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.