The Book of Esther (Subversive Edition)

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Detail of a Megillah (Scroll of Esther) from 19th century France

“Rava said: ‘It is one’s duty to make oneself fragrant with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.'”

– Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b

Now it came to pass in the days of King Ahasuerus,
(this is Ahasuerus who reigned
over the great Persian empire in 486 BCE)
that the King made a feast unto all the men of his kingdom
and Vashti the Queen held a feast for the women.

On the seventh day,
when the heart of the King was merry with wine,
he demanded that Vashti the Queen dance before him
wearing nothing but her royal crown.
But Vashti refused to come at the King’s command.

Thereupon the King asked his wise men,
“What shall we do to the Queen Vashti;
she has disobeyed an order of King Ahasuerus!”
Their answer: “Vashti has not merely insulted the King,
but all the people of Persia.”

The King’s men went to summon the Queen,
but she was nowhere to be found.
Some say she was executed,
others say she was imprisoned,
still others say she fled the empire.

The legends of her fearlessness however,
are told yet to this day.
(On many a moonlit night, they say,
Vashti’s songs and laughter can be heard
ringing out across the shores of the Southern Persian Sea).

The King sent out a royal command
Throughout all the provinces of his kingdom,
to all the maidens of the land:
Come to the palace!
The one that most pleases the King
shall replace Vashti as Queen.

Now the Jews had lived in Persia for a century –
ever since the Great Destruction
and they enjoyed freedom and prosperity
throughout the land.

In those days there was a certain Jew,
whose name was Mordechai.
Although he lacked for nothing,
he could not find peace,
for the memory of his ancestors’ exile
burned within him
like a fire that raged without end.

Mordechai’s niece Esther
decided that she would go the King’s palace.
When she told Mordechai, he smiled within.
“If Esther does indeed become Queen,” he thought to himself,
“I may finally avenge the wrongs done to my ancestors
and bring ruin upon the people of Persia.”

When Esther went into the King’s house
King Ahasuerus proclaimed:
“This one shall be my Queen.
Together we shall rule over all Persia.”

When Mordechai learned his niece
would soon be crowned as Queen,
he said to her:

“This is just the moment
for which we have waiting!
You must tell me everything
you hear from the King’s palace
so that we may move against it.

For we know it is but a matter of time
before the Persian empire makes good
on its plans to destroy our people.
Be true to your kin!
Who knows, maybe you have been made Queen
for such as time as this?”

But Esther said to Mordechai,
“This I will not do, for Persia is our home.
We dwell here in security and enjoy
a bounty of blessings in this land.
If I were as to do as you instruct me,
it would bring hatred and retaliation
against the Jewish people.”

And so Esther married King Ahasuerus
and joined him in his palace.
Esther did not hide her Jewish identity
from the King or anyone else who lived in the land.
The Jews of Persia rejoiced –
for although many of their kin
had held high and respected positions
in the King’s court,
they were proud that one of their own
had become Queen of all Persia!

Sometime later,
Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite
to a place of highest honor in his court.
Though the Jews had been taught
to fear his ancestors,
Haman was a man of compassion and wisdom,
held in great esteem by all who know him.

When Mordechai learned of Haman’s rise
in the King’s court
he was filled with loathing and dread.
He gathered with four conspirators
and together they plotted Haman’s downfall
by striking a mighty blow against his people.

After a time, the King’s ardor for Esther waned
and soon she came to learn
that she was but one of the kings many consorts.
When Ahasuerus saw her face fall he said to her:
“Why are you downcast? Many are my wives,
but only one is my Queen.”

Esther did not remain sad for long.
She and Haman came to know
and trust one another
and soon they became lovers.
When night fell they would steal away to his bed
while the King was fast asleep
in the chambers of his concubines.

In due time, one of Mordechai’s co-conspirators
came to regret the terrible plans they had made,
and he requested an audience with the Queen.
Bowing low to Esther, he said,

“Please forgive me, your highness,
for I have committed a grievous wrong.
Mordechai has set a terrible plot in motion:
In one day, on the thirteenth day
of the twelfth month of Adar,
he plans to murder Haman while he worships.
None will be spared and all who are gathered in prayer
with him will be slain.”

That evening, Esther lay awake
with great anguish.
If she remained silent, she would allow
the death of many innocents
and the Jews of Persia would be in grave danger.
But could she betray her own kin?
If she told the King of Mordechai’s plot
he would most certainly be put to death.

With morning soon to break
Esther finally knew what she must do.
Leaving the palace quietly before dawn,
she rode to Mordechai’s home
and told him thus:

“I know what you have planned,
so hear me now:
Although you are my own flesh and blood,
I am prepared to tell the king
of your evil plot.
If you attack Haman and his people,
you will bring nothing but bloodshed and sorrow
to our people and all of Persia as well.”

Then coming closer she said to him:

“We are Jews, but Persia is our home.
As a Jew, as a Persian, and as your Queen:
I swear that as I stand here before you now,
I will turn you in before I allow you
to bring ruin upon us all.”

Thereupon Esther returned to the palace
as the sun rose on the thirteenth of Adar.

That morning, Esther woke with a start
because Haman had already left
for his morning prayers.
When he returned, she she gave thanks to God
for she knew that Mordechai had turned away
from his wicked plan.

As Esther embraced her love, she marveled
at how quickly her sorrow had turned to joy
her fear into power,
her anguish into hope.

(So may it be for us
and for all who dwell on earth).

Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

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Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”

Jewish Violence on Purim: Time for a Religious Reckoning?

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Purim 2013: A Palestinian woman is attacked by ultra-nationalist Jews in Jerusalem.

Like many Jews around the world, I dutifully celebrated Purim last week. In my case, it meant hearing the Book of Esther read aloud in my synagogue while drinking an occasional shot of scotch, enjoying our annual “Oy Vey Cafe,” (a beloved congregational tradition that mixes member-written and performed show tune and classic rock parodies) and attending our synagogue Religious School’s costume parade and Purim carnival.

I’m sure that many middle-class American Jews celebrated Purim in similar fashion. I’m also fairly sure that most middle-class American Jews are unaware that Purim has long been “celebrated” in a very different manner by ultra-nationalist Jews in Israel.

Last week on the day after Purim, it was reported that a Palestinian woman was attacked by ultra-orthodox women at a light rail station in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem.  According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman walked by the Palestinian woman and began punching her (see pic above).  Others soon joined in the attack and eventually tore off her hijab. According to the report, the light rail security guard, as well as some 100 religious Israeli men, stood by and did nothing. Eyewitness Dorit Yarden Dotan, who was horrified by the violence and took photos of the beating with her telephone, reported that the security guard even “watched and smiled”. “It was simply terrible,” she added.

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Photo: Jerusalem Post

By the way, this was not the only act of Purim violence this year. On the same day as the Jerusalem attack, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Hassan Usruf (right), was attacked by drunken Jewish youths whom police suspect had been participating in Purim celebrations during the evening. Usruf was punched, hit in the head with a bottle and kicked after he fell to the ground. He sustained injuries to his head, eye socket and jaw. The police have yet to arrest any suspects.

Those who follow the news must surely know that this kind of Jewish violence against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel. The most infamous Purim moment, of course, occurred in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron wearing an Israeli army uniform and opened fire on Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and wounding more than 125.  By committing this act of mass murder, Goldstein believed he was fulfilling the the Book of Esther, which describes the slaughter of seventy five thousand Persians at the hands of the Jews. Since that time, Goldstein has become venerated by ultra-orthodox, ultra-nationalist Jews and for rest of us, Purim has never been quite the same.

FQO

Purim 2009: A Jewish settler throws wine at Palestinian woman in Hevron, West Bank, (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo, NY Times)

I’ve recently finished Elliot Horowitz’s 2006 book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence” – a deeply troubling (but to my mind, profoundly essential) book that traces the history of Jewish violence on Purim over the centuries. Among the many disturbing revelations of Purim history in Horowitz’s book, I was surprised to learn that bad Jewish behavior on Purim has a long and not so venerable history – one that most Jewish histories either gloss over or simply choose to ignore.

Horowitz also parses the history of Purim violence in contemporary Israel, going back to Purim 1981, when Jewish settlers brought down the roof of a Palestinian upholsters’ home, expelled its owner and took over the house. (The house had once been a Jewish infirmary and synagogue, “Beit Hadassah.”) Since then, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hevron has become an annual tradition of Jewish pogroms against Palestinians. As last week’s events have demonstrated, however, this brutality is now ominously expanding into Israel proper.

Yes, the Book of Esther does come off as a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. As for me, I’ve always read the book according to the satirical spirit of the day: an expression of the “Jewish Id” that gives us the chance 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.  But of course, there are – and apparently have always been – religious literalists who are all too prepared to treat what is essentially a secular tale of palace intrigue as a sacred imperative to engage in xenophobic violence against others.

In his book, Horowitz quotes the venerable Jewish scholar Samuel Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), a former rector and professor at Hebrew University, who expressed dismay at boorish and violent behavior of Jews on Purim. Bergman – a religiously observant Jew – commented that its continued observance as a religious holiday was a sign of “the deep decay of our people.”  (p. 277)

In the post-Goldstein era, I’d say Bergman’s words resonate with ever-increasing urgency.

A Canticle For Goldstein

There are the kinds of people who are taking over Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem…

PS: Many attendees of Saturday’s demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah reported that a speech by young Israeli activist Sara Benninga was the highlight of the demonstration. Click here for the complete text of her speech, translated into English.

A Synagogue With Heart

Kol Hakavod to blogger Shamai Leibowitz’s synagogue for raising money that enabled a Gazan child to receive life-saving heart surgery:

The people who came to my synagogue to hear the Megillah reading on Purim this week saw a large placard with a picture of a cute baby and a headline asking people to donate money to Save a Child’s Heart to save the life of this toddler.

It was a picture of Nour, a sweet one-year-old from Gaza who has Congenital Heart Disease, and needs life-saving surgeries and treatments to repair her heart. Congenital Heart Disease is a type of defect in one or more structures of the heart or blood vessels that occurs while the fetus is developing in the uterus, and affects 8-10 out of every 1,000 children. Nour’s expensive medical treatments are being sponsored by Save a Child’s Heart Foundation (SACH), an organization founded by synagogue members Dr. Ovadiah and Dolores Cohen.

Click here for the full post.