Purim and the Jewish Id

ahm1.jpgI’m willing to lay odds that this Purim there will be a fair share of Jewish commentators claiming that history is repeating itself in Shushan – that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the contemporary Haman come back to life to once again threaten the Jewish people with genocide. I’m also fairly sure that some of these pundits will even recommend that we should emulate the Jews of ancient Persia in the Purim story (see Esther 9:1-16) and launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to avert the coming cataclysm.

Don’t buy it.

While reading the Book of Esther gives us a great way to celebrate the holiday of Purim, it makes for lousy analysis of contemporary geo-politics. That we might be tempted to compare our current world situation to a decidedly absurdist and satirical Biblical text shows just how far down the rabbit hole we may have fallen.

It feels odd to have to write these words, but here goes: don’t take the Book of Esther so seriously. It’s a wacked-out tale for a wacked-out holiday. On this one cathartic day, we allow ourselves to live in a topsy-turvy world, in which up is down, blessing is curse, and victim is victor. Megillat Esther is at its core a collective Jewish revenge fantasy in which every imaginable power dynamic (male/female, Gentile/Jew, Oppressor/Oppressed) is joyfully subverted. Purim gives us the chance to let our “Jewish Id” run amok – to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year.

We would also do well to bear in mind that the Book of Esther has for centuries been chanted by a victimized Jewish nation that has dreamed for centuries about turning the tables on their oppressors. But we must admit to ourselves that 21st century Jewish nation bears little resemblance to the cowering, sackcloth-wearing masses of the Purim story. It’s probably a sign of how much we have internalized our victimization that we might even be tempted to draw parallels between the Book of Esther and our fear of genocide at the hands of the current Iranian regime.

Whether we want to admit it our not, we Jews currently live in an age of unprecedented Jewish empowerment. Whether or not we are willing to say it out loud, there are relatively few oppressed Jewish communities in the Diaspora any more and the State of Israel is a strong and vigorous nation (one, by the way, that has the capability to literally wipe out Iran with the push of a button.) To compare our lot to the victims of Shushan is, quite frankly, chuzpah of truly Purim-dik proportions.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for catharsis. By all means let’s tip a few this Purim. But let’s also keep absurdity in its place. After we’ve nursed our hangovers, we’ll still have to find a better way through the real-life story that is currently unfolding in present day Shushan.

6 thoughts on “Purim and the Jewish Id

  1. Jordan Margolis

    As one who religiously exercises chuzpah of Purim-dik proportions, and who takes Purim so seriously and literally that I read the Megillah as scripture; it’s fortunate for you, learned Rabbi, that I’ve already tipped more than a few this morning and am too profoundly drunk to take offense at your heretical notions.

    L’Chaim, Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach. Happy Purim.

    Hiccup. Brech.

    Jordan Margolis a/k/a Mr. Purim

    Reply
  2. Shirley Gould

    Reading your take on the Book of Esther is like going into a sunny, warm beautiful place this cloudy Erev Shabbat.

    I’m amazed that no one ever pointed this out before, and I feel great about the interpretation. Thanks, and I’ll tip one too.

    Reply
  3. Joel Blechman

    I believe the power of a myth is in the lesson it teaches and what it says about our culture more than in the truth of the story.

    I think the lessons of Purim are a very powerful allegory for the world today. The lesson is that there will always be threats to our society, and if people take it upon themselves to speak out as Esther did, even though they may feel powerless, they can make a difference.

    Why not look for the good that a centuries old story can teach us and cherish our people’s ability to find that goodness or “godliness” in the story, rather than trash it since it can’t be historically substantiated?

    Reply
  4. mark stein

    Well, we liked it. These are our stories, we tell them and we learn from them. We can debate veracity, but it’s unclear if that’s what would benefit us most.

    Bu then, we really liked that news flash when our learned rebbe imparted to us that the Maccabees were not exactly warm fuzzies. It’s good to have one’s assumptions challenged.

    Reply
  5. Elliot Zashin

    Brant: Basically, I am with you on Purim. Some years ago, I actually read that megillah carefully and learned that we really don’t know a lot about how it came to be written. But it is, to my mind, a fantasy–no doubt a powerful one–but as you say, it represents the imagination of relatively powerless Jews run wild. Do we really want to celebrate our people’s slaughtering the gentiles among whom they lived–even after their [the gentiles’] leaders were acting like Nazis and giving the people permission to savage the Jews? Perhaps that is one reason you are allowed to get really drunk on Purim–because the reality is so painful, you need to blot it out.

    Reply
  6. Joe Purim

    Powerless? At the end of the day we had a Jewish queen and a Jewish prime minister. They were ruling the roost. Mind you Mordechai was not ashamed of who he was either he was Mr. Jew We have yet to have any Jewish leadership of that stature in this country. They are the ones that push for the story to be told.

    Some Jews are just so much more comfortable being victims than taking the initiative to defend themselves.

    They are the ones who have absorbed the victimhood of the galut menatlity.

    May the eternal lessons of Purim permeate our souls. Be proud of who we are. Do not bow to the Hamans of the world. Unify our people. Defend ourselves. Than as the megillah tells us many of the nations adopted Judaism. You cannot value the lives of those who are trying to kill you more than you value the lives of your innocent children. The mistake Jews have made and the mistake many of the wellmeaning orgs. you support as listed on this webpage is to be merciful to the cruel because that causes us to be cruel to the innocent.

    Happy Purim time to SOBER UP!

    Reply

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