The end of the covenant — almost

The end of the covenant — almost

In an interesting note to one of the major codes of Jewish law, called the Tur, R. Moses Isserles, the great defender of Ashkenazic Jewish practices, writes about some activities that took place on Purim in his time.

Among these were cross-dressing, young men stealing items from other young men, wearing masks, and wearing forms of clothing prohibited by the rabbis because they looked like sha’atnez, the mixture of wool and linen prohibited by the Torah. None of these behaviors would be permitted under normal circumstances. Cross-dressing is forbidden in Deuteronomy 22:5. Stealing for any reason is prohibited according to the plain meaning of the text of the Ten Commandments and in the rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 19:11. Wearing masks, depending what they were depict, often repeated the cross-dressing violation and occasionally worse.

The Jewish communities of the Middle Ages usually were models of piety and strict observance of Torah and rabbinic law. For the Jews of the Middle Ages, infringing those laws was socially unacceptable and frequently punishable in the local bet din. Yet despite reservations about these practices, Ashkenazic halachists, including R. Issereles, decided that “now that we have seen that these practices are widespread and no one objects to them, we ought to find halachic sources that support them.” For these halachists, at least on Purim, “the voice of the people was the voice of God.”

It was not clear to Ashkenazic rabbis what generated these antinomian behaviors, and it was only with rather ingenious, often forced interpretations of normative halachah that they found ways to sanction a once-a-year suspension of acceptable Jewish conduct. What is clear is that these behaviors came from the grassroots and could not be suppressed.

This strikes me as a good example of the folk unconscious being more sensitive to a theological quandary than those whose theologies were based on canonical texts and logic.

When we think deeply about Purim, it’s no fun until you’ve read the gantze Megillah. Until the end, the Jewish people are threatened with annihilation because one highly placed official, Haman, is offended by one person, Mordechai, who happens to be Jewish. The Jews seem utterly powerless, and even Esther, who eventually saves the day, initially refuses to use what influence she has to save her people. And where is God? Not to be found anywhere in the Purim narrative.

The rabbis tell us that in Esther’s name lies a key to what is happening in the Purim story: God is hiding His face. In Hebrew this is called hester panim, an obvious pun on the name Esther. The talmudic rabbis give various reasons why God was hiding his face at this particular moment in Jewish history, but the rank and file of Jews living in the Ashkenazic areas of Central and Eastern Europe knew at least this: Reason or no reason, God’s hiding his face did not always seem fair, at least not to them. Their world was filled with fear: When would the next expulsion from the city or country of their birth or business take place? Who would live or die or be beaten or, if he was lucky, just cursed or spat on or mocked on Good Friday or Christmas night?

Throughout the year, these Ashkenazic Jews consoled themselves with studying Torah and observing mitzvot, with the comforting presence of Shabbat and the joyful cycle of Yamim Tovim. They did not fool themselves about their tragic history as they fasted during the year for the events that led to the destruction of the Temples and the end of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel. But just as they stayed passive in their relations with the nasty nobility and clergy who persecuted them, they were passive with God as well, trusting that some day, like the day of Purim, he would redeem them.

After all, there was a covenant between them and God, and a covenant is a contract. The way it should work is, “If I keep my end of the bargain, you (or You) should keep Yours.” And the Jews of the Middle Ages in Ashkenaz were overwhelmingly careful about upholding their end of the covenant, and they were hopeful and patient about God upholding his.

But then Purim would come. The Ashkenazi Jews listening to the Megillah heard in it their own story of attempts to make them extinct. They, like all who listened to the Megillah, found God missing on the surface of its narrative. And perhaps they were more than a little angry at the wonderful outcome that was the lot of Persian Jews long ago, but not theirs.

I believe that on Purim these Jews unconsciously acted out their anger by transgressive and subversive behavior aimed at God, who seemed to hide his face from them continuously. On the surface, this was just Purim merry-making. More darkly, this suspension of normative covenantal behavior may have been dedicated to making God feel abandoned by his covenanted people as they sometimes felt abandoned by God.

A little cross-dressing, a little thievery, hiding your (Jewish) identity behind a mask, and violating rabbinic prohibitions was the way to let off the steam of disappointment at being unredeemed. This folk behavior said, “Two can play the same game. If you will not redeem and protect us as you promised, we will show you what forsaking you might look like.”

There is a Yiddish rhyme that children used to recite on Purim: “Haint iz Purim, morgen iz ois,” “Today is Purim, tomorrow it’s out.” Ultimately, the Jews of Ashkenaz knew that their lives would be meaningless without their foundation of Jewish observance and belief. Like Abraham or Job remonstrating with God, they spoke their minds and acted out to protest their situation one day a year. But the next day “Purim iz ois,” and you have to make up your mind about whether a mask is your identity – or whether it is just a mask.

Most Jews in the Middle Ages, whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic, chose their unmasked Jewish identity, with all the joys, sorrows, and dangers that the identity included. It is because of their dedication, their faith, and ultimately their covenantal loyalty that we are still here. And there is reason to rejoice in that!

Purim sameah! A joyous Purim to one and all!