Hearing God in a Postmodern World: Purim as a celebration of community and textual interpretation
For a printable PDF click here:Purim – on Hearing God in a Postmodern world
ליעילוי נשמת אלכסנדר בן אלעזר – In loving memory of אבי מורי Johnny Wiesenberg
The ‘kedusha’ of megillat Esther
At the heart of Chag Purim lies a deep theological message that speaks to our generation in a profound way. The Gemara in Megillah (7a) asks a strange question – does the megillah ‘matmeh yadayim’ make the hands impure?
Rab Judah said in the name of Samuel; [The scroll] of Esther does not make the hands unclean. Are we to infer from this that Samuel was of opinion that Esther was not composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? How can this be, seeing that Samuel has said that Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? — It was composed to be recited [by heart], but not to be written……
Said Samuel: Had I been there, I would have given a proof superior to all, namely, that it says, they confirmed and took upon them, [which means] they confirmed above what they took upon themselves below.
In order to conclude a contradictory statement on the part of R. Shmuel whether the megillah was given through Divine inspiration or not, the Gemara concludes that it was given in ruach kodesh to be said but not be written – thus when written it is not holy, when spoken – i.e. Beal peh – it is holy. Purim is a chag that is not דאורייתא – not commanded in the Torah, the entire chag together with its mitzvot are categorised as דרבנן – they are rabbinical in status. The Gemara here is suggesting that the holiness of the Torah shel baal peh – the interpretive act of the oral law, is holy as long as it remains oral and not written. The oral law is an inter-generational dialogue integral to covenantal living that must not become permanently fixed and rigid, the holiness of human interpretation is in its fluidity and complexity, in its multiple perspectives. Once written its fixed nature makes the interpretive act obsolete. The celebration of Purim is indeed a celebration of law as revelation, but not in the classic sense of received law rather in the sense of the humanly interpreted law as a manifestation of the Divine will.
The story of Purim took place in the historical period of exile between the two temples. During this time God was totally absent. There was no prophecy or manifest Divine presence which is reflected through the absence of God’s name in the megillah. In many ways the megillah is a radical post-modern text as it not only shatters all absolute paradigms so far constructed, it also teaches us two essential messages for living in a postmodern world, which are the backbone of the Chag.
The megillah as a shattering of constructed paradigms
Firstly, on the shattering of paradigms. The heroine is not from the start a righteous, formidable, strong character. It is not God who saves, but a human and a woman nonetheless. It is not in a setting of righteous piety, but in the corridors of a rancid and immoral oligarchy. The plan hatched is not one that adheres to strict halachic constructs. Everyone must act beyond their comfort zone, everyone must act on faith alone, faith here is not an open-ended revealed miracle maker but is the manifestation of uncertain action without absolute consequence. It is a story of breaking paradigms, shattering absolutes, living with doubt and clouds of ambivalence. This is the world we inhabit today. We are never sure our actions are right. The lack of an absolute voice from heavens means our actions will always be enacted in a circumstance of doubt and contingency.
Mordechai’s statement to Esther is a turning point in the megillah.
יג וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר: אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים. יד כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת
הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת
3 Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: ‘Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. 14 For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4)
Inherent in Mordechai’s words are an understanding that the terms of play have changed. No longer are we living in a world of God’s saving hand at the Red sea. It is a world of ‘who knows’, a world plagued by insecurity in which absolute categories of faith and redemption have been shattered. Now that the playing field has changed the role of human involvement in the redemption process has been elevated. Mordechai, and eventually Esther, recognises that they now have a key role to play. The terms of the covenant have developed, humankind has matured, and hence accepted greater responsibility for their future. This is perhaps why the Megillah was ultimately included in the Canon. In their great wisdom the Rabbis understood that in a post-biblical world we would need a new paradigm to work from – and the Purim story provided us with just that model. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg understands the entire Purim story as a paradigm for the matured covenantal relationship we have with God after the period of open miracles:
“In other words, in responding to Purim – in recognizing that God was now hidden and doing only hidden miracles, in understanding that the Jews had to take much more action to enable the right results and had to take heightened responsibility for their actions — the Jews had renewed the covenant on the new terms. This covenant was not “coerced” by visible miracles and guaranteed rewards and punishments. In effect, the Jews had connected to the Covenant Partner at a higher level. They committed to serve God out of more selfless motives and out of deeper relationship to God for its own sake(…..)
While the love that drives this relationship has proven to be steadfast and unconditional – strong enough to survive great failures and great shocks in Jewish history – it is not “fixed.” The sustaining emotion has enabled the partners to grow together and to deepen and renew the ongoing relationship.” (printed with kind permission of the author from an unpublished manuscript of a forethcoming book ‘The Triumph of Life)
Surviving and finding meaning in a world of ‘nothingness’?
The question that plagued the people of Shushan, and in a similar way us today, is from where do we gather our strength to act? From where do we amass inspiration and muster faith? Is revelation or connection to the Divine presence still possible? These are the question that I believe Megillat Esther comes to answer.
The Megillah story takes place in a Godless world. It was, in Nietzsche’s language, a time where the ‘death of God culture’ was prevalent. The corollary to this is two prominent reactions: radical individualism through hedonism and the rejection of religion and communal responsibility. In the megillah we see this radical individualism, materialism and decadence portrayed in the verses that talk about Achashverosh’s party: All aspects of the party convey this message – even the fact that according to the midrash Achashverosh beckoned Vashti to come naked to show her beauty – the greatest value was what I ‘have’, how I look, what I eat and what I desire.
וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת, אֵין אֹנֵס: כִּי-כֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל כָּל-רַב בֵּיתוֹ–לַעֲשׂוֹת, כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁ-וָאִישׁ
And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel; for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to each and everyman’s pleasure. (Esther 1:8)
Everyone fulfilled his own individual desire, and though it was a communal party, the individual was at the helm, no community existed. Furthermore, at the end of the party Achashverosh issues a decree that ‘each man’ rule over ‘his own house’ according to how he sees fit.
לִהְיוֹת כָּל-אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ, וּמְדַבֵּר כִּלְשׁוֹן עַמּוֹ – that every man should bear rule in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.
As Nietzsche’s ominously warns, when we kill God we will search for means to replace him “Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it”. A vacuum is created, and we search for ways to fill it. Avivah Zornberg brilliantly depicts this ‘empty space’ as a world without meaning.
“God is absent, occluded from her world, as His name is, in fact, absent from her text. This salient feature of the book of Esther holds dark implications; without Gods name, both the text and world lose meaning, legibility. Chaos is come again. What Nietzsche described as the death of God is intimated in this rabbinic reading of the scroll of Esther. To add force to their observation, the rabbis ground it in a biblical verse that predicts such a historical moment: ‘Then, I will indeed hide my face’ ”.
Into the void enters Haman, being the descendent of Amalek, he embodies all the characteristics of the Amalekian world view – the philosophy of Chance and a total disregard for the weak in society:
. יח אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים. – He ‘chanced’ upon you on the way and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou was faint and weary; and he feared not God.
The moment of Amalek’s arrival into our world tells us a lot. What causes his arrival has much to do with our mindset and actions. His initial coming was promoted by the people of Israel’s haunting question: הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. – is God amongst us (lit. within us) or not (lit. if nothing). Excessive exposure to Divine miracles has left the people wary. A culture of dependence on God’s saving presence had led to an ‘empty space’, a feeling of deep existential angst. If God is not a revealing presence is He still present? Can God be found outside of the miracles and redemptive experiences? Can God be found within ourselves, and if not is what remains simply ‘nothingness’? or in the chilling words of Nietzsche, “Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” (The Gay science)
And as the text relays, Amalek’s arrival is also promoted by the failure of Israel to look out for the weak in society – rather than being protected at the front, straggling behind are the weak and needy, the people have abandoned them to be attacked by the enemy at the rear. When we fail the ‘other’ we are no longer God fearing – we open ourselves up to the Amalek from within and without.
How do we counter this ‘nothingness’? I believe Megillat Esther provides us with two answers that have now become integral to the dialogue of postmodernism: community and revelation through textual reasoning.
I: Community: A first response
In the first biblical encounter with Amalek we already have the key ingredient to understand how to battle the Amalekian philosophy. Where do we find the strength to fight against the sentiments of ‘nothingness’?
The answer is twofold: action through covenantal living and a supportive community. The people of Israel are told to fight their own battle against their inner doubt and uncertainty as expressed through their question ‘is God within us’. God is indeed within us even when he is seemingly not among us. Within each and every one of us resides a spark of the Divine and hence the ability to fight nihilism and chaos. There is a divine inner voice that calls us to action; to make order and meaning from chaos and emptiness. But this can only be done “when our eyes are lifted to heaven” (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3:8), in other words when we become aware of our action being part of a greater Divine purpose. Moreover, when Moshe becomes weary, his hands our held up by Aaron and Chur. Even the greatest amongst us have moments of weakness, moments when ידי אמונה the hands of faith, the burden of faith, becomes too much to bear. Sometimes the threat of nihilism, of existential weariness can be too much for one person to endure. The remedy to this: we need others to lift our hands. Only a community can carry the individual in their time of need. But to be part of a community requires not only an awareness of others and their needs, but also a culture of self-sacrifice. In a culture of radical individualism Judaism calls for radical responsibility.
As Levinas aptly states:
“The path I am led to follow in solving the paradox of revelation, is one that claims that we may find a model for this relation in the attitude of non-indifference towards the other, in the responsibility towards him” (Levinas reader p207)
Revelation is my ethical responsibility to the other. This is what the people of Israel are taught in their battle with Amalek, never leave the weak to fend for themselves, and always support the other, because this is the hands of faith. Revelation is not ‘outside’ of yourself but etched in the face of the other and found within each individual – God is ‘within ourselves’.
Today more than ever in a world haunted by this radical individualism and nihilism we search for community. Thomas Friedman in his aptly titled book ‘Thank you For Being Late: An Optimist Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations’ reminds us how important the human need for community is:
“Finally, philosophically speaking, I have been struck by how many of the best solutions for helping people build resilience and propulsion in this age of accelerations are things you cannot download but have to upload the old-fashioned way – one human to another human at a time…. that’s why I wasn’t surprised when I asked the Surgeon General Murthy what was the biggest disease in America today, without hesitation he answered ‘It’s not cancer. It’s not heart disease. Its isolation… How ironic. We are the most technologically connected generation in human history- and yet more people feel isolated than ever.”
To respond to this existential angst propelled by the culture of individualism we create ‘imagined communities”. The problem with imagined communities is that, as Zygmunt Bauman correctly notes, though they are initially created to bolster connection they ultimately become intolerant of anyone different or opposed to their manifesto. This is a familiar story, in schools, in societies in history. Group adhesion that loses the commitment to respecting the Divine within each individual, will eventually lead to intolerance, threats, violence and maybe annihilation.
Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman incurs in him a deep anger that derives from the feeling of dismay that there dare be someone who doesn’t concur to his view. In his words to Achashverosh indications of intolerance are vividly present:
ח וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ–יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ; וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל-עָם, וְאֶת-דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים, וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם. ט אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם; וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים כִּכַּר-כֶּסֶף, אֶשְׁקוֹל עַל-יְדֵי עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה, לְהָבִיא, אֶל-גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ. י וַיָּסַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-טַבַּעְתּוֹ, מֵעַל יָדוֹ; וַיִּתְּנָהּ, לְהָמָן בֶּן-הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי–צֹרֵר הַיְּהוּדִים. יא וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְהָמָן, הַכֶּסֶף נָתוּן לָךְ; וְהָעָם, לַעֲשׂוֹת בּוֹ כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ
8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. 9 If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.’ 10 And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. 11 And the king said unto Haman: ‘The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.‘ (Esther 3)
A people ‘separate and scattered’, a different religion that does not acquiesce to the norm, are the reasons for genocide. Diversity and religious tolerance are incongruous to the world of Shushan that is ruled under the dictatorial hand of Achashverosh. And so Haman is told ‘do what is good in your eyes’. The lack of objective good leads to each person doing what they desire, even if it means the slaughter of an entire people. An ego is more important than a life, a subjective sense of good is more important than an objective Divine decree, the self-sacrifice necessary to create community and responsible living, is replaced by the fulfilment of my base desire and pursuit of power.
Esther usurps all this through simply acting against her own self interest. When Mordechai aptly says “מי יודע” who knows if for this reason you came to queenship – he is ultimately expressing the angst we live within our postmodern world. A world of ‘who knows’ is one in which God is hidden. It is an existence we described above, one that initially feels like “nothingness”, because of the uncertainty that permeates it. But the certainty we crave, the redeemed Divine hand we pray for, will no longer arrive. Instead we are forced to look into ourselves for the answers. So Mordechai says to Esther – I do not know why you are placed where you are, but I do know that redemption will come, and YOU can be the one to initiate it. Each of us is capable of bringing salvation. Esther’s greatness is not only in her willingness to act, but in her foresight that redemption requires not just one person but an entire community.
טו וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-מָרְדֳּכָי. טז לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן, וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל-תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל-תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם–גַּם-אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי, אָצוּם כֵּן; וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-כַדָּת, וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי.
15 Then Esther bade them return answer unto Mordecai: 16 ‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’
Tell them says Esther, that I can’t do it alone. I am willing to give it all up, but I need unity, I need community, I need Aaron and Chur to hold up the hands of faith. A city cannot be built alone, a people cannot be saved alone. We must work together, united in fear, hope, prayer and joy. It is not by chance that the majority of the laws the Rabbis instigated for Purim revolve around the closeness of community. There is a deep understanding that in the world of מי יודע the need for communal adhesion and connection is essential. The Rambam at the end of the laws of Purim adds the following statement:
“For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence.
Much like the philosophy of Levinas, the ethical dimension of action contains an element of revelation. But how can we ensure that this community does not become an intolerant one that bends to the subjective will of its individual leaders?
II: Intertextuality: The Oral law as a mechanism against extremism and uncovering God today
Judaism’s response is Torah she baal peh. The foundation of rabbinic tradition is the multiplicity of voices. Even within the community diversified voices must exist. There is a new trend of postmodern Jewish thinkers who term textual analysis of Jewish sources – intertextuality. In the absence of God humans are called upon to be the interpreters of reality – they are called upon to find God within themselves – to use their ability for interpretation as the Divine call for encounter:
“our sense of community does not form about reading just anything but around a group of texts called ‘Torah’ in Jewish tradition. These texts have a certain form, content, and authority and an ability to teach that makes them different from other texts…and that is because the rabbinic texts are dialogic. They ask us to take parts, and then they destabilize? those parts by jumping from one context to another, changing the interlocutors. You cannot read these texts alone; and when you read them with another person, they encourage you to improvise, to append your own thoughts, and to keep changing perspectives.” (Reasoning after Revelation, Kepnes)
The megillah is a text that provokes interpretation. A story that is difficult to truly appreciate or understand without interpretation, it opens the reader up to the world of possibility. This world of possibility is the world of the oral law. By dint of the fact that it is projected through the voice, it possesses a power far greater and more compelling than the written word
א”ר יוחנן לא כרת הקב”ה ברית עם ישראל אלא בשביל דברים שבעל פה שנאמר (שמות לד, כז) כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל
Johanan said: God made a covenant with Israel only for the sake of that which was transmitted orally, as it says, For by the mouth of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.(gittin 60b)
The rabbis in Talmud Shabbat tell us that the Torah was only truly accepted by the people during the time of the megillah – since at Sinai it was coerced, at the time of Achashverosh it was accepted in freedom. Together with the Gemara in Gittin cited above, it is clear that covenantal commitment is not something that can be coerced, but rather accepted willingly. Covenant is a type of relationship that grows, develops, and is dynamic. Its dialogical nature creates an eternal conversation between God and His people. To be dialogical, it must transcend the fixed word as recorded on paper, it must ‘listen’ to the letters and hear the spoken word in its conditional presence. We must find the revealed word of God not only from an external source, but also from within ourselves. This means we must believe in ourselves in our abilities of interpretation. We must be bold, courageous and willing to be part of a covenantal commitment to engage in the Torah she baal peh, which means hearing others, but also means growing through and within the text. As Martin Buber eloquently expresses:
Revelation is nothing less than the relation between giving and receiving….the law is not thrust upon man it lies deep within him, to waken when the call comes…..My own belief in revelation …..does not mean that I believe that finished statements about God were handed down from heaven to earth. Rather it means that human substance is melted by the spiritual fire, which visits it, and there now breaks forth from it a word, a statement, which is human in its meaning and form, human conception and human speech, and yet witness to Him who stimulated it and His will. (I-Thou)
I want to conclude with another seemingly strange statement in the Mishna Torah of the Rambam, that amongst other sources connects the Torah and one of the last books of Nevi’im – megillah.
All the books of the Prophets and all the Holy Writings will be nullified in the Messianic era, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the five books of the Torah and the halachot of the Oral Law, which will never be nullified. (Rambam: Mishnah Torah Megillah, 2:18)
The megillah, like a Torah scroll must be penned on parchment and its mitzvah is in hearing. Both are the only parts of Tanach that will remain relevant after the Mashiach will come – what is the connection between these three things? I believe the answer lies in the process of thought we have undertaken in this shiur. They are two ends of human history and they are dichotomy through which we must live, the revealed and the hidden, the presence and the absence. In Torah God is a revealing, redeeming presence, like a parent at the start of a child’s life he is constantly hovering, teaching maybe even coercive, enforcing boundaries and structure. The megillah presents another paradigm – the hidden, absent God who does not swoop down to redeem but waits for his children to independently self sooth – redeem themselves. A parent who has taught their child to interpret their world and take responsibility in initiating redemption through the partial, complex and often un-sacred acts of human action. This is the real world. One, the written Torah, is embryonic and rudimentary and henceforth potentially idyllic. But in being so also fixed, rigid and absolute. The other, the oral Torah is left to the discrepancy of a mature humankind. It is perpetually developing, never complete, partial, and continuously being reinterpreted and henceforth potentially flawed. It is deeply human but also mysteriously Divine. It is this act of human interpretation, that the Gemara intuits, will be part of the eternal human story, because even with it potential imperfections it is quintessentially ideal.
This is our story, the story of our nation and maybe the story of our generation. A generation that like the people in Shushan must interpret historical events without the privilege of direct Divine instruction. A people who, on the heels of the failure of modernity and its absolutes, and in light of the holocaust and its tragedies, live in a postmodern reality. But postmodernism also has much to offer, least of which is the recognised beauty of hermeneutical interpretation as a revelatory moment and more than that, the redemptive quality of true community. Not an imagined community that superficially imposes sentiments of belonging, but a real true kehillah, a tzibbur and am, that sees the other, knows their suffering and seeks to redeem it, often and most importantly not through self-interest but through self-sacrifice – כאשר אבדתי אבדתי. When one moves beyond the narrow prism of radical individualism and engages in the ‘face to face’ encounter, one will naturally find the redemption of community and revelation in the beauty of the שבעים פנים ‘seventy faces‘ of Torah interpretation.
חג פורים שמח
 See Esther Rabba 8:5
 Unfortunately, today the notion of self-sacrifice has been hijacked by religious extremists. When we think of self-sacrifice we think of martyrdom at the hands of terrorists for a ‘greater good’. This kid of self-sacrifice is quintessentially opposed to what Judaism teaches. The essence of Jewish teaching is the protection of life. We are above anything else mandated to preserve and enrich the dignity of life. Our faith is not something we are commanded to die for and most certainly not to kill others. The notion of tzelem elokim – the image of God, being inherent to every human is a deep biblical notion that lends infinite value to each human being. The concept of self-sacrifice we find in the Bible and in Rabbinic texts suggest not a blind martyrdom to the cause and ideology of Judaism, but rather to the acts of chesed and tzedek to enhancing the dignity and humanity of the ‘other’. These acts will often come in place of self interest and hence require self-sacrifice.
 I borrow this phrase from Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Intimations’ of postmodernity’ p xix where he ominously discusses the consequences of postmodernism citing the need for imagined communities. It must be noted that this was first published in 1992, I am not sure the author could have foreseen how these imagined communities would manifest themselves in such extremities 17 years on.