Tazria – the woman’s seed and maternal responsibility when a son is born

In the first verse of the torah reading we have a strange word, one which is used to name the portion – the word ‘tazria’ means to seed, and so we have the statement that “A woman who seeds, and who gives birth to a male child, will be ritually unclean for seven days” Shortly afterwards we are told of a woman who gives birth to a female child, and will be ritually unclean for fourteen days – there is no extra clause here to do with seeding. It seems that torah has placed an extra phrase into the text of the birth of a male child – the phrase “Ki Tazria”, “who seeds” is not needed to give clarity to the meaning and is not repeated in the following, almost identical, paragraph.

 “A woman who seeds”. What can it mean? Bible is usually very masculine about zera – seed. It focuses on the role of men in conception and for purposes of descendants etc. And yet here we have this odd, causative form of the word deliberately attached to a woman who will give birth to a male child.   We are taken back to the only other time in bible that the text talks about the seed of woman- the third chapter of genesis which tells us that God tells the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; they shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise their heel.’ (Genesis 3:15) It is almost as if the passage discussing the birth of a male child, and the ritual impurity it brings, is harking back to the moment when humanity took responsibility for itself, having disobeyed God’s commands within the Garden of Eden. Yet one cannot read a doctrine of original sin or of a congenitally impure soul in the text, for the phrase is not repeated at the birth of a female child, so what CAN we understand from this strange piece? 

 Possibly the use of this verb here to describe the maternal responsibility for conception is to remind us that the child is not solely the child of the father, but also of the mother – something that had to be emphasised given the gender of the child.  A female body giving birth to a male body could be seen to be somehow confusing of boundary, or of making the woman somehow also male – all of which in terms of the system of the ritual world would cause problems of clarity. 

 A child must be seen as the product of both parents and the responsibility of both.  The Talmud goes further, saying (tractate kiddushin 30b) “Our Rabbis taught: there are three partners in every person, the Holy One Blessed is God, the father and the mother. When a person honours their father and their mother, the Holy One Blessed is God says, “I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honoured Me.” And Rabbi Judah the Prince used to say- “It is well known to the One who spoke and the world came into existence (i.e. God) that a son honours his mother more than his father because she sways him with words” and because of this the fifth commandment places the father before the mother in order to balance the relationship!

 ImageWe don’t know why this extra phrase ‘ki tazria’ was put into the text for, though we can see that it is clearly important – and given the way the torah readings were divided, the phrase gave the name to the sidra.  We don’t know, but we can think about this powerful reminder that both mothers and fathers are progenitors of the children, and both are to take the responsibility of parenting properly, and the child must acknowledge the different people and families from which they descend. This weekend is ‘mother’s day’ – a day which may have evolved from the worship of divine mother figures in ancient Greece and Rome, a day which has been taken into the church calendar as mothering Sunday, and which has been taken into the secular calendar as an opportunity for selling yet more unwanted consumables to a population who feel slightly guilty about how well they have actually been honouring their mothers in the previous year. 

Whatever you choose to do this weekend, take a moment to think about the many influences – from both father and mother – on every child, and the lost opportunities to influence as well. And think too of the opportunities to honour God by honouring parents that we all pass by or gloss over. Whatever the bible intended us to understand about this strange text, we can certainly draw many powerful contemporary lessons for ourselves.

From Purim to Pesach – the flavour of slavery as we prepare for the scent of freedoms

By tradition the days from Purim to Pesach have a character all their own – that of mental preparation and of physical hard work. For if tradition tells us that Rosh Chodesh Adar brings with it increasing joy, we know that it also sounds the starting pistol in the race to make everything ready for Pesach.

There are those who search through every book on their shelves, for crumbs fallen as the reader fed their body as well as their mind. There are those who begin at the top of the house and ruthlessly unearth every speck of leaven from the pockets of jackets hanging in wardrobes to the linings of handbags and suitcases put away after earlier outings.

There are some who ruthlessly scrub every surface be it inside or out, regardless of whether food could possibly come into contact or not, and there are those he maniacally turn out pot and pan drawers, cutlery containers and the shelves of artefacts kept unused just in case one might want a fish kettle/ pasta maker/ mousse mould.

From Purim to Pesach the traditionally minded Jewish householder experiences a little of the flavour of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The injunction for this story of redemption from slavery to become our own personal story is taken quite literally as servitude to the ideal of a sparkling clean leaven free home means sore back muscles, peeling fingernails and a pervasive smell of bleach on the fingers of the zealous leaven hunter.

There is, I know, a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when the work is done, the house a no-go zone for non pesachdik condiments, the shopping done, the Seder table set and the ritual foods ready along with the feast that follows. But alongside the satisfaction is the niggling sense that we need to remember that a clean house and communally enjoyed meal is not the purpose of the exercise. It is only the route towards considering the meaning of freedom.

We are to think ourselves beyond the physical and emotional labour necessary to prepare for it, in order to experience the meaning of the Seder in all its rich complexity. Having a nice meal with extended family, all work done for the moment, is not the point, however enjoyable it may be. We are having Pesach and the Seder meal in order to remember. The event is to memorialise through reliving and retelling a story that must belong to us. It is to remember our past and the formative narrative of our redemption by God. It is to make our memory something that does not simply narrate or contain the past, but something that causes us to be active in the present.

What are we doing when we memorialise, when we ‘remember’ the story of our people as if it is our own experience? We are ‘remembering’ in the sense of putting something together,‘re-membering’. We are putting together the experiences that formed us as a people and thinking about how they are still playing out in the world we live in today – both giving us our own identity as Jews and giving us understanding of all who share the experience of oppression and lack of freedoms. And from this understanding we begin to notice that we are not the only people who have a narrative of pain, we are not the only ones who are looking to be and to stay free.

The most repeated sentence in bible is “Remember you were a slave in Egypt”. Why so? It cannot be simply to remember painful times in order to dwell on them or be grateful that they are gone. It must be because action has to emerge from our remembering. Our remembering of what it was like to be oppressed and burdened has value only if we work to remove such oppression and trouble from the world we inhabit now.

These days we often understand this command to remember our own slavery as being the nudge that should give us empathy towards those who are suffering without freedoms – that we are somehow more likely to care for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because of our own history and experience. But there is at least one medieval source which tells us almost the opposite – that once we have escaped our own pain it is easier to deny it, to treat others badly as we were once treated in order to  keep our distance from the experience. So the injunction to remember our slavery is repeated so often in our texts precisely because we are more, rather than less likely to ignore the pain of others. There are resonances in modern psychological thought – that we repeat the dysfunction of our childhood experiences in our own families, a vicious cycle that takes mindful and conscious effort to break out from.  If this is so, how much more so does the journey from Purim to Pesach and the climax of the haggadah narrative force us to remember our own suffering in order to help others whose suffering is happening right now.

            The festival of Purim allows us to explore the dark sides of our world and of ourselves. The festival of Pesach does the same. But it gives us something extra – the knowledge that if we work together we can change our world. At the exodus from Egypt not only the Jews escaped slavery – an erev rav  (mixed multitude of people) took the opportunity to escape too.  May our Pesach every year mean that other people reach freedom alongside us, that we are moved to make this happen, that we remember our own stories of oppression and work to ensure that for every person and every people there will be a time when they too will be able to recite their own story as historical narrative rather than present reality.  


Shemini – The Eighth Day. How to make a new beginning and get on with life

The sidra continues the story begun last week, when Aaron and his sons were dedicated to the priesthood in a ceremony lasting seven days. And now, on the eighth day, it is time for them to begin their work, to offer sacrifices at the altar, to prepare the place and the people for the imminent arrival of the presence of God.

We begin with a verse that has always caught my attention. “Vay’hee bayom ha’shemini, kara Moshe l’Aharon u’le’vanav, ul’zik’nei Yisrael” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and to his sons, and to the Elders of Israel… “ (Lev 9:1)

Why does it catch my attention? Firstly because the eighth day is such a particular description – we have had a full week of seven days of preparation and now here we are with a new beginning. The eighth day always makes me think of the seven days of Creation and then – this day, the first day of the life of the world fully made. It makes me think of the mitzvah of circumcision to be enacted on the eighth day – the day a male Jewish baby is brought into the Covenant. It symbolises to me the moment of starting out, the first steps of independence once the groundwork has been laid.

So it seems right and proper that the priests should be starting their sacrificial work on this day, when the world is somehow shiny and new and all things are possible.

And then the second ‘catch’ – why does Moses call not only Aaron and his sons, but also the Ziknei Yisrael, the Elders of Israel? This is apparently a priestly activity, the instructions specifically for them to do, and yet the Elders are also there.

The Ziknei Yisrael are present at a number of pivotal events in the bible. At the burning bush Moses is told to gather the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16), at Sinai (Exodus 19:7) again they are gathered and told what God had said to Moses, in the wilderness after one of the rebellions again God tells Moses to gather them to hear God’s words (Num. 11:16). The Ziknei Yisrael are often the witnesses and the support to Moses at times of change or vulnerability. While they do not speak and seem to have no active or proactive role in the text, their presence is vital to the stability and robustness of Moses’ leadership.

So here we are, a verse denoting new beginnings for the worship system, witnessed by the Elders who have been with Moses every step of the way, and within a short time we have the story of a tragedy. The new beginning has gone badly wrong; Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron have died because they have not followed the ritual correctly, and Aaron is unable to speak, and explicitly told that he must not show his grief in a public manner.

And then the dedication ceremony continues, with Aaron and his remaining sons Itamar and Elazar fulfilling the ritual, though it is clear in the text that their hearts are not really in it. They are traumatised and unable to eat the portion marked for the priesthood. And yet, like consummate professionals, the work of the Tabernacle goes on.

I always read this section with a sense of great sadness – the death of two of his sons clearly marks Aaron and the remaining sons forever. It seems unfair that whatever Nadav and Avihu did, the consequences should have been so drastic. Moses comes over as unfeeling and demanding, focussed on the continuation of the process more than on the desperate distress of his family.

And the elders? Well they observe it all, solidly present, quietly linking the past to the future, the witnesses to the trauma of our people

The response of Moses which seems so unfeeling is maybe not as cold as it first appears. He tells Aaron and the surviving sons to continue with the important work they have to do, not to allow themselves to stop and to interrupt all that they have prepared for. They cannot indulge in paralysing grief, but must get on with life. And so they do. They are dejected and in anguish, but they get on with the work of their lives, and so the people of Israel pick up once more and continue in their journey. I am reminded of all those Holocaust Survivors who did not speak a great deal of what had happened to them and to those they loved, but who got on with rebuilding life, defining themselves not by what had happened then but by what they do now. Their response which seemed so odd when I was a child now seems sensible. They were not held back in their grief, they continued to build life. Maybe that is what the eighth day is really about. Whatever happened before there is always a new start, the history may prepare us and shape us, but it can never hold us back if we chose to see ourselves as beginning the next stage of our lives.


Zachor: Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world

“Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
-Deuteronomy 25:17- 19

 On the Shabbat before Purim we read an extra portion from another scroll, and the Shabbat takes its name from this reading – Zachor! Remember!  Liturgically this is to remind us that Purim will be celebrated in the coming week, and a genealogical link is made in tradition between the villain of the Purim story, Haman the Agagite and the people known in bible as Amalekites.

 The Amalekites, like Haman, are understood in Jewish tradition to be those people who hate without reason or cause; Bible records them as descendants of Esau, though it is hard to understand either their location or their individuality. Both “Amalek” and “Amalekites” seem to be used to describe a people who are outside the mainstream, people who are on the fringes and who threaten the core. The words come to symbolise meaningless, purposeless evil – an opposite of all that faith in God might bring, and of course in our passage we are told that Amalek did what they did because “they did not fear God”. Because of this, they attacked the vulnerable and weakest of the Israelite society, itself a raggle taggle of ex slaves with little strength to keep going. This was not a group who threatened Amalekite society – the Israelites were attacked simply because it was unlikely they would be able to defend themselves.

 Over the years “Amalek” has come to be a symbol of the other, or the enemy. Our tradition has seen all anti-semitic activity as the manifestation of Amalek, and some have gone further – to see any person or people who challenge Judaism or Israel as descendants of Amalek. The terrible killings perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 where 29 Palestinians were murdered in Hevron and many more injured, came out of extreme and misplaced belief that they were the enemy and therefore they must be Amalek. But Amalek is much more complicated than a way we might use to designate those we think of as “Other”.

 Amalek is more profoundly found not outside ourselves, but inside us, at our own core.  The gematria for Amalek is the same as that for ‘safek’ – doubt, a way of saying that the anti-divine that Amalek represents is something within us, something that we might manifest if we allow ourselves to do so.  While the etymology of the word Amalek is uncertain, it may come from two words – Am Lakak, the people who lick up – the people who selfishly take from all around without any sense of boundary or of compassion for others. Amalek is the trait that takes, that uses up, that does not consider either the other or the context or the future – it is the greed and selfishness we are all prone to as young children, something we have to learn to rein in and control if we are to live with others and create relationships and do good in this world.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808 – 1888) and said to be the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, saw the battle between Israel and Amalek in this way. For him the war is between different sets of values – and Israel should strive to be in the category of morality and life affirming activity. In his commentary on Amalek he wrote “We are warned, remember what Amalek did to you, and see to it that we ourselves should not become an Amalek within ourselves. …not to commit deeds of wrong and violence within our personal lives…. Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.”  

Amalek is not only “the enemy” or “the other” or a symbol of external evil against which we must always be on guard. Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world, and in taking to stop others from having what they need – overriding their vulnerability simply because we can. Our world is full of such behaviours and we have a responsibility to bring them to mind in order to address them. Be it the anxieties over the fate of the vulnerable in our health and social care systems, or the abilities of large organisations to fix opaque and impossible price structures that penalise the unwary or the ignorant or the cash or time-poor; be it the fate of people at the hands of corrupt leaderships or the use of the labour of children or wage slaves to keep prices down, Amalek walks among us and within us. Before we can blot out such behaviour we must become aware and outraged. Remember what Amalek did… you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”

Parashat Tzav: the life blood and the nefesh

And you shall not eat any blood of fowl or beast in any of your dwelling places. Whoever eats any blood that soul will be cut off from his people” (Lev. 7:26-27).

The prohibition against eating blood is mentioned in several places in the Torah. God tells Noah Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Gen 9:4).

In Leviticus 17 we read (10- 14) And whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eat any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood.  And whatsoever man…..that takes in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall pour out its the blood , and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said to the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eat it shall be cut off.

And again in Deuteronomy:  “Only be certain that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. You shall not eat it …”. Deut. 12:23-24

What do we mean when we call the blood the life? In each case in these texts the word used is Nefesh; a word which is often translated as ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ but this isn’t a good translation. According to Genesis the human being doesn’t have a nefesh, it is a nefesh – essentially our nefesh is connected to our physical body – it is related to our blood, to our breath, to our ability to eat or take into ourselves. And yet it is also separate from our body, the animating spirit which can be seen in the body and which leaves at death. The nefesh exists on the boundary between life and death, and this has real import on its place in both the ritual purity system, and in the mystical tradition.

By connecting the nefesh to the blood, as the biblical text does again and again, it reminds us that animals that are killed for worship in the sacrificial system, and subsequently animals killed for food, have value beyond what we are using them for. They have an animating spirit which comes from God; this spirit must be treated with respect so the blood is poured into the ground and covered with dust – the animal has a place in creation, its life has significance, the part that we are allowed to eat is what remains after the life force is drained away – the deadened, irrelevant part.

Judaism has a strong imperative to life. The mitzvot are for living by, not (except for three exceptions) to die for. The mitzvah of saving life (pikuach nefesh) overrides almost all the other mitzvot – even if there is only a possibility that life can be saved.  Life belongs to God and must be respected wherever it is found and in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And blood, along with breath, is the symbol of life. So when we avoid eating blood by koshering the meat we eat, we are making a powerful statement about the value of the life of the animal whose flesh we are eating. Like us it had nefesh, it had dimensions greater than its physical existence. And so while Torah begins with a vegetarian diet for the first human beings, after Noah an exception is made so that meat can be eaten in this less perfect world although still as part of the sacrificial system. And it seems that only when the people were settled in the land of Israel, when many would only go to Jerusalem three times a year for the pilgrim festivals, only then was eating meat as part of a non-sacrificial system permitted and only as a response to their lustful physical appetites which could not be controlled– as we read in Deuteronomy “When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God promised you, and you shall say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul. If the place which the Eternal your God shall choose to put God’s name there be too far from you, then you shalt kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat within your gates, after all the desire of your soul.” (Deut. 12:20-21)

We respect life wherever we find it; we care for it and nurture it, and when it comes to an end for whatever reason – we continue to respect it and to remember that the nefesh belongs to God.  Be it animal or human, life is life, absolute and valuable.


Encountering God is easy: approach with a willing heart and God will find us

A modern mind may look at the book of Leviticus and feel the distance. The world of ritual purity and impurity, of worship through sacrificial system etc is not one we instinctively understand and indeed are likely to find problematic. How can it be possible to come closer to God through such acts of ritual sacrifice?
Traditional Jewish practise dictates that young children are introduced to bible by studying Leviticus, based on the statement by Rav Assi who said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure should study the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.) I find it fascinating that our children begin not with the narratives that we find so often in books of bible stories for bedtime, not with the great dramas of exodus or Sinai, but with texts that do not pretend to have any historical interest, but are filled with rules and regulations about how to worship in the Sanctuary. The heart of Leviticus is that we have to learn how to encounter the God who dwells amongst us –remember that the Mishkan was built to remind people of the presence of God within and among them.
As we learn a series of rituals in order to approach God and come closer to an encounter with the divine, it becomes normative to think of God as a being who is in relationship with us. Leviticus teaches us that we can approach God, that God is open to our searching, indeed wants us to search. Leviticus also teaches that people do wrong things, both deliberately and unwittingly, and in either case forgiveness is not only possible it is waiting for us. What forgiveness requires is for us to know and acknowledge the wrong, and to do something about it in order to be absolved from the guilt.
Children, who have no difficulty believing in a divine being and who indeed often seem most at home in a world of searching for meaning, are indeed well able to begin to look at the texts in Leviticus that might be off putting for their more world weary parents. Children understand that bad behaviour has bad consequences, and that doing something to mitigate the behaviour will lead to better consequences. They believe that they will be forgiven no matter what they do, that they are loveable and acceptable even if their actions may not be.
So as we read the book of Leviticus, let’s remember it isn’t JUST a rule book for the priests, but a philosophy that says – approaching God is very easy, and if we do it thoughtfully, appropriately and mindfully then we will achieve what we want. The word used for sacrifice (korban) and for nearness share the same root k-r-v. Coming closer to God, having God come closer to us is what the ritual system is all about. We have replaced the structure with prayer and liturgy, but the underpinning understanding is the same. All we have to do is approach with a willing heart, and God will find us.

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.