Purim and Post-Modern Jewish Thought

Purim and Post-Modern Jewish Thought

The story of Purim may be interpreted as the Bible’s introduction to post-modern Jewish theology. The phrase, “post-modern,” appears to be a contradiction, as most of us think that we live in a modern world and do not consider the possibility that we have moved beyond it. The “streams” of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – may provide organizational structures for congregational affiliation but the development and discussion of many theological ideas have crossed into new territory.

Let us first consider the Book of Esther. As our story unfolds, the heroes of Purim rise to the occasion. Esther risks her life as she bravely enters the King’s throne-room uninvited. The King accepts her Jewish identity as irrelevant and views Haman’s attempt to kill the Jews as against the interests of the monarchy. The ultimate victory of Mordecai over Haman and of Mordecai’s appointment as minister to the King in Haman’s place demonstrate acceptance of the Jewish community in Persia, much like our own acceptance in American society.

The Book of Esther could have ended with a return of the Jews of Persia to the land of Israel. Returning to Zion would have extended the biblical themes of exile and redemption. However, Purim is a story of Jewish life in exile. The Book of Esther tells us that Persia spans 127 countries; it extends from “India to Ethiopia.” The Jews are one of many peoples who live under the authority of King Ahasuerus. With so many minorities in the land, perhaps Esther’s Jewish identity is less noticeable among the masses and perhaps Esther believes that assimilation would offer her protection.

Why is God absent from the story? The text itself does not tell us, but certainly the author left God out of the story intentionally. Perhaps the author is pondering why the God of the Bible has permitted Israel to be exiled to such a foreign and vulnerable place as Shushan. We can infer from God’s absence that the Jewish people face a crisis more alone than in the past. If God does help them, assistance is hidden behind the scenes.

When we read the biblical text through eyes of the rabbis, God supports Israel. God’s awakening from slumber to support Israel is compared to Ahasuerus who awakens in the middle of the night to discover that Mordecai has not been rewarded for saving the life of the King (Esther Rabbah 10:1). Moreover, the rabbis find in the Book of Esther dramatic reaffirmation of the Covenant: “Key’mu v’keblu…” “The Jews ordained and took upon themselves and upon their seed and upon all who joined them the observance of two days of Purim” (Esther 9:27). The pshat (the simple interpretation of the verse) is different from the d’rash (the way the rabbis understand the verse). In the pshat the biblical text declares that Jews should celebrate Purim each year, whereas the d’rash asserts that the Jews should reaffirm the Covenant as they did at Mt. Sinai.

The importance of this Covenantal reaffirmation alters dramatically the significance of Purim. The Jerusalem Talmud stresses the importance of this reaffirmation of the Covenant by stating that only the Torah, the Oral Torah and the Book of Esther will be binding in the messianic age. According to the Talmud, God had to coerce Israel into accepting the commandments by holding the mountain over Israel’s head. According to this midrash, the Jewish people were forced to accept the Torah rather than face death. However, in the time of Ahasuerus, Israel accepted the Covenant voluntarily (Shabbat 88a; Hartman, D., A Living Covenant, p. 219). To assert the presence of God at a time when the transcendent is not apparent in history is a statement of faith. Susan Handleman interprets its reaffirmation as exceptionally praiseworthy. “For the rabbis to make out of this a second Sinai is an act of hermeneutical genius and profound theology” (Handleman, S. in Ochs P. Reviewing the Covenant, p. 181).

Central to a post-modern stance is a critique of theological approaches articulated in the modern period. Rational approaches leave little room for a personal spiritual commitment to God. While ethics are an important concern in Judaism, they have often become rationalizations for the non-observance of Jewish rituals. Since Leo Baeck called the essence of Judaism “ethical monotheism,” the level of morality in our society has not improved and we have become very aware that that ethics are vulnerable to political and social bias. Despite all of its promise, secularity and science have produced an analytical environment in which there is little room again for values and spiritual considerations. Both liberal and traditional Jews have stressed the importance of community while making the boundaries of the Jewish People both amorphous and rigid. The question “Who is a Jew?” remains an unresolved issue. Disillusionment with modernity and disappointment with secularity and science challenge our optimistic assumptions about Western culture. Yet, despite this critique of modernity most of us have no desire to return to the ghetto with its cultural restrictions and lack of freedom. While we are disappointed with many aspects of contemporary life, we want to live in world that cherishes our right to define our own lives. (Borowitz, E., Renewing the Covenant, p. 55-73)

Eugene Borowitz writes that the post-modern Jew can neither be orthodox nor liberal. Challenging the extremes, Borowitz argues that the orthodox Jew must move beyond a hierarchical structure, sexism, and a rejection of cultural pluralism, and liberal Jews must more seriously balance concerns of particularism and universalism (Greenberg Y. in Ochs, P., Reviewing the Covenant, p. 50). Borowitz articulates the concept of “Jewish Self” which describes the Jew who cannot separate personal identity from Jewish identity. With personhood and peoplehood bound together, the post-modern Jew will take the Jewish learning, tradition and observances seriously. At the same time, Borowitz honors the Jewish commitment to universal values and centrality of autonomy in Jewish decision making.

Like Esther and Mordecai, let us renew the Covenant in our own time. Let us ponder its meaning for our individual and communal lives. Let us consider how we shall respond to its commanding reality.