Purim – Time for New Interpretation

Mar 14, 2014 by

Purim – Time for New Interpretation

I was teaching an Introduction to Judaism class this Tuesday night about (fittingly) Purim. I was in the midst of explaining to my class the mitzvah to drink until you don’t know the difference between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman, and how it has been traditionally interpreted (get extremely drunk), when one of my students stopped me.

“What if,” she began, “What if we’re interpreting the commandment too literally. I mean, we’ve learned how many of the commandments have been analogized, or understood metaphorically,” she said, “but it sounds like this one is always taken literally, across Jewish communities.”

“Generally, yes.” I answered. “Purim is treated as an opportunity to drink heavily.”

“But what if,” she asked, “the commandment is not meant to be taken literally, not to mean that you should get really drunk, but perhaps, that you should use Purim as an opportunity to blur the distinction between good and bad people, to imagine that everyone, even our enemies, are good and evil, that people are complex, and that cursing people is a dirty business.”

There was a long silence. This was a brilliant and beautiful interpretation, but I wasn’t sure (in fact, I highly doubted) that it was what the Rabbis intended when they suggested the minhag. In fact, knowing what I do about Jewish history, and how Purim is, in many senses, a wish fulfilling fantasy of revenge on all those who have hurt Jews throughout the ages, I knew how unlikely it was.

But we live in a different world now. We live in a world where Jews wield power (political and otherwise), where we have our own state, and where humanist values have come to inform our understanding of what it means to be Liberal Jews. We live in a world where it is possible to find the wholesale slaughter of Jewish enemies (75,810 people!) at the end of the book of Esther morally troubling, and the cursing of Haman’s name discomfiting (however much he may deserve it). So what if we can use the commandment to blur the lines to teach complexity, nuance and that the notion that only in fairytales and Disney movies are people all good, or all evil. Too often we gloss over the slaughter of non-Jews that occurs at the end of Megillat Esther because it complicates the fairytale, because it’s too hard to explain to kids (let alone adults) the moral complexity of revenge fantasies.

For the past week, I have been reading Israeli journalist (and Haaretz columnist) Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land which has been hailed by everyone from Leon Wieseltier to Jeffrey Goldberg as exceptional. This is largely because of Shavit’s ability to hold and wrestle with multiple narratives about the founding of the State of Israel; the horrors of the Holocaust and the nightmare of the naqba, the miracle of Israel and the ongoing disaster of Palestinian displacement. What sets the book apart is its painful – and brilliant – ability to compassionately hold all of these narratives: the horrific losses of Iraqi Jewish olim, the unthinkable trauma of Holocaust survivors in the same period, and the nightmare for Palestinians who once inhabited the city of Lydda and were displaced by traumatized Jewish immigrants. These stories are told with grace, nuance and a heart big enough to hold –  and mourn – all of them. Purim gives us a similar opportunity; to know that in every victory there may also be great loss, and in every loss there may be a victory for our enemy, and that praying for tremendous suffering – for anyone – compromises us all. Purim is an opportunity to think deeply about these contradictions, and to acknowledge the pain, and nuance, contained in this realitiy.

So what did I tell my student? “That’s a beautiful interpretation.” I answered. “Really beautiful. But, I mean, given the historical context that the commandment comes out of, I’m not sure it’s accurate.”

“Maybe” she said, “It’s time for a new interpretation.”

Maybe it is.

Chag Purim Sameach.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful reimagining of Purim and for sharing the lovely insight of your student. Something like this understanding of “ad-la-yada” _is_ present in the tradition. Purim is connected with the commandment in Deuteronomy 25 to not forget to wipe out the remembrance of Amalek, the personification of evil. Purim is a holiday of blurring distinctions and of “remembering to forget.” To truly vanquish evil from the world finally, we also will have to wipe away categories that define some people as “good” and others as “evil.” Yashar koach.

  2. Paul Kipnes

    What a beautiful and meaningful interpretation. The minhag of the rabbis – to drink to excess – is also dangerous and contributes in many ways to the many many Jewish alcoholics that people our community. I for one like this interpretation better.

  3. Rabbi Jordie Gerson

    Thank you both for your kind words!

  4. Thank you for this beautiful piece, and thank you to your student as well. We have long needed new interpretations for this story. Regarding Jeff Goldwasser’s reference to wiping out the remembrance of Amalek, years ago when reading that passage, I was struck that it does not say “Al tishkach” (don’t forget) to wipe out his memory, but rather “lo tishkach,” which can be read as either “don’t forget” or “you will not forget.” “You will not forget” can mean: “Don’t worry so much about holding on tight to hating your enemy. You will not forget your history, even if you move on, or forgive, or reinterpret the narrative in ways that can heal and transform.

  5. Rabbi Jordie Gerson

    Thanks, Julie! What a beautiful interpretation.

  6. Josh Strom

    This is fantastic, Jordie. Thank you so much.

  7. Rabbi Jordie Gerson

    Thank you!

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