Purim — Massacre Mayhem Forgetting (Response to Shaul Magid)


In Open Zion, Shaul Magid addresses the morality of Purim, a drunken revel commemorating the failure of a Persian satrap in his plot to annihilate the Jews. According to the book of Esther, Haman’s scheme is underdone by the canny wiles of Queen Esther and Mordechai, her guardian, and then by the decision of the Jews of the empire to stand up to defend their lives. It’s a story of masks and mayhem, massacre and counter-massacre, whose primary obligations are to listen to the telling of the story, and, according to the dictum of Rava, a Babylonian sage, to drink until one no longer grasps the difference between Mordechai , the hero, and Haman, the villain.

The holiday takes on a terrible poignance, coupled as it is with a genocidal imperative, the commandment to “blot out the memory” of “Amalek,” the ancestral enemy of the biblical Israelites. A floating signifier, Amalek turns into “the Arab enemy” in rightwing religious Zionism. But that only means that rightwing religious Zionists and their fellow travelers in the United Sates never really internalized Rava’s dictum. How do you blot out the memory of Amalek? Not by re-establishing the name of Amalek in each and every generation, from Hitler to Arafat and then over to Ahmadinejad, as a  single, undifferentiated, eternal, mental monument to the pathetic spectacle that is Jewish history. It’s a category mistake. Ritual is never real, and God help us all when someone gets the opposite idea.

Retelling a Hasidic tale, Shaul’s salutary attempt to redeem the Amalek sting is to make friends with “the enemy,” to go to “the mosque.” Martin Buber made a similar argument in his 1919 essay “Herut” about turning Agag-Amalek into a friend at the end of days. A pipedream perhaps.

In the meantime, what is a liberal-minded person to do, namely those liberal Jews who do, in fact, take the holiday with even a modicum of the  seriousness it deserves? Speaking for myself, all I can recommend is to sit back in the synagogue, share a little scotch and bourbon, sort of listen to the story, and contribute a little to the simulated mayhem on the floor of the synagogue. If ritual is never real, then, ideally, Purim should be too raucous to even remember what the holiday is even about.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to Purim — Massacre Mayhem Forgetting (Response to Shaul Magid)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    Apparently If we hate our enemies past and present, even if only on Purim, we have all moved to the camp of reactionaries, up there with the Hill People and the residents of Chevron. This entire riff of Landes, Magid etc. on the seriousness of the supposed dilemma … “Ooo, oooo, what is a Jew to do on Purim?” sounds more than a bit meshuga to my ears, up there with other Purim drashas where everything is turned upside down. Reading these essays I arrive at these answers 1) Purim =Yom kiPurim…spend the day in fasting and repentance for Goldstein and other collective sins that make us anything less than perfect. 2) Substitute reading “Justice as Fairness” for the Megilah. 3) Go out and get mugged, so we never ever imagine we are masters and not the slaves. 4) Realize all those we called Amalek, from Chemlnitzkil to Hitler, from the destruction of the Temples to the Inquisition, were really part of a larger historical picture, not directly aimed at us. 5) Do anything but give shlach manos, have a seudah, give presents to the poor and charity to the deserving, enjoy our children and grandchildren…lest we become a liberal bourgeois and miss the annual Burning Man festival.
    This line of thinking must be something of a put on…they can’t be serious!

    • zjb says:

      you’re probably right, as i think my own remarks suggest. the trick relates, of course, to the transformation Amalek-discourse in Israel by the religious right while not making not too big deal out of too little. it’s not an easy balance.

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