Today is Purim. I have two batches of Hamantaschen dough in the fridge, and plenty on my mind. I’ve always loved the simple account of the festival I generally tell people when feeding them cookies:
On Purim we celebrate the failure of an attempt at wiping our ancestors by eating anachronistic representations of the would-be mastermind’s hat, and then getting drunk.
What could be more appealing than that? Celebrate the failure of a great crime, and a lucky escape by our ancestors, with a little harmless Schadenfreude. Next up: gingerbread Hitlers.
But last year I decided to back and actually read the Megillah of Esther, which tells the story Purim celebrates, and found it troubling. It’s deeply misogynistic, which is not surprising for the Old Testament in general, but hurt to see when Esther is presented as one of the great female role models in Judaism, and much of it is given over to joyful accounts of massively disproportionate revenge. A tough thing to revel in, to say the least. Last year I handled this by playing it down and refocusing on Purim as the Spring festival of having survived the winter.
The discomfort has sat with me since. In the intervening year I’ve found two other pieces of writing helpful in understanding where to go with it. The first was Quinn Norton’s article about John Rabe, her “personal patron saint of moral complexity” who was simultaneously an enthusiastic Nazi and a rescuer of hundreds of thousands of people from the Nazis’ allies. Read that piece and see if you can come up with any straightforward judgement of the man. I am slowly getting comfortable with the Purim story as an instance of the same: we read a book that has both a clever heroine who saves the day and a disgusting limitation of her tools and role; both a joyous celebration of a bullet dodged and a remembrance of a massacre committed by my ancestors. And yet…
I still couldn’t get comfortable with the festival without making some sort of heavy-handed insertion of mourning for the 75,000 mostly innocent Babylonians, casually mentioned in a few verses towards the end of the Book. Where was the breaking of a glass to remember that sadness lives on? The exhortation to live on as better people than those demonised in the story? I hadn’t been able to make peace with this festival until reading Aryeh Cohen’s take: The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence). As always, you should read the whole piece, but he addresses this contradiction head-on (emphasis and parenthetical notes added):
Why does [Talmudic sage] Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between [Esther's ally] Mordecai and [would-be genocidaire] Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”
The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.