Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim, Drunkenness and Eternal Hatreds

This evening begins the holiday of Purim and with it a revelry likened to Mardi Gras. The Talmud (Megillah 7b) commands: "Rava said: It is one's duty to get oneself so drunk on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)." That is an extraordinarily drunk state.

I have often wondered about this command. Why would the tradition encourage us to become so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between good and evil? Judaism has long argued that one of the defining characteristics of human beings, over and against animals, is our ability to make such distinctions, to distinguish right from wrong. Why would we want to ever blur that line, mumbling barukh and arur, cursed and blessed? Why would drunkenness be the preferred state of dealing with such a serious question as antisemitism?

The story of Purim, although farcical and even ahistorical, deals with this very question. Haman’s antisemitism and hatred for the Jewish people stems from Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to anyone but God. He refuses to bow down because he is a Jew. Haman therefore vows to kill all the Jews.

When I was young I thought that antisemitism was a problem of prior generations. It would never again regain the destructiveness of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Sure there might still be inappropriate jokes. Sure there might be those who avoided my hand in friendship because I was Jewish, but the hatred my grandfather experienced, I believed, was forever of the past and not the future. My grandfather did not share my youthful optimism.

Antisemitism is an eternal problem, he argued. It changes. It remains eternal. Sadly he was right.

Today antisemitism has again taken on a different form. It is wrapped in the garb of anti-Israel rhetoric. In this country the venom against Jews and Judaism is married to a hatred of Israel.

In ancient times antisemites fixated on the Jewish observances of Shabbat, kashrut and circumcision. How could they not work on Saturday; how could they not eat delicious pork; and how could they destroy their beautiful bodies, antisemites argued. In medieval times the blood libel was added to antisemites’ lexicon. Not only did Jews have strange customs, antisemites preached, but they sacrificed Christian children to use their blood to bake matzah. Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus, antisemites accused. Riots and pogroms followed. Jews were murdered.

In modern times antisemitism metastasized into something even far more sinister and deadly. Jewish identity was racial. It was a matter of blood. It was not something that a Jew could renounce by conversion or by a rejection of Jewish tradition. The Nazis argued that if a person had one Jewish grandparent they were Jewish, whether or not they were observant or even called themselves Jewish. They were therefore marked for death. Emil Fackenheim, a modern Jewish philosopher, argued that the Nazis robbed Jews of even choosing martyrdom. It was not their choice of conversion or death as it was during the Inquisition. The selection for death was our tormentors’ choice. To be called a Jew was determined by others.

Today we see something far different. On college campuses such vitriol is leveled against the State of Israel. Both of my children have experienced this on their respective campuses. For a sobering account of this problem watch the video “Crossing the Line” produced by Jerusalem U. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement argues that Israel is like apartheid South Africa, a country that was founded on an immoral principle.

Let me be clear. Israel is a vibrant democracy. Within Israel, and throughout the world, there are legitimate discussions of Israel’s policies. There are well-founded criticisms of Israel’s decisions and its actions. Debate is the cornerstone of any democracy. However when one attacks the legitimacy of the State of Israel, when one argues that Israel’s very existence is immoral, this is antisemitism. Every people has the right to self-determination. This is Zionism’s founding principle. To attack this right is antisemitism. Today, here is where this age old problem is manifest.

And so I return to the Talmud. It would be really nice if for one day we did not know and did not have to worry about this eternal problem. Although I would never encourage the drunkenness the Talmud demands (especially for my college students) it would be nice if on one day our history was not so serious and antisemitism was not, again, so real. It would be nice if on this day everything became blurred and we did not have to obsess about right and wrong, good and evil.

What a wonder it would be if our history were not so deadly serious. What a world we could found if, at least on this one day, we could discover such uninhibited joy.

My grandfather however was right. History continues to torture us.

And yet we continue to celebrate. We continue to rejoice. We even continue to laugh.

And perhaps that is why the Rabbis also argued that there will be no need for our holidays when the messiah arrives. When Elijah announces the coming of the messiah and the world is redeemed and rescued from the evils of history, there will be no more holidays except one.

Then, only Purim will continue to be observed. Chag Purim Samayach!

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