Wonder of wonders. I'm still learning.
For the first time this season I encountered two religious Jews, both sophisticated in issues of their faith and worldy in terms of their education and experiences, who told me that Purim is not their favorite holiday.
I have known for some time about the scholarly questions and quarrels about Purim. Why is there no mention of the Almighty in the Book of Esther? Is the story of a decree to liquidate all the Jews in a kingdom true? Did it occur in Persia? Was there a character like Esther who sacrificed her virtue for the sake of the Jews?
My two friends, members of different congregations who may be unaware of one another, were concerned about something else. Both expressed discomfort with the extreme nationalism promoted by Purim, and worried about the holiday's use by contemporary politicians.
One of my friends is at least a bit to the left of center. I had no trouble grasping his reservations. But the other is at least a bit to the right of center. I'm still pondering the source of his discomfort.
I had never heard of opposition to Purim, except perhaps about discomfort from the noises made during the reading of Esther at every mention of the evil Haman.
Depending on one's politics, one can say that Iran and/or Bibi Netanyahu turned this Purim from the Jewish version of Spring carnival to a nationalist symbol in behalf of aggression. Not only did the Prime Minister end his Washington speech with the story of Purim, but he added to the message by presenting a Book of Esther to Barack Obama.
Iran was not the only topic for which Purim served as leverage this year. Several rabbis who had signed on to the campaign to keep women in their place proclaimed that boys and men should not dress in women's clothes, and that men should not listen to a woman reading the Book of Esther.
Those rabbis not only went against heightened Jewish anti-clericalism spurred by some especially heavy handed actions against women. They also challenged the ethos of Jewish feminism that sees Esther as a national hero. Rabbinical campaigns against cross dressing go against a long tradition that has been a part of the ways to shed conventions in the spirit of carnival.
On the last school day before the holiday, the school yard that abuts our apartment shows a motley collection of Queen Esthers, Hamans, Mordecais, cowboys, Indians, clowns, pirates, medieval warriors in plastic armour, plus lions, monkeys, and other animals not known to any zoologist.
Reading the Book of Esther is the central religious event of the holiday, and its portrayals of sexuality and violence may lead religious Jews to say that it is their least favorite celebration.
•It indicates that women should recognize their subordination, show their beauty for the enjoyment of men, and come only when called. There is a competition of sexual performance leading to the king's choice of a replacement for the queen who no longer fit the image of propriety, and the maintenance of many concubines whose sole function was to provide pleasure.
•The recitation of anti-Semitic stereotypes given as reasons for liquidating an entire Jewish population
"There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed. . . And the letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day . . . and to take the spoil of them for a prey." (3:8-13)
The end of Haman was his hanging on a gallows fifty cubits high that had been built for the Jew Mordecai. (7:9) Not a fitting close for Jews who remember other Jews hanging in city squares, and who have turned against capital punishment.
A prominent feature of Israeli Purim is the Tel Aviv parade known as Adloyada (עד לא ידע ) named for the expression to revel, or to drink, until one no longer knows the differences between Mordecai the Jew and the evil Haman. http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A2%D7%93%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%99%D7%93%D7%A2
Floats, bands, individual musicians, dancing groups and individuals participate in the parade. It may not be the equivalent of Mardi Gras in Rio or New Orleans, but those are larger cities with even larger hinterlands.
Whatever the religious significance, i.e., Jews reading the Book of Esther or Christians having their last blowout before the harshness of the Easter season, both Jewish and Christian events may have grown against the background of pagan celebrations for the passage from Winter to Spring.
Muslims lack a Spring carnival. Their lunar calendar without a leap year means that holidays rotate from season to season, with none of them fixed to the onset of Spring. When I spoke about this to a Muslim friend, he said that his people did not need a carnival, because they wear masks all the time.
The comment may be too subtle for some of my overseas friends, but those who grasp its significance might tell others who think they understand the Middle East.
This year Israel's carnival coincides with heightened tensions about the nuclear weapons said to be developing in Iran and meant to liquidate Israel, as well as an increase in religious emphasis on gender. Politicians have taken advantage of the religious symbolism, and rabbis have emphasized the proper place of women and the violations committed by males who dress as females.
When a religious celebration is put at the service of controversial politics and religious doctrine, and its ritual features stories of violence, revenge, and the exploitation of women, we should not be surprised when some religious Jews describe it as their least favorite holiday.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at March 12, 2012 01:53 AM