I admit that Purim is one of my favorite holidays. (Check out the chapter that I wrote about Purim in the Reconstructionist Guide to Jewish Ritual, Volume 3.) I know plenty of rabbis who don’t share my preference. Getting dressed up and acting silly make some serious scholars uncomfortable.
It’s not that I don’t consider myself serious, or a scholar. And it’s not just that Purim is the best example that “being Jewish is fun.” I take Purim seriously, because historically, its creativity, humor, and play-acting provided a welcome antidote to anti-semitism. As such, Purim can also be just what the doctor ordered to sustain us in this time of activism and resistance, not to mention the increasing number of unprecedented acts of anti-semitism across the country.
The biblical story of Purim is a kind of Jewish communal fantasy blown out of proportion. For Jews who lived under oppression and fear, or who experienced brutality and exile, the Book of Esther and the Purim holiday provided comic relief. The tables are turned on our enemies several times during the story, with some reversals more humorous than others.
Mordecai Kaplan saw in the story of Esther a Diaspora tale about the oppression by a majority group of a minority, and the Jewish battle for equal rights for minorities. Kaplan saw Jewish spiritual value as the key to the resistance to oppression and the capacity to flourish as a minority people. He saw Purim as a time to emphasize those values and to inspire creativity and compassion in Jewish life.
Jewish communities in Europe during the Middle Ages instituted their own “local Purims” to commemorate actual deliverance from an anti-semitic threats. Where extermination and exile were the common practice of local and national rulers, such a deliverance was worthy of joyful celebration. As one on-line source tells it, “Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (1579–1654 and an ancestor of member Susannah Sirkin) of Kraków, Poland, asked that his family henceforth celebrate a private Purim, marking the end of his many troubles, including having faced trumped-up charges.” (I kid you not.)
Hitler also knew about Purim and, perhaps aware of the power of its humor, banned Jewish from observing the holiday. In words tempting fate in 1944, he mentioned in a speech that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate “a second Purim.”
The Chabad Hasidim tell a story that a Purim teaching by their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, mysteriously caused Joseph Stalin’s death on Purim 1953. That day, March 1,1953, was the day Stalin became paralyzed. When he died four days later, nationwide pogroms against the Jews were averted and the infamous doctors' plot was halted.
The celebration of Purim provides a rich variety of Jewish practices that encourage giving and sharing, dressing up and playing roles and, above all, approaching this one day with a sense of humor and self-awareness, so that we do not fall into the trap of taking ourselves too seriously. It is for this reason, perhaps that we find in the midrash the idea that in a future messianic time, when all the other festivals are abolished, Purim will remain. Even in a perfect world, we will need to laugh, especially at ourselves.
Given that our world is far from perfect, why not rekindle our imagination and revel in satire this year on Purim?
***Need a little humor to fuel your resistance? Come take part in HBT’s “Alternative Facts Megillah,” an adult-oriented telling of the Purim story for our times.
Saturday night, March 11, 7 to 9 pm. Come in costume and bring Pussy Hats!