The holiday of Purim represents a great step forward in the history of Revelation and in the sophistication of Jewish religious understanding. Unlike the earlier traditions of Exodus, where the redemption from Egypt was accompanied by phenomena of a miraculous nature, and unlike even the later victory of Hanukkah, which had at least one extraordinary sign attached to it (the oil that burned for eight days), Purim appears to be a purely natural, human-made phenomenon. It was achieved by court intrigue and bedroom machinations. In the plain sense of the text, its heroine is presented not as a God-intoxicated superhuman “saint” but as “the girl next door,” frightened, lonely, using feminine wiles, an “ordinary” person.
Like all achievements in the real world, Purim was an admixture of moral ideal and moral compromise, which upsets perfectionists and religious purists. Fundamentalists objected that the holiday was not given in the Torah. It lacked the overtly supernatural; it was flawed by evil and human frailty and its victory was achieved by morally ambiguous methods. It would have been easy to dismiss Purim as secular, as not sanctioned by God, or to explain it away as accident. This is expressed in the absence of God’s name in the scroll. However, by their acceptance of the Purim holiday, the people and ultimately the Rabbis, showed their grasp of the way to understand how God acts in history in the post-prophetic age. They realized that God operated not as the force crashing into history from outside but in the center of life as the One who is present in the “natural”and in the redemptive process in which the human is co-partner.
The Traditional View
In the tractate of Shabbat (88A), the Talmud tells a story that captures that transformation in the character of redemption and of covenant. The Talmud says that when the Israelites came out of Egypt to Sinai, God held the mountain over their heads and said, “Accept my Torah or I will bury you right here.” To which a scholar, Raba, comments, “Then we can plead ‘acceptance under duress’ (as extenuating circumstances if we fail to live up to the covenant).” Not so, responds the Talmud, in the Book of Esther, for it states that “TheJews accepted and upheld [the Purim holiday]” (Esther 9:27). This means that the Jews, by freely accepting Purim, upheld (reinstituted) the original covenant acceptance of Sinai.
The Purim Model
In hindsight, the Rabbis perceived the Exodus model of Revelation as “flawed” in that the saved humans were overawed, “coerced” into accepting God’s revelation and commandments. On Purim, however, the mature Jewish people, rejecting the need for audiovisual fireworks, discerned God’s presence in their history. This understanding enabled them to encounter God in the reality of natural, or partially redeemed, history. They concluded that, after all, in Shushan, flawed human beings had been the carriers of divine redemption. The lesson may be generalized: moral ambiguity dilutes but does not negate the triumph of good.
Living after the Destruction, they noted that the Divine had ceased to intervene in manifest fashion. Therefore, in retrospect, the overt divine salvation that backed the Sinai offer of covenant was perceived as coercive, if for no other reason than the gratitude in the heart of the people saved from slavery obligated them to accept. The recognition of the hidden divine hand in Purim was the insight that showed that the Jews had come of age. They had reaccepted the covenant of Sinai on the “new” terms, knowing that destruction can take place, that the sea will not be split for them, that the Divine had self-limited. They took on the additional responsibilities for the covenant, maturely and bravely.
If one takes the Talmudic story to its ultimate logic, it is even bolder. It says that were Jews living only from the covenantal acceptance at Sinai, the Torah would not have been fully binding after the Destruction. Post-destruction Jews are living under the command of the Torah by dint of the reacceptance of the Torah at Purim-time. The covenant of Purim is also a covenant of redemption, but it is built around a core event that is brought about by a more hidden Divine Presence acting in partnership with human messengers. Yet the covenant of Purim does not replace Sinai, it renews it. Purim confirms that the road to redemption continues even though we live in a world where the mighty manifest acts of God are not available.
Purim is the holiday for the post-Holocaust world, it is a model for the experience of redemption in the rebirth of Israel. In this era, too, the redemption is flawed by the narrow escape, by the great loss of life, by the officially “irreligious” nature of the leadership, by the mixed motives and characters of those who carried it out, by the human suffering it brought in its wake, and by the less-than-perfect society of Israel.
In our time, too, the “purists” wait for a “supernatural” miracle. Some object because of the religiously nonobservant element, others are crushed by the morally disturbing Arab refugee problem. Just as doctrinaire feminists get hung up on the “feminine” techniques of Esther, so are ideologues put off by the moral compromises involved in Israel’s alliances and by the fact that it now gets support from the Establishment. People preoccupied with the equivocal details miss the overriding validity of the Purim and Israel events, events that occurred when the moral condition of the world needed such redemption, almost at all costs.
Similarly, the Martin Luthers of the world are embarrassed by religious miracles that cost blood, so they question the fundamental validity of any divine but all too human redemption. The people, Israel, knew then and now better. In an imperfect world, one must be grateful for partial redemption. Celebration inspires the people to perfect that redemption.
Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.
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.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.