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.

The destructive nature of Jewish self-reliance

Ha’aretz 10/1/12

After climbing the religious highs of Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur, Jews across the world are entering the home straight of the festival season with Succot. As a holiday it does not receive High Holy Day attention; its rituals look almost pagan and its impact on us are often an afterthought to that which came before it.

Personally I have always loved Succot. I did not really enjoy moving into a temporary dwelling for a week, growing up in England and all, but the ideas behind the festival have always spoken to me. As a harvest festival, its central message is that fundamentally we are not in control of everything around us. We must put are trust in G-d, be brave, live outside and believe that the water will come from the heavens to feed us for another year.

The concept that complete self-reliance is not a Jewish ideal is an increasingly important concept for us to think over. We are currently in a mindset that self-reliance is the lesson of our history, that Zionism has given us the tools to be the masters of our own fate, that we no longer must be buffeted by the cruel winds of history.

Like most attributes, self-reliance has a balance that needs to be struck. The powerlessness of victimhood, despite its current popularity within the Western mindset, is an awful position. Until the establishment of the State of Israel we as a nation were victims of the circumstances we found ourselves in. We never had the ability to change our own fate, and though we did take it upon ourselves to advance in the different societies we lived, our success would always be at the whim of the majority of the host society we resided within.

Though our contributions to society at large were vast, our collective memory was rightfully scared by the cruelness that we experienced at the hands of others. The desire for self-reliance in the face of millennia of persecution made perfect sense.

Yet just as the lack of self-reliance is a vice, so to is the belief that we can be completely self-reliant.

The self-rule that Zionism granted us does not give us the power to live apart from the rest of the world, oblivious to the economic and political realities of our actions. While the atrocities of the 20th century fill many of us with a sense of pessimistic fatalism, the networked world of the 21st century no longer allows any nation to truly be completely self-reliant.

The ghetto of victimhood and the fortress that complete self-reliance demands are two sides of the same coin.

If history has taught us that we cannot be victims, let our tradition inspire us to realize that we can never achieve perfect control of the environment that we live in.  The impulse while understandable is destructive; the realities of this dynamic world will never give any nation, no matter what its size, the ability to successfully thrive if they rely on themselves alone.