Humanistic Judaism journal, “Purim” Winter 1992
In rabbinic Judaism, Purim is less major than Sukkot and less minor than Tu Bi-Shevat. Like Hanukka, it enjoys a not too solemn middle status.
Purim has a built-in ambivalence. On the one hand, it features masks and plays and Mardi Gras type fun. On the other hand, it insists on reading a serious story about a Persian anti-Semite who plots to destroy all the Jews and is, in turn, destroyed with all his cohorts. Anti-Semitism and Carnival, on the surface at least, do not seem to mix very easily.
This odd combination is due to Purim’s history.
The original Purim may have been celebrated on the full moon of Adar (somewhere around March 1). Like Tu Bi-Shevat, it was one of several “welcome to spring’’ fertility festivals that were available for public use. Yahveh was not in its original cast of characters. Rival deities who had their origins in Babylonia held center stage. Marduk (Mordecai) was the god of the heavens. Ishtar (Esther) was the goddess of the fertile earth. Haman was an underworld devil with pretensions. Zeus, Demeter, and Hades would be comparable stars in a Greek setting. Ishtar and Haman, the forces of life and death, vie with each other. Ishtar triumphs. And so, of course, does the spring.
Like the Mardi Gras festival, the day was filled with dramatic reenactments of the story and sexual liaisons to promote fertility. Ishtar was served by impersonation, masks, and disguise. Fun was inevitable.
The name Purim is obscure. And the place of origin is also not clear. Was it a native Palestinian holiday dressed up in Babylonian clothing? Or was it a Babylonian import adopted by a growing community of Babylonian Jews? No one is sure.
What is sure is that the priests and rabbis cleaned up the holiday for official Jewish use. Marduk and Ishtar could not remain in the story as gods. They reemerged as two nice Persian Jews (the Persians had replaced the Chaldean Babylonians as the conquerors of the Jews) who were now being persecuted by a Persian devil called Haman. The Book of Esther is the result of these revisions.
If there is no reference to Yahveh in this entire story, it is only because Yahveh was not part of the original story. The authors simply turned the pagan gods into people.
However, the rabbis never really trusted Purim. It was not pure enough for their taste. Only political controversy rescued the holiday. Rabbinic hostility to the Maccabees gave Purim a chance to succeed. The major celebration of the Maccabean victories was not Hanukka but Nicanor’s Day, which fell on the thirteenth of Adar. (Nicanor was a Greek general whom the Maccabees had defeated in a fierce battle.) Simply abolishing Nicanor’s Day would not work. Substituting another holiday for it, on the very next day, would divert public attention with alternative activity. Purim was ready and available for this new role. The people fell in love with it.
Some humorless modernists have difficulty with Purim. They deplore the vengeful treatment of Haman. And they are wary of celebrating a holiday about people who never really existed.
But Humanistic Jews are reluctant to discard a fun-filled holiday with as much potential as Purim, especially one that ironically gave up its theology for theological reasons. While the story of Mordecai and Esther is indeed mythical, it can be treated as a legend. A charming tale that demonstrates how human ingenuity and human courage prevail is much more humanistic than pious truths about pious rabbis.
Since dressing up as a Purim character is part of the traditional celebration, why not expand the idea to include all the heroes of Jewish history? We need a “hero day” to honor the humanistic role models of our past and present. In this way, the legendary story becomes the setting for honors to real people.
Heroes are important. They are the embodiment of our ideals. Even when we exaggerate their virtues, honoring them is preferable to not having them at all.
We need two kinds of ancestral roots. We need folk roots, the memories of persons and places that describe our beginnings and development. We also need ethical roots, role models of behavior from our family tree. After all, the gods of traditional religion started out as revered ancestors.
Traditional Jews already have their human pantheon. Most of it is ancient and, therefore, open to mystery and myth. Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, Hillel, Akiba, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are the major stars. And there are dozens of minor ethical performers who people the pages of the Torah and the Talmud.
Humanistic Jews are still in the process of assembling their hero list. While most of the traditional heroes are appropriate memories for our folk roots, many of them are inappropriate as moral guides, as ethical role models. Some of them adored the supernatural and deplored any reliance on human effort. Others were militantly parochial, viewing any social connection with Gentiles as defiling and abhorrent.
We cannot simply borrow the traditional list and doctor it up a bit. We have to create our own list. It will include not only ancient luminaries, but also modern sages; not only those who stayed within the framework of organized religion, but also those who denounced it. Our list of heroes will include fewer people who can hide behind the myths of an unknown past and more people who are forced to face the scientific scrutiny of the present.
But how do we choose?
What are the criteria for a Humanistic Jewish hero?
If we expand Purim to Hero Day —retaining all the fun and using Mordecai and Esther as legendary models — we will have a guide.
Humanistic Jewish heroes have to be famous. They have to distinguish themselves in some field of human endeavor so that their names are widely known. The heroes must be identifiable, not only to their friends, but also to their enemies. A model figure whom nobody knows is hardly the stuff from which heroes are made.
They have to enjoy their Jewishness. Humanist heroes of Jewish origin who have no positive interest in their Jewish identity can hardly be models for those who choose this value.
They have to make decisions in a rational way. If they were always talking about faith and sacred authority, they would be an embarrassment to recommend to humanistic youth. This criterion does not mean that they must be explicit devotees of empiricism and the scientific method. Our heroes simply may be commonsensical people open to changing their opinion on the basis of new evidence and able to live with uncertainty and the unknown.
They have to be people of action. In times of crisis, they must avoid passive waiting and use their human skills to solve their problems. The childish posture that places responsibility for action on outside protective powers is not morally acceptable. Prayer is harmful when it is a substitute for real action. Waiting for the messiah does not qualify someone as a humanist hero.
They have to be bold. They must be willing to publicly challenge old ideas that do not conform to the evidence of experience and to defy old institutions that no longer serve human needs. They are not afraid to be innovators.
They have to be caring persons. They must be able to transcend themselves to serve the needs of others. They must be sensitive not only to the desires of those who are familiar but also to the desires of strangers. Rational people who use their reason against the welfare of the community may be smart, but they are hardly humanist heroes.
Who, in Jewish history, fits these criteria? Many come to mind: David, Elisha ben Abuya (the radical rabbi of the ancient world], Baruch Spinoza, Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem.
These people are humanistic Jewish philosophy translated into the flesh. They are easier to understand and to imitate than are abstract principles.
The Purim play needs more characters. We start with Mordecai and Esther. But we do not have to stop with them.