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Purim, the Invention of Anti-Semitism, and the Celebration of Jewish Creativity

The Book of Esther represents a turning point in Jewish history: the demonization of the Jews

Yaakov Elman
March 21, 2016
Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York
detail, Pavel Wolberg, 'Jerusalem (Mea Shearim),' 2010.Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York
detail, Pavel Wolberg, 'Jerusalem (Mea Shearim),' 2010.Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York

Purim is the closest Judaism gets to carnival. We are enjoined to get bashed and boozed, tight and tipsy to the point that we cannot distinguish Haman from Mordecai. Or, as Rabbi Pinchas Stolper put it, “the ‘goyish’ character of the celebration of Purim must appear to any newcomer … as uniquely alien to the Jewish spirit.” In Pahad Yitzhak Purim, Quntras ha-Reshimot 5, Rav Yitzchok Hutner reports on a European Purim custom whereby “Purim players” would enter a house and sing: “Today is Purim, tomorrow is out; give us a drink and throw us out!” And he reported that a certain great scholar forbade that jingle to be sung before him.

Two months ago we turned to Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s understanding of Hanukkah within the context of Jewish history; for Purim we would like to turn to the same source—his magnum opus, Pahad Yitzhak, but in this case, with the indirection appropriate to the occasion, to one of his discourses on Yom Kippur, since, as he reminds us (in the volume on Purim) “Yom Kippurim is ke-Purim,” Yom Kippur is like Purim; that is, there are similarities between the two days that are worth exploring. As Rav Hutner explained, Hanukkah marks one watershed in human history: the rise of individualism, and the effect that had on the Jews and their understanding of the Torah, which became an increasingly human document—with God’s approval. According to Pahad Yitzhak, however, that process began earlier, with the return of the exiled Judeans and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple under Persian auspices and the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah—and under the influence of another watershed event, which we commemorate on Purim.

Rav Hutner points to a rabbinic source that interprets a puzzling statement in Nehemiah 8:17; the verse in question observes that the Jews celebrated Sukkot by building sukkot and living in them for the duration of the festival—something that had not been done since the times of Joshua bin Nun. How could that be, asks the Talmud (Arakin 32b)? Could it really be the case that David, King of Israel and progenitor of the Messiah, that King Solomon, builder of the Temple, had not celebrated Sukkot as the Torah mandates?

The Talmud reports:

He [Ezra] had prayed for mercy in regard to the passion for idolatry and he removed it, and his merit then shielded them even as the sukkah [shields its inhabitants, from a root meaning “to shield”].

As Rav Hutner goes on to explain in Pahad Yitzhak, Yom Kippur 7.2:

These words are difficult to parse, for we have often found that the merit of mitzvot and good deeds protect and save [their doers]—without comparisons and analogies! This [protection] is thus simple [to understand and requires no further explanation or analogy to the sukkah]. … But a deeper analysis will teach us that this act of Ezra in abolishing the inclination for idolatry [which had led to the destruction of the Temple] was a unique event from the time of Creation onward to the End of Days and the salvation of humanity. For in all the unfolding of events of human history no analogue may be found to this abolition of an inclination so deeply rooted in the human psyche.

Indeed, this event is a foretaste of the End of Days, when, as the prophets foretell, our hearts of stone will be turned to flesh, the foreskin of our hearts will be circumcised, and so on.

In Pahad Yitzhak, Yom Kippur 10.4 Rav Hutner then connects this epochal event with another unusual event, the ceremony of the Rejoicing of the Water Drawing in the Temple on Sukkot, which, the sages inform us, represented the acme of joy. Rav Hutner explains this as a celebration of the end of idolatry. Moreover, this was a foretaste of another epochal event: the end of humanity’s inclination to sin altogether, which will occur at that End of Days, when our bifurcated nature will be made whole in the service of God.

And as he explains in Pahad Yitzhak, Yom Kippur 15.4-5

4. And this is what we said [above], based on the principle of the Maharal that the sanctity of the First Temple issued from the Giver, while the sanctity of the Second Temple came from the recipient [(Israel)—YE], and this difference in the sanctity of the Temple was clearly recognizable in the building itself [since the Second Temple lacked the ark—YE], and so too this difference was revealed in the eras of the two Temples. For the governance of the Collectivity of Israel during the period of the First Temple was by the prophets, while its governance during the Second Temple period was by the Men of the Great Assembly and their disciples, as we have it in the Mishnah at the beginning of Avot, “the prophets handed it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” And the Men of the Great Assembly are the ones who said “erect fences to the Torah,” and overwhelmingly the enactments, decrees and “words of the Scribes” are from the period of the Second Temple, and we hold that all the enactments continue in force because of their dissemination among all of Israel. And all of this shows clearly (lit., “shows with a finger”) that even in regard to (the nature) of the period of the two temples, that of the First Temple was closer to the Giver, while that of the Second Temple was closer to the recipient.

5. And we continue to draw the line further, from the difference between the two temples in their building to the difference between the two temples in their destruction, for the Maharal taught us that the destruction of the two temples stands within the secret of zeh le’umat zeh (parallel developments) in regard to their building. Since the sanctity of the First Temple was from the Giver, so too the breaches that caused its destruction were the sins and transgressions in relation to God, that is, the three most heinous transgressions [of idolatry, sexual crimes, and murder—YE]. However, in regard to the Second Temple, whose sanctity in its building was from the recipients, the breaches that caused its destruction were the failings in the actions of the recipients, that is, baseless hatred within the Collectivity of Israel itself.

As it happens, historians, following the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, have marked this period as an “Axial Age,” when many cultures of the Eurasian continent underwent a decisive change—from the Hebrew prophets to the Greek philosophers to Confucius—a change that turned them to a more inward but, at least for some, a more transcendental direction. One consequence was the end of idolatry. For the Jews, Purim marks that change.

This in turn may be connected to another event that the sages connected with Purim. In the Megillah it states that the Jews of Susa fulfilled and accepted this new holiday; but, notes the Talmud (in Shabbat 88a), should this not have been stated in the reverse? One fulfills what one accepts; what does it mean that they accepted after they fulfilled? Rather, says the Talmud, this expression refers to Jews’ acceptance of responsibility to cultivate the study of Torah, to apply human methods of analysis to the Torah’s commandments, a responsibility that would find its apogee only after the miracle of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah and Purim share their status as festivals established after the Sinaitic revelation; they were initiated by human beings responding to what they perceived as miraculous events, thus passing a human judgment on a hidden divine act. The rabbis contrast this voluntary acceptance of the Torah with the scene at Mount Sinai, when, as the Talmud puts it: “The Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, ‘tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’” In other words, Purim, when the Jews accepted the Torah willingly, is the completion of a process that began on that first Yom Kippur, when Moses descended the mountain bearing the second set of tablets containing the Decalogue.

In the light of all this, however, the paradox deepens: Why do we celebrate this by becoming drunk on Purim? And what does the Book of Esther, in which God is never mentioned explicitly, have to do with Torah study and explication? The key to understanding the puzzle of Purim lies in Haman’s charge against the Jews in Esther 3:8: “Their laws are different from every other nation, and they do not observe the King’s laws.” Nebuchadnezzer destroyed the Temple because the Judeans had rebelled. Haman was proposing to destroy them only because they and their laws were “different”—a charge that would echo throughout history.

The Book of Esther represents a turning point in Jewish history: the invention of anti-Semitism and the demonization of the Jews, whose laws are different and who are scattered; Purim thus represents both a new acceptance of those laws and a strengthening of the communal bonds of a scattered people. It also represents a new dispensation of divine governance: The age of open supernatural intervention was over. As the rabbis put it: Esther is prefigured in the Torah by the verse “I will surely hide (haster astir) my face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18, see Talmud Hulin 139b).

Purim thus represented a double watershed: the removal of direct divine intervention along with the decay of idolatry; the Persian monarchy was Zoroastrian, a religion that did not worship idols, but rather the fire as a symbol of the creator, whom they called Ahura Mazda, “Lord Wisdom.” Lord Wisdom had revealed himself to Zoroaster with detailed prescriptions for leading a religiously sanctioned life. The Babylonian gods did not do that; with the advent of Zoroastrianism, Haman could attempt to manipulate Ahasuerus by pointing out a vital religious difference between the Persians and the Jews: therefore, “it is not worth tolerating them,” as he goes on to say.

Persians and Jews both worshiped a benevolent creator who was intent on extirpating evil and gave his worshipers laws to guide them in strengthening the forces for good. In such a case, one might expect the sociologists’ “Law of the Martian” to apply, that is, the smaller the differences between two views, the more intense the struggle between them. But in this case it was not so: The Persian emperors ruled the largest empire known to that time, consisting of 127 multi-ethnic and multi-religious provinces. Taxes were more important than religion. The Purim plot was very much an exception to the position of the Jews under successive Persian dynasties. And so, ultimately, Haman—who was not a Persian—failed, the Temple was rebuilt under Persian auspices, and the Jews and Persians went on to over a millennium of peaceful co-existence. But Purim remains and will remain, because that charge still has force: “Their laws are different!”

But why the drink and song, carnival atmosphere, costumes, and other shenanigans? Exilic Judaism is a sober religion; mourning and reflection come more naturally to it than joy and celebration. As a persecuted minority Jews could not “let themselves go.” Purim is an anomaly, as is Simhat Torah, whose popular nature and origin are well-known; the Talmud is unaware of it. And so in Pahad Yitzhak Purim, Quntras ha-Reshimot 2 we find the following:

From holy books and writers we know that the essential aspect of Purim is not that it reveals the sanctity of Jewish thought, not that it reveals the sanctity of Jewish character-traits, but rather—the sanctity of the Jewish body. For in the final analysis the miracle of Purim was the salvation of Jewish bodies. … Hanukkah was the salvation of Jewish spirituality; but Purim was the salvation of Jewish bodies.

We may connect this with another aspect of Purim: drinking to the point of insensibility, to the point of not being able to distinguish “Blessed be Mordechai!” and “Cursed be Haman!”

Further on in Quntras ha-Reshimot, in no. 9, we find the following observation:

The sanctity of Purim is built entirely on impressions. Everyone understands that it is impossible to begin with [that state of] “that he not distinguish [blessing from curse].” That [state] of insensibility is built on a prior [state of] knowledge which is now gone. It is thus understandable that since Purim is built entirely on the law of impressions, it is most effective in strengthening the power of the sanctity of impressions.

Rabbi Stolper, in his adaptive translation of this passage identifies “impressions” (roshem) with the subconscious, a concept introduced into Jewish thought over a century ago by Rav Israel Salanter. As Rabbi Stolper put it:

I must first know and discern a great deal on the conscious level, all the while forming holy impressions on the subconscious. Only then can I trust myself to suspend conscious intelligence for a day, with the confidence that my inner compass will guide my drunken body away from misbehavior.

We may put it slightly differently. Torah study is consciously and unremittingly intellectual; Purim allows for unconscious intuition as a means of furthering our understanding. And that intuition fosters creativity, one of Rav Hutner’s major goals.


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Yaakov Elman (1943-2018) was a Professor of Jewish History, and the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies, at Yeshiva University.