Tonight we are going to celebrate a very important Jewish festival but there are some frequent questions which I collected, with assistance of Rabbi Shai Gluskin (sources that show different views in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Movement). I would call this collection: ’All that you wanted to know about Purim but didn’t dare to ask’.
What is Purim? Purim means “lots.” As described in the Book of Esther in the TaNaCh, evil Haman drew lots to decide the day on which the Jews would be massacred. In the end, the day proved to be a great Jewish victory. Purim celebrates this Jewish victory over evil Haman who conspired against the Jews. Jewish communities read The Book of Esther from a scroll (megillah). The story tells of great reversals and of palace intrigue. The book employs a melodramatic and satirical literary style.
Did the story, as described in the Book of Esther, really happen? Probably not. The biblical scholar Jon Levenson in his book ‘Commentary on the book of Estee’ wrote, “[T]he historical problems with Esther are so massive as to persuade anyone… to doubt the veracity of the narrative”. Of course it doesn’t require us to take the biblical text at face value, and so the “historical problems” of the text are not a religious problem for Progressive Jews. In short, the Esther story is probably fiction, which doesn’t detract from the purpose or meaning of the holiday.
What are the purpose and meaning of the Purim? Let’s briefly explore two ways of looking at Purim.
1) Redemption can happen, even in exile. At Purim we retell the story of a weak Jewish community in exile who, through the influence of the Jewish queen, turn the tables on the forces of evil. The name of God never appears in the Hebrew text. The power of redemption, like God’s name, may be hidden. And yet it is empowering to remind ourselves through the act of storytelling that reversals and redemptions can happen anywhere.
2) Purim shpieling (self-deprecating humorous story-inventing and other mischief) is good for the soul. It has a long and venerated history in the celebration of Purim and takes different forms. Some examples include small children tying rabbis’ shoe laces together, service leaders taking humorous liberties with a usually fixed liturgical text, and the performance of Purim plays that retell Esther in contemporary terms, often poking fun at synagogue leadership, teachers, and others in authority. Judaism is often serious. By subjecting our sacred stories, beliefs, customs, and leaders to the sharp light of humour, we avoid turning them into idols. Humour and self-mockery help us keep perspective on the very human and flawed enterprise of creating religious communities.
Isn’t Purim a kids’ holiday? No. All that was described here applies to adults. It is very healthful in the Jewish identity formation for children to see adults taking Purim “seriously” by dressing up and participating in the humor and revelry.
Why do some people get drunk on Purim? Isn’t that inappropriate? In the Talmud it says that one should drink to the point of not being able to distinguish the difference between “’Blessed be Mordecai’ and, ‘Cursed be Haman’.” Drinking has the potential to encourage people to let down their guards and see the world from an altered perspective. Part of the Purim fantasy is to see the potential for redemption, even when that may not seem possible. Of course, alcohol is dangerous. Used regularly to excess it certainly would not heighten one’s awareness of redemption, but rather dull it. There are communities that do not serve alcohol at Purim. Some leave it to adults who want to drink in advance of the public celebration to do so privately.
Wishing you a joyous Purim festival!
Chag Sameach – Rabbi Julia Margolis