Some Serious Thoughts about Purim

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While Purim is typically associated with costumes, carnivals and hamentaschen, many American Jews might be surprised to learn that the holiday has a decidedly more malevolent dimension in Israel, where it has long been the occasion for Jewish violence against Palestinians. The most infamous example of course, occurred in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron wearing an Israeli army uniform and opened fire on Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and wounding more than 125.  By committing this act of mass murder, Goldstein believed he was fulfilling the commandment to destroy Amalek - embodied in the Purim story by the evil villain Haman. Since that time, Goldstein's memory has become venerated by ultra-nationalist Jews and for the rest of us, Purim has never been quite the same.

For those interested in this subject, recommend Elliot Horowitz’s 2006 book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence” which traces the history of Jewish violence on Purim over the centuries. For me, one the most important take away from Horowitz’s book his revelation that bad Jewish behavior on Purim has a long and not so venerable history – one that most Jewish histories either gloss over or simply choose to ignore.

Horowitz also parses the history of Purim violence in contemporary Israel, going back to Purim 1981, when Jewish settlers brought down the roof of a Palestinian upholsters’ home in Hebron, expelled its owner and took over the house. (The house had once been a Jewish infirmary and synagogue, “Beit Hadassah.”) Since then, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hebron has become an annual tradition of Jewish pogroms against Palestinians. 

What do we do when our Jewish traditional texts are used as pretense for violence by extremists? I believe we must face this question head on. To be sure, there is no denying that the Book of Esther is among other things, a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. Given the presence of Jewish religious literalists who use this text as a sacred imperative to engage in xenophobic violence against others, I've personally become less and less inclined to gloss over or laugh away the more toxic parts of this narrative.

That's why I'm so happy to say that Tzedek Chicago's Purim celebration will include a Megillah reading that was written by Tzedek members themselves - each taking one chapter with the only prompt being "write the story the way you would want to hear it." 

Given the subversive nature of the Purim, I'd like to think that our approach actually comes pretty close to the true spirit of the holiday. You'll find more information on our calendar. I look forward to seeing you there.

- Rabbi Brant Rosen