A surprisingly serious Purim post

This weekend is Purim, the most light-hearted of Jewish holidays, when we are commanded to drink so much that we can’t tell Haman (villain) from Mordechai (hero). It’s also the most kid-friendly holiday, with costumes and carnivals galore.

My Jewish blogging buddy Linda K. Wertheimer has a lovely post that sums up why kids of all ages love Purim. And here’s an ancient  photo of my brother and sister in Purim costumes at our preschool, the 92nd Street Y in New York:

Purim, circa 1965 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But holiday fun aside, I ran across a serious Purim blog post this week that I liked enough to want to share below. It’s by Marc Rosenstein, an American-born rabbi who lives in the Galilee in Israel and writes a regular column for the Reform Judaism blog.

I like how Rosenstein presents two very different ways to interpret the Biblical command to destroy Amalek, and then shows the parallel to a similar choice within Islam.

(Quick background: Amalek and his tribe were enemies of Israel in the Bible. Haman, the bad guy of Purim, is considered a descendant of Amalek. Some hawkish Jewish commentators also refer to enemies of modern-day Israel as Amalek — which has horrific foreign policy implications.)

Remember Amalek

by Marc Rosenstein

Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
        -Deuteronomy 25:19

Last Sunday, as often happens, Iman, the young Muslim English teacher who was answering questions from a Jewish teen group, was asked about terror and Jihad.  She explained that as she understands the term “Jihad,” which means “struggle,” it refers in the Koran to historical conflicts between Muhammed’s followers and other tribes; but in current usage, it refers to the religious struggle of every individual Muslim to purify his/her faith and live a life of righteousness.  She rejects the interpretations of those who try to apply the historical text to current political realities, as if the battles in the Koran were still being waged.  Iman is not a scholar of Islam; her knowledge comes from her teachers, the media, and the imam of her local mosque.  We know that there are Muslims in the world who would not accept her interpretation.  It is simply the one she and her community live by. 

The next day, in Jerusalem, I attended the evening bet midrash offered to rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College, taught by Rabbi Shlomo Fox. As it was during the weeks before Purim, we studied texts relating to the Book of Esther and the meaning of the holiday. And we read several interpretations of the above passage from Deuteronomy which is read on the Shabbat before Purim:

Where is Amalek? The answer I once heard from my father is: every nation that seeks to destroy the People Israel turns, according to the halachah, into Amalek… And hence we are commanded to fight against any nation that schemes to destroy us, and it is a “war of mitzvah” [of complete destruction].

-Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “My Beloved Knocks,” 1956 (major American Orthodox scholar and leader)

“Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.

–Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, late 19th century (founder of “modern Orthodoxy” in Germany)

So, is our struggle against Amalek the eternal war of annihilation between Israel and its physical enemies — is every enemy an heir of Amalek whom we are commanded utterly to destroy — or is our struggle against the Amalek within, against the tendency to forget our own moral scruples when we attain power?

The similarity between the Sunday and Monday conversations was really striking. Both religions have parallel opposing traditions of interpretation: Do we take the historical event as an archetype that keeps on recurring, a drama in which we are destined to play out the same roles over and over – or is the historical experience merely an experience, from which we are supposed to learn a moral lesson that can enable us to repair the world. And are the two approaches in conflict, or can they coexist?

And why does this matter? Because our future here depends on the answer.


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2 Responses to “A surprisingly serious Purim post”

  1. James Richardson Says:

    Thanks for this, I like it a lot, and it has something to say to folks in my own tradition. Just wish we had the costumes too!

  2. Marie Says:

    that’s a very thoughtful post and thank you for sharing it with us. I love your blog and I’m so glad you stopped by mine & said hi! I hope you enjoy Purim and the upcoming Passover season as well!

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