Bulletin Article March 2015 — The Dark Exuberance of Purim

March 1, 2015
By bethmordecai
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Bulletin Article March 2015 — The Dark Exuberance of Purim

The Dark Exuberance of Purim

Purim is here! So don your Queen Esther costume, eat as many hamantaschen as possible, drink all night, and twirl your grogger in the air. It’s time to celebrate this holiday of marbim b’simhah, of increased joy. So please join us for our celebration of Purim which includes…

  • A Purim carnival with an amazing magician (Sunday, March 1st 12-3 pm at the JCC in Edison);
  • Mishloah Manot (Gift Basket) Delivery to Jewish Veterans (Sunday, March 1st 3:30 pm at the NJ Veterans Home and Hospital near Menlo Park Mall);
  • A special #AskTheRabbi Purim Edition on “Should You Get Drunk on Purim?” (Wednesday, March 4th 12 pm at Menlo Park Mall Food Court);
  • A Hamantaschen Bake-off and Megillah Reading (Wednesday, March 4th 7 pm) – bring your dairy or pareve hamantaschen for the congregation to share!


All of these events are meant to fill us with the necessary joy ordained by the festival of Purim. Yet, hidden behind the veil of revelry is a darkness embedded in the story of Purim; a darkness that (ironically) leads us to respond with great exuberance.

As many of you know, the story of Purim centers around the attempt of Haman to destroy the Jews of Persia. As he says to King Ahashverosh:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction” (Esther 3:8-9).

This translation should ring familiar to anyone who has read the story of Purim. It is a translation of the Hebrew text, the one with which most of us are familiar. But according to the other “authoritative” text of the Bible – the Greek Septuagint – this passage from Esther is much…darker. According to David Nirenberg, the author of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition:

“The Greek version is chillingly different. Here, Haman accuses the Jews of being a ‘hostile’ people, whose laws are ‘opposed’ ‘to any other people.’ They are ready to attack ‘always and against everyone,’ committing evil deeds against the kingdom’s affairs. ‘They all – wives and children included – should be utterly destroyed…so that those who have been hostile and remain so in a single day go down in violence to Hades, and leave our government secure and untroubled hereafter’” (p. 32).

If the former (more familiar) translation is more Peter Stuyvesant – refusing to accept Jews because of our difference – then the latter translation is more Hitler – desiring to destroy Jews because we are evil. Why is the Greek version of our text so much more nefarious than the Hebrew version? It might be because the Greek version was crafted by Egyptian Jews (when Egypt was controlled by the Greeks). These Jews internalized a unique brand of “anti-Judaism” devised by Egyptian historians. As Nirenberg describes:

“The Jews who rendered Esther into Greek seem already to have been acutely aware of the Egyptian charges against them – that they were enemies of all mankind whose extermination would bring perpetual peace and security (p. 32).”

In other words, Purim is not simply a story of Jewish persecution, but an insight into the neurosis of the Jewish psyche. We are forever tainted by people’s hatred of our existence.

So if the Greek Septuagint is right, if the story of Purim reflects the internalization of a profound feeling of hatred directed towards Jews, how are we supposed to respond? On one hand, the story of Purim responds in the only way it can. It shows how Jewish resourcefulness (as exemplified by our heroine Esther) can save Jews from near extinction. In other words the story of Purim fits very nicely with the old Jewish proverb on the meaning of Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”

But on the other hand, it is plausible that the Jewish response is more vengeful than simply plotting our survival:

“And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews (mityahadim), for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them” (Esther, 8:17).

In Shaye J.D. Cohen’s book The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, the Hebrew term “mityahadim” reflects a particular violent expression of Jewish power:

“’Professed to be Jews’ translates the Hebrew mityahadim. The simple meaning of the Hebrew…is not that many non-Jews converted to Judaism but that they pretended to be Jews: they professed themselves to be something they were not. They did so because they feared for their lives; the Jews had just been given carte blanche by the king to kill their enemies, and therefore many gentiles pretended to be Jews in order to protect themselves” (31%, Location 2022 of 6465).

Herein is the reverse of the Spanish Inquisition which would not be precipitated for centuries later. The gentiles are the Maranos, pretending to profess an outward faith in order to protect their lives. Meanwhile the Jews are the Inquisitors, empowered to destroy any way of life not the same as their own.

But before we get carried away with the implications of Jewish power in this story, let us remind ourselves that this holiday is about joy and revelry. Indeed in the same verse that depicts gentiles professing themselves to be Jews, we also read that the Jews were full of “gladness” and “joy.” Perhaps then we should not read this selection too closely, but rather think of it as a biblical expression of revenge fantasy, much like the Hollywood film Inglourious Basterds expressed the inner desire of Jews to avenge the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust. It may only exist in our imaginations, but for a moment, we take the vicious hatred directed at us for centuries and unleash it on our perpetrators as a cathartic expression of vengeance. In this vein, the joy and gladness of the holiday is less G rated and more R rated. Think Halloween mischief as opposed a kids carnival. The latter might be fun, but the former riles you up, it makes us exuberant. So get ready to celebrate…get ready to rejoice…get ready for the dark exuberance of Purim!

Hag sameah (Happy Holiday!),

Rabbi Ari Saks


Category : Bulletin Articles Purim
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