to envision oneself as "a nation that dwells alone" (Numbers 23:9) and "a rose among the thorns" (Song of Songs 2:2) when one lives in secure isolation in the native land, quite another to make such a claim when the thorns are one's neighbours and friends. In this age of multiculturalism and tolerance, why cannot a non-Jew pour Jewish wine? Louis Theroux was not the first to ask this question.

With 127 provinces under one rule, the kingdom of Persia under King Ahasueurus of Purim fame, was a truly multicultural society. And the primary adviser to the King, Haman, is quick to zoom in on the threat of Jewish chosenness to a society founded on egalitarian values. Here is how Haman convinces the King to sign the writ of genocide against the Jews: "There is one nation which is scattered in every province of your kingdom, and their beliefs are different from those of any other people, and they do not fulfil the laws of the King, and it is not worth the King's while to allow them to remain [alive]" (Esther 3:8).

In order to clarify Haman's claim against Judaism, the talmudic sages further elaborated the details of his argument: "They will not eat what we cook… and they deride the King. If a fly falls into one of their cups, they throw out the fly and continue drinking the wine, but if my master, the King, where to touch a cup belonging to one of them, the Jew would pour the wine on the ground and refuse to drink it". Even in ancient Persia, Judaism looks tribal and intolerant.

If the Purim story gives us the problem of chosenness in a multicultural world, it would be tidy if it offered solutions as well. Perhaps the rabbis, might offer some response to Louis Theroux's lingering question: "Is it because I, the gentile, am unclean?"

Unfortunately, Purim rituals seemed inclined to heighten our sense of difference. Consider that on the Sabbath before Purim, Jews are commanded to read a disturbing passage in the Torah that calls for the utter genocide of another nation, Amalek. The ancient custom of burning Haman in effigy became such a point of contention between Jews and non-Jews that the Roman Emperors Honorius and Theodorius forbade the practice. And, to this day, the halachah of sharing gifts of food on Purim applies only to our fellow Jews.

Yet there is one Purim ritual which offers another view of chosenness. Every Jew is required to give money to two poor people, above and beyond the 10 per cent of our earnings that we normally give as tzedakah. At least in economic terms, this command is the quintessence of the Purim celebration: "One should, ideally, give more money to the poor on Purim than one spends on Purim gifts and the celebratory meal combined, for there is no purer joy than brightening the hearts of the poor" (Rambam).

Purim rituals ask for Jews to be tribal with faith, yet universal in ethics. Though the rabbis seems to be referring to the Jewish poor, Rabbi Joseph Caro adds an aside: "In a place where it is customary to do such things, also give money to the non-Jewish poor" (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 794:3). "Because there are many paths to peace " adds the commentary of the Mishnah Berurah.

Chosenness is not a world of us versus them, rather it is the call for a uniquely us to walk a path of peace alongside a uniquely them walking another. In another work, Rabbi Caro elaborates: "When creating a new tradition for a new city, let that city become one where Jews give to non-Jews on Purim in order to foster multiple ways of peace". Because our modern Jewish communities are too varied to adhere to one set of customs, it is quite possible to consider every city as newly ready for tradition-making, and every Purim as the opportune moment to foster these multiple paths of peace. Louis Theroux does not need to stir my wine in order for me to wish him a l'chayim this Purim.

Natan Levy is rabbi of Shenley (United) Synagogue

    Last updated: 12:04pm, March 16 2011