Why Purim is not Jewish Halloween

Ha’aretz 2/24/13

The commandment to get intoxicated on Purim and the tradition of fancy dress have led many Jews to treat the holiday as a “Jewish Halloween”, while glossing over its real message and relevance today. Purim, while it appears boorish from the outside, is actually a festival of great philosophical significance.

At its essence, Purim is about how Judaism views spirituality. Unlike many other religions, Judaism believes that true holiness is found by fusing normal earthly acts with holiness. It is not a religion that honors those who remove themselves from everyday life to concentrate on the holy: our rabbis are expected to be married, and we mark holy days with meat and wine rather then deny ourselves of such earthly pleasures.

Purim is the zenith of this concept. In the Book of Ester, G-d’s name is famously absent. Yet the entire story is seen as G-d acting through these mundane events and lays out how we should expect to experience G-d in the modern era.

Through festive meals, drinking, charity and telling the story of Purim, the Megillat Esther, we mark how Jewish holiness comes from the way we inject spirituality into our surroundings, rather than removing ourselves from that physical reality – via asceticism – in order to reach a high level of spirituality.

This of course is not an excuse for drunken brawls or tomfoolery, as one of my rabbis used to say. The message of Purim that he preached was that one should work on himself for the 364 days leading up to Purim so that the person he presents to the world on Purim is one who can celebrate excess as a mensch.

Today, Purim is often overused as a festival in political circles. With Megillat Esther’s Persian setting, it has been used as a frame of reference for those who wish to highlight the seriousness of Israel’s concerns about the intentions of the current Iranian regime. So many of us have been fixated on updating the story of Purim to today’s geopolitics that its spiritual message on our own understanding of religious practice has been neglected.

For far too many of us, Jewish practice is restricted to acts of worship that take place in the synagogue alone. We abscond from infusing our normal life with Jewish meaning, seeing that as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox alone.

Fundamentally, this is not the case. Judaism belongs to every aspect of our lives and by celebrating it we demonstrate our ownership of it. This was exemplified recently by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), whose maiden speech to the Knesset went viral through its thoughtful Talmudic reasoning and message of unity.

For me, the most important part of Purim is its end. The majority of Jewish holy days – be it Shabbat or a festival – end with Havdalah, a religious service that marks the separation between the end of the holy day and the start of the week. For Purim, there is no Havdalah; Purim never ends. Its message is supposed to stick with us all year round.

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