Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

The minor daughter sold to another man:parashat mishpatim asserts her rights.

 

“And if a man sell his [minor] daughter to be a maidservant (le’amah) she shall not leave as the male servants do. If she does not please her master who should be espoused to her/ who is not espoused to her, then he shall let her be redeemed.  He has no power to sell her on to a foreign people for he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouses her to his son then he will treat her as he would treat a daughter. And if he takes another wife [having married her himself] he must not diminish her food, clothing allowance or conjugal rights. And if he fails to provide her with these, then she shall be able to leave freely, without any money to be paid” (Exodus 21:7-11)

Sometimes in bible we are taken aback at the worldview of the text, a perspective that is so far from ours as to seem it comes from a completely different universe.  One response has been to effectively excise some texts from the biblical canon, never going to far as to physically remove them perhaps, but certainly to ensure that they are not read or brought forward to support our current system of beliefs or actions.

At first reading the fate of a minor daughter seems to be that she is powerless and of use only insofar as money can be made from her. It appears that the daughter is an asset to be leveraged for the benefit of the father or the family. And this must have seemed to be reasonable to some, for otherwise why would we find in the Babylonian wisdom literature the maxim – “The strong man lives off what is paid for his arms (strength), but the weak man lives off what is paid for his children” which is surely warning people not to sell their children for profit.

Bible however is a subtle text and we cannot simply read the first half of the verse without the conditions required in the second half and the following verses on the subject. It begins with the presumption that a man may sell his daughter to be a maidservant   (AMAH ).  Immediately we note that this must be a minor daughter over whom the father has authority, which already limits the possibility for him to take this action. Then we see that while the word ‘AMAH’ is used and is posited against the male servants (AVADIM) the word that is NOT used is ‘SHIFCHA’ a word which is more servile in its usage. AMAH can be used of a free woman when speaking to a social superior; SHIFCHA is not used in this way. So she is being sold not as a slave but as an AMAH, a status that Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah are also described as having, and as Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal will also  describe themselves later in bible.

After this introductory phrase that must have been familiar to the original audience for the biblical text, that a many might sell his daughter to another, comes a set of conditions that make clear that whatever the girl is being sold for, her rights are clearly stated and they are tightly drawn and powerfully asserted.

First – she is not someone who is sold as a male slave for whom the sabbatical year of jubilee year will end the contract being made and from this we can clearly deduce that while the context of the narrative is the rights of the Hebrew slave, the rights of this minor girl are different. Something else is happening here and the contract is quite different.

The first clue is the expectation that she is being sold into the household of a man who will later expect to marry her and raise her status accordingly. What is she doing in his household? She is learning the business of becoming a wife and director of the household, something that for whatever reason she does not have access to in her own parental home.

The text then goes on. If the master of the house does not wish to marry her at the appropriate time of her maturity, then he must arrange that she is redeemed from the contract. Rabbinic law assumes that someone in her family will act as go’el and pay out the remaining debt her father has incurred.

The master of the house is expressly forbidden from passing her on to another family – she is not property to be sold on, she is not to be given in prostitution. The bible is absolutely clear – if he does not marry her then he has broken the original contract and so he now has no legal power or ability to direct her future.

The one curiosity here is that there is a kerei ketiv – that is the text is written in one way but understood differently. The negative LO (Lamed Alef) is written, but the text is read as if the word were LO (Lamed Vav). As written it would read “Her master who has not become espoused to her”, as read it is “Her master who has become espoused to her”.  It seems that the Masoretic text cannot imagine that her master did not begin by arranging the engagement, the first part of the marital contract, and instead they think he must have changed his mind once she grew up and was unwilling to go through with it. I think this underlines just how deeply the assumption was that the contract between the father of the girl and the master of the house was that she was being given up early to be married in the future – either because the father was too poor to offer a dowry at the time it would be needed, or too poor even to support her while she grew up. It may even have been done in order to settle the girl’s future in times of political unrest. We know that the Jewish marriage ceremonies which are nowadays done either in one day or at least very closely together were originally separated into the two ceremonies of betrothal and subsequent marriage and that these could take place years apart from each other, the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ continuing to live in their respective homes after the betrothal for many years before the actual marriage took place and the couple came together as a new family.

Bible gives the possibility that should she not marry the father of the house, then she might marry the son of the house – something which may have delayed her future status but not otherwise significantly alter it. And if she did marry the son rather than the father, her rights as a full member of the family are once again asserted. She is to be treated in every way as a daughter of the house.

The passage then lays down the rights of the girl should she subsequently find that her husband takes another wife – something that might damage her status in the home and leave her marginalised and potentially poorer than before he did so. Thus bible clarifies that the rights of the wife to food, clothing and sex are absolute, and that nothing and nobody can diminish these rights.

It ends with the clear statement about the limits of the contract even if the man has broken it by espousing the girl to his son and therefore lost all rights of ‘ownership’ or privilege.

Should the girl find that she is not being given the full status of married woman, that she is not given the food, clothing and sex that are her rights, then she is free to go – the man has broken his contract and has no hold over her whatsoever – she does not need to be redeemed by a goel or even pay any remaining debt incurred by her father and by her own maintenance in the household – she is a free woman in every way

This passage, which on first reading appears to say that a minor girl can be treated as a chattel to be sold at the whim of her father to a man who would then establish his own ownership is nothing of the sort. The bible actually stops a man selling his daughter as a slave for the purposes of prostitution, and in this first and only legislation in the ancient near east to discuss the rights of a girl who is sold, the girl is protected by some quite draconian legislation, her rights and the obligations to her spelled out beyond the possibility that someone might try to reinterpret what is happening.  Interestingly any obligation of the girl is not mentioned. While we assume she will work to pay for her maintenance, this is not specified. The text is interested only in protecting her and putting boundaries around what the men in her life may think they are able to do with her.

While it would be nice to think that she would be consulted in the betrothal as Rebecca was (albeit without seeing Isaac) we must be grateful for what we get in the world view in which bible was formed. We have here the basis for the rights of all wives – to food, clothing and a home/ sexual relations. Rabbinic law took the text from here in order to provide a basic minimum for every woman who threw her lot in with a man in marriage, and thus protected women in a world which was otherwise potentially disrespectful and without care for her needs.

The unknown AMAH of Mishpatim is the beneficiary of quite phenomenally forward thinking law. Her personhood was respected far more than the mores of the time. There might even be a case to say that a girl from a poor family who might otherwise only be able to look forward to a life of hardship and work either married to a man too poor to offer her much or not able to provide a dowry in order to be married at all, would in this way be able to jump out of her impoverished setting into one of economic security.  One cannot help but think of the women from less economically thriving countries offering themselves in marriage on the internet to men from wealthier countries in order to better their own standard of living.

I cannot say I am thrilled by this passage, but we must be aware of the context of the narrative and the legal codes it comes to replace. The sale of minors was common throughout Assyria and Babylonia and there are documents to suggest it was also in practise in Syria and Palestine. And we see in the book of Kings (2K 4:1) that children might be seized into slavery by their dead parents’ creditors. Nuzi documents show that sale into a conditional slavery was practised, whereby the girl would always be married but not to the master of the house, rather to another slave. The genius of the biblical amendment was that the girl was to be raised in status and treated properly for her whole life, and that she would be freed if certain conditions were not met.

The minor daughter of a man who needed to be free of the economic burden she represented was vulnerable. To this day in some societies daughters are perceived as less valuable, less giving of status to the family, and as people who will never be as economically worthy as sons. It remains true of course that women’s work is not valued in the same way that work done by men is and sadly many women have bought into this viewpoint so even high flying career women will see an increasing gap between their remuneration and that of their male colleagues.

It would be wonderful for this perception to be erased. There is no intellectual or scientifically validated case for it to be held, and yet even in modernity it holds great power in society.  Bible cannot help us here, but it is something to hold on to – that bible restricts the rights of men over their vulnerable daughters and over the defenceless women in their household and it clearly and powerfully ascribes and asserts rights for those women, rights which Jewish legal codes have had to uphold even in highly patriarchal and paternalistic times and groups.

It looks to me from this text that God is aware of the problem humans seem to have with gendered power, and has set a model for dealing with it we could emulate. As the Orthodox Union just tried to curtail the rights of women in scholarship and leadership positions with a  responsum so out of touch and lacking respect for its own constituency, it is good to see that this ancient text gives a lead on the building of the status of women who may need such building, and does not try to either take advantage of them nor to diminish their place in the world.

 

To study further I recommend reading:

“Slavery in the Ancient Near East”. I Mendelsohn in “The biblical Archaeologist”  vol 9 number 4

Josef Fleischman in The Jewish Law Annual ed. Berachyahu Lifshitz. Taylor & Francis, 1 Sep 2000

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/02/top-headlines/ou-bars-women-from-serving-as-clergy-in-its-synagogues

 

 

 

A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

Parashat Bo -the moon waxes and wanes and we learn to count time

The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel occurs in this sidra just before the cataclysmic tenth plague, and the people are finally freed from slavery. Moses is instructed to tell the people “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (12:2) from which the mitzvah of Kiddush haChodesh, the determination of the New Moon, is derived.

Of all the possible choices to be the very first commandment to the new people being formed, the declaration of the new month seems at first glance to be a surprising one. And coming as it does just before the final act that leads to their redemption, the context makes it all the more critical. So why is the very first shaper of the people Israel the requirement to notice the phases of the moon and to declare the new month?

There are, of course, any number of commentaries on this mitzvah. That as the moon does not have light of its own, but reflects the glory of the sunshine, so do Israel reflect the glory of God. That in counting the phases of the moon the people return to the awareness of the God of creation, and as the moon appears to travel with the traveller, so God too travels with us and appears wherever we are. That the moon is sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, like the God we constantly seek. That the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes, remind us that ‘this too will pass’, that our own fortunes come and go, but nothing is forever. That by watching the phases of the moon in order to declare the new month, we are looking up and away from our own situations. That by declaring the new month we are moving away from the Egyptian system whereby the movement of the heavenly bodies is predicated on the actions and the kingship of the Pharaoh. That declaring the new month will be a human initiative, not a divine one….

They are all good glosses as to why this mitzvah is the first given to the people, and timed just before they leave Egypt for an uncertain future, but I think there is another more powerful reason for why this is the first mitzvah for the people to learn to do.

Structuring our time is one of the most powerful ways we take control of our lives. For the Israelites leaving slavery, the idea of structuring their own time must have been both difficult to imagine and frightening to think about actually doing. The bottom line of slavery is that one is not in control of one’s own time, and the parallel bottom line of freedom is that one has to learn to use time in the best way. Having recently changed my work practise after 28 years of being a community rabbi always chasing my tail and trying to catch up with the work, with never enough time to do everything I wanted to do, I find that managing my own time is even harder when there isn’t the pattern imposed externally by ‘work’. So I may continue to write ‘to – do’ lists and doggedly work my way through them but somehow I am still chasing my tail, still trying to catch up on the day’s expected tasks, still frustrated at the amount of things to do in the time available.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (known as Parkinson ’s Law) and this is certainly borne out by experience – both as an individual and as a society. Everyone who has worked in a pressured organisation is aware of the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to look efficient to others by working many more hours than one is contracted to do. Indeed I remember being told by a congregant who worked for one of the big consultancy firms that while normally when buying a suit one would buy one jacket and two pairs of trousers (which show signs of wear more quickly), in his world it was normal to buy one pair of trousers and two jackets, one to be left on the desk chair so that it would look like you were still in the building and working.

Structuring time so as to work with efficiency and still have the opportunity to have a life outside it is one of the hardest things to do – the pressures imposed upon us by our employers or clients or congregants alongside our own needs to look busy and important and necessary mean that we are generally very bad at this skill. And when one works at home or for oneself, or when we are connected through various devices to the rest of the world almost continually, it is even harder to disconnect, to put the boundaries in place and then to keep them.

Looked at in this light, it is very clear that the one thing the people of Israel needed to become aware of is the rhythmic passing of time and that it is we who count and notice and determine the time, not some external power or internal need. Control of time is the paradigm of real freedom and it is hard to do well. But the moon, the gentle moon with its renewal and growth, with its regular phases and reminders during dark times that light will come again, and most of all with its nightly appearance that gives us hope, that helps us to keep count of the passing of time, that means we look up an out of ourselves when we might be tempted only to keep our eyes focussed on the task to be completed – the moon is the most wonderful object to follow and to see. And add to that the requirement upon us to pay attention to its monthly cycle, to requirement to make of each new moon a moment to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves, to sanctify the time we are living in – this is so obviously the most powerful commandment to give to a people embarking on freedom who will find the structuring and controlling of their time the most difficult thing to do, and possibly even a terrible burden. As we see the time pass in this most powerful and beautiful changing image in the sky each night, we can both be aware of what is not done and be refreshed and renewed to work differently in the coming days, both mark the passage of time and join its flow. The word ‘Bo’ is the command to both ‘come’ and to ‘go’. The moon is its visual representation as it comes and goes each month. And we too are able to leave behind and travel towards as we learn to use our time to best advantage.

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.  

 

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.