Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Purim is, without question, one of the most outrageous, over-the-top and, some might say, offensive holidays in the Jewish tradition. Not the toned down, child-centric, carnival game-filled, “and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after” version of the story that most of us hear or remember. The version of the story where the Jews attack and kill hundreds of Persians by taking up arms at the end of the story. The version where not only Haman is hanged but where all 10 of his sons are murdered on the gallows too.
This is the story that arises from the imaginations of an oppressed and persecuted people; a people who fantasize about a world turned upside down, where they would take revenge on their enemies. It is a story where the worst is imagined and then subverted, framed as a comical farce. It is a story accompanied with drinking; before “Drunk History” was a thing, the Jewish people shared an outrageous story in an outrageous manner by dressing it up in humor and soaking it in alcohol.
How outrageous is too outrageous? The original text takes things to an extreme, but today, do we still find it cathartic to look at some of the things that cause us the greatest fear, magnify them and subvert them in outrageous ways?
A Rabbis Without Borders colleague and friend, Ruth Abusch-Magder, once described the scene at the school in Jerusalem during the second intifada, where a child dressed up as a suicide bomber on Purim. Tasteless? Absolutely. A subversion of one of our greatest fears into something that was being mocked as a form of emotional release from the fear? I think so.
I grew up in the UK where political satire has a long and strong tradition. From the outrageous cartoons of Punch magazine, to the brilliant and utterly outrageous TV show of the ‘80s, “Spitting Image,” “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” appear mild mannered in comparison. Here’s a brief taste of Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (Conservative Party) and Opposition leader Neil Kinnock (Labour), debating the virtues of a two-party system at a time when there was also a small third-party presence of the Liberal Democrats.
In the current political season in the U.S., there is much to cause outrage and, on its surface, it is no laughing matter. Other colleagues have commented on this blog about the coarseness of the political discourse and the dangerous hate-mongering of Donald Trump. Should he become the Republican nominee, there are real fears about the chaos he could sow, not only within the political system, but among citizens who are being encouraged to express and act upon the basest of human emotions. Is it too dangerous to satirize the situation this Purim? Or, in fact, is Purim precisely the time when we have permission to subvert the narrative by outrageously engaging with those things that we have the most to fear?
After months of the media simply reporting relatively uncritically on Trump’s antics, it was a (British) satirist, John Oliver, who perhaps was the first to demonstrate effectively that the Emperor has no clothes, in a breathtaking take-down that quickly went viral on social media.
Think back to four years ago, Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin may have done more to undo the McCain run for presidency than any amount of traditional campaigning or advertising. Outrageous satire may simply be a way of releasing our inner fears, reacting to the very real dangers that face us, and confronting them. But perhaps it is more than that … perhaps satire is a much more powerful weapon than we could imagine.
So, when next Wednesday evening rolls around… I wish you a radically outrageous Purim!
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.