Purim and Assimilation
Alone among all the Jewish festivals, Purim is a holiday with a traditional injunction to become intoxicated. Our first text is from the Babylonian Talmud and is the primary source for that obligation (Source 1). This shiur will be an attempt to look at some different ways of understanding this obligation.
The first way is straightforward: drinking is simply a means by which to celebrate. Megillat Esther is the story of a huge inversion. The Jews of Shushan move from being on the verge of annihilation to actually wiping out their enemies. A verse found towards the end of the Megillah describes this huge change (Source 2).
Later in the same chapter we learn about the emotional correlates of this upheaval. The Megillah again uses the verb root hey-pay-chaf, this time to talk about the emotional shifts that accompanied the political one (Source 3).
This text tells us that Purim is expressly a time of joy. Purim is a time of rejoicing and festivity because we were saved from genocide. The Jews felt then, and we are supposed to feel now, the inversion from powerlessness to power (source 2) and from sorrow to joy (source 3). Maybe the unique instruction to become intoxicated at Purim is a pure expression of joy! The psalmist tells us that “wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalms 104:15) so maybe the alcohol is there as a means to loosen us up and get us in the “right” mood!
I am generally suspicious when people tell me that it is good idea for me to get drunk. None of my own experiences of real drunkenness, either my own or my experiences of those around me, could be described as involving unalloyed joy. In an uptight country like Englandwhere I grew up alcohol is widely used to disinhibit the pathologically inhibited. We know the real damage caused by alcohol abuse in society. And beyond the psalmist’s association between alcohol and joy our tradition acknowledges other darker sides to alcohol. It can also be used to bring comfort to the afflicted: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul.” (Proverbs 31:6). The Zohar suggests that it eventually brings on sadness. “The truth is that wine rejoices at first and saddens afterwards…” (Zohar Section III, 39a). According to the Tanach, the first person to consume alcohol was Noah in Bereshit Chapter9. In that episode Noah does not seem to be drinking as an expression of joy – he seems to be trying to blot out his recent experience of seeing the entire world destroyed! The incident ends badly with an obscure allusion to sexual disgrace.
Returning to the issue at hand, is it possible that the prescribed use of alcohol at Purim is more nuanced? Is it possible that the story of Purim contains such painful motifs that we need to blur the boundaries of our reality, to seek some form of oblivion, to escape from or avoid a reality that seems unpleasant or impossible to deal with? Remember that Source 1 seemed to call for a quite extreme form of intoxication – until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai”. What issues might we be trying to avoid at Purim when we are commanded to seek escape?
Source 4 might point us in a different direction. This passage begins by asking why we don’t sing Hallel on Purim and offers a variety of possibilities. Hallel is normally sung on festivals and its absence on Purim is certainly noteworthy. Various answers are proposed. Rabbi Isaac says that we don’t say Hallel when recalling a miracle that occurred outside the Holy Land. Rav Nachman suggests that the reading of the Megillah constitutes Purim’s Hallel so we don‘t need to say the real Hallel too. Rava, however, has a darker reading. He says that it would actually be inappropriate to sing the Hallel on Purim. Hallel contains the words: “Praise you servants of the Lord” (Psalm 113:1) and this does not ring true with our experience at Purim when even at the end of Megillat Esther the Jews are still the servants of Ahasuerus! Rava is telling us that despite all the singing, dancing and general merriment described at the end of Megillat Esther something is still fundamentally wrong with the world that is being described.
What is it that is wrong with that world? On Purim we enter a world where the Jewish community is almost destroyed. Jewish existence is presented as a fragile thing, liable to be swept away by forces beyond its control. A change in government, the rise of a Jew-hater into a position of power, these are enough to threaten the physical existence of Jewry. In the end, the Jews are saved and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, but the fundamental fragility of the Jewish community remains the same. In this tale of Diaspora existence the Jewish people are dependent on highly intelligent but Jewishly invisible coreligionists who have managed, partly by virtue of their assimilation, to work their way into positions of influence over the establishment. Thank goodness for that assimilation for it was only due to the political influence achieved by Mordechai and Esther that Jewry was saved when Haman and his henchmen came to power.
As part of Mordechai’s attempt to gain political influence he encourages his beautiful young niece (or maybe cousin) to have sex with the king and ultimately marry this non-Jewish monarch of dubious moral standing. In an extremely painful discussion in the Talmud (Bavli – Sanhedrin 74b) the rabbis agonize over how Esther could have transgressed basic elements of Jewish sexual morality in public rather than choosing to die a martyr’s death (Source 5).
Abaye concludes that Esther was “merely natural soil” implying that she was an absolutely passive sexual victim. Rava asserts that the laws requiring martyrdom are different when the Jew is being told to transgress merely for the personal pleasure of the non-Jew rather than as part of a systematic religious persecution. Despite the rabbinic justification of Esther’s actions, in the Megillah itself it is clear that the ends justify the means. Mordechai tells Esther that she must use her potent sexuality in order to gain sway over the king and to wield that influence on behalf of the Jewish community. I have heard many a shiur attempting to portray Esther as a potent female image but in the Megillah she looks like a manipulated and manipulating young woman whose only real power resides in her sexuality and her ability to seduce. She certainly does not provide an image of female power that I would be happy to teach to my daughters.
The underlying message for Diaspora Jewry that is contained in the Megillah is that their continuing survival depends on their ability to inveigle themselves into positions close to the sources of true power. That proximity can only be attained by highly assimilated Jews like Mordechai and Esther and it will only lead to influence, not to true power. Such influence can rise and fall in the blink of an eye. Thus it takes constant manipulation and vigilance to ensure its continuity. Mordechai and Esther need to use all the tools at their disposal to stay in favor of the state even if that involves sexual manipulation and the maintenance in power of unpleasant regimes.
Little wonder then that our sources command we drink to excess at this time of year. Excessive drinking blots out the indignity and fear inherent in such a precarious and conditional existence. Is it better to drink than to acknowledge soberly that our heroes and heroines are spies and seductresses, and that however hard we try, our lives will always be left hanging by a thread? Little wonder that our inebriation should be so complete that we cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’ when our vulnerability is brought home to us so chillingly.
This takes us back to sources 2 and 3 and our emotional responses to a world of overturning. I suggested at first that we feel joy at Purim simply because the Jews were saved; but surely their experience would have been relief and joy tinged with a strong sense of having been made painfully aware of the world of overturning itself, the world of venahafoch hu, a world where all is turned upside down, a world of real or potential chaos. We may drink joyfully because we are safe for a brief moment, but it is an awareness of the chaotic, capricious, dangerous nature of the world that underpins a really determined quest for inebriation.