Purim is But Days Away
(Maariv 7pm Saturday evening, Shacharit 10:15am)
I’m returning, in this week’s Weekly Words to Elliot Horowitz’s work on Purim, Reckless Rites.
Horowitz charts how Christian scholars would decry the Book of Ester, particularly the violence committed by Jews in the latter chapters. The American Christian scholar Lewis Paton suggested that the book shows, ‘a malignant spirit of revenge more akin to the teaching of the Talmud than to the teaching of the Old Testament.’ He went on to suggest ‘The Book is so conspicuously lacking in religion that is should never have been included in the Canon of the O.T.’’ Charming. And both deeply offensive and completely wrong both as an analysis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.
Horowitz also digs out a 1948 commentary by a Danish Christian scholar Aage Bentzen which suggests Ester behaved reprehensibly in concealing her true identity a Jew. It’s a criticism Horowitz suggests is obtuse coming ‘shortly after his country emerged from four years of Nazi occupation.’ Then there is the Methodist commentary, by W.L. Northridge (1937) which suggests Ester revealed ‘Jewish vindictiveness at its worst’ … setting [in] contrast [the] unworthy elements in Judaism and the Christian spirit of love to all.’ Herbert Loewe responded ‘What seems so terrible in Dr Northridge’s arguments is the fact that they were written in 1937 when current events should have taught him to take a different view.’ If the book of Ester, Loewe continues, does indeed typify ‘Jewish vindictiveness at its worst’ shall we go on to say that Hitler’s barbarity typifies ‘Christian vindictiveness at its worst?’
What is going on? I suggest these Christian scholars find it tricky to know what to do with an ‘uppity’ Jew. I remember my first trip to New York where I passed a hotdog seller on the street whose vending station was emblazoned with a Kashrut certification – Gevalt. Then I overheard the seller accusing a purchaser of ‘trying to Jew me.’ There is a certain kind of antisemitism that doesn’t mind Jews, as long as we make falafel, tell good jokes and don’t cause trouble. That’s not really fair. Judaism is indeed a religion of sweetness, charity and love. But it is also a religion (and indeed a people and a history) featuring clandestine schemes perpetrated just to survive and, even, occasional outbursts of violence. Jews are normal people too. And for me Purim, with all its recklessness, is the festival which gives voice to these other, less sweet, parts of our history and our selves. The good news is that we know it’s only a story. We live out our fantasies of triumph overcoming threat in the pages of a great tale that turns on the fall of the lot, we don’t launch pogroms or exterminations. Then, once this day passes, we get on with the more serious business of preparing the world for the overthrow of oppression (Pesach) and the revelation of God’s loving kindness (Shavuot).
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,