Breaking news: a fragment from Tractate Pseudonymity

Fragments from genizah manuscripts, now at the University of Manchester.

How remarkable, that on this very day in which we celebrate how hidden identities can nonetheless reveal one's true essence1, this fragment of Masekhet שם בדוי -- Tractate Pseudonymity -- should be discovered! This fragment of parchment was found in a Mountain View genizah this very morning; I offer here the first-ever translation of this seminal text.

Rabbi Google asked: do we not have the right to demand a person's real name?2

Rabbi Montoya answered: As it is written: 'You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.'3

An anonymous baraita noted: Who are we to imagine that a name, whether given or chosen, tells us anything significant about a person? Is it not known that 'only God knows the hearts of men'?4

Rabba Hadassah added: The hearts of women being, of course, a different matter entirely. But if Matisyahu, Sting, and Bob Dylan had reason to choose new ways in which they wished to be known, how much more so might women, youths, victims of sexual assault, and others who are vulnerable desire to make the same choice?

Rabbi Shlimazl cited a teaching he heard from his grandfather, his teacher, may the memory of the righteous and the saintly be a blessing for the world to come: that until the age of majority a man may may be known by a nickname, but after he has accepted the yoke of the commandments he must be known as "son of his father" until he is famous enough to have written a book, whereupon he can be known by the name of his book.

Rabba Hadassah retorted: There are longstanding examples of online communities in which the use of persistent pseudonyms is the norm5; over the course of time minhag m'vutal halakha, custom trumps law. Also: if a man can become known by the name of his book, how much more so might someone from a small town, a refugee, or a member of a religious minority become known by the name of their choice?

Tanu rabanan / our sages have taught: Also remember the example of Esther, as it is written: 'And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther.'6  Our heroine Esther had two names, one to which she was born and one by which she was known once she became Queen of Persia. It is known also that the name 'Esther' relates to 'nistar,' hidden, and that even God is nistar in the megillah of Esther; therefore it must be permissible for us, following the example of the Holy Blessed One, to conceal ourselves beneath the veils of pseudonyms.

Rabbi Google objected: But how can we trust the voice of the anonymous baraita, or our unnamed sages, when we don't even know the legal names of the people who wrote this down? What if they're not who they're pretending to be?

Whereupon the chorus of anonymous baraitot shouted him down, and poured him another drink, as it is written, 'ad d'lo yada,'7 'until one cannot distinguish' between legal name and pseudonym. And the entire internet observed a day 'which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day.'8

'And there was much rejoicing.'9



Mishloach manot for me!

Found on my desk this morning.

Yesterday after I taught the b'nei mitzvah prep students a bit about Purim (and then we spent a while decorating masks for them to wear on the holiday if they're not otherwise costumed), I dashed south to fetch Drew at daycare, as is my Monday routine. The students stayed at the synagogue for a youth group event -- making hamentaschen which I will deliver later today to some of the elders in our community.

Among Purim's central traditions are the delivering of mishloach manot -- gifts of tasty snacks given to friends -- and the giving of food, or money for food, to those who are hungry. The hamentaschen made by our youth group kids were intended to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of sending mishloach manot. Apparently they also made a few special extras -- like this one which awaited me when I arrived at the synagogue this morning.

I get virtual gifts each year at Purim from friends, but it's years since I've received an actual package of edibles in celebration of the holiday. I've never tried a mint-chocolate-chip / raspberry-jam / chocolate-sauce hamentaschen, but I'm looking forward to braving it later today! Happy Purim to all.

Thoughts on Adar

Chodesh tov -- happy new month! Today is an extra-special new moon: we're entering the month of Adar.

"When Adar enters, joy increases." -- Ta'anit 29a (Talmud)

"The month which was transformed for them from sorrow to joy." -- Esther, 9:22

Adar is a month of joy for us because it contains Purim. Purim, when we celebrate the story of how the Jews of Shushan were saved from the plotting of the evil Haman, thanks to the righteousness of Mordechai and the bravery of his niece Esther. Purim, when we wear costumes and masks to disguise our usual selves (and perhaps in so doing, reveal some hidden facet of who we might be.)

On the surface, it seems obvious why Purim is a joyful holiday. We're celebrating yet another story in which our people survived against all odds! Purim features costumes, silliness, and commotion. At Purim, we stamp our feet and gnash noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of Haman. Purim plays (called Purimspiels) often feature ribald humor of the sort rarely otherwise heard from the bimah.

And, I think there are also other, maybe deeper, reasons why Purim is a time of joy. At Purim, we celebrate surprise twists and inversions. Haman plotted to destroy us, but instead he was destroyed; he erected a gallows for Mordechai, but swung on it himself. Purim reminds us that everything turns and changes, and that we can find holiness in the surprise twists and turns of our own story.

It appears at first glance as though the Purim story is entirely about good guys and bad guys -- but many Hasidic masters read this holiday as an opportunity to spiritually elevate ourselves beyond those distinctions. At Purim, we're instructed to become so "perfumed" by the celebration of the holiday that we entirely transcend the dualism of good and evil, moving to a place where all is God.

Speaking of God: at Purim, God appears to be entirely hidden. God's name is never mentioned in the megillah of Esther. (Those of you who've been reading this blog for some years have heard me say this before, but I think it is a gorgeous teaching every year, so forgive me, I'm offering it again.) It appears at first glance as though the story unfolds entirely without divine presence or divine help.

But many of the first several columns of handwritten text each begin with the same word: Ha-Melech, The King. The King, the King, the King. The Sovereign. The Ruler. Who is the real king in this story? Surely not Achashverosh, who comes across as something of a bumbling buffoon. The real king here is the one who is hidden, but is manifest everywhere for those who have eyes to discern: God. What greater reason could there be to awaken our communal sense of joy?


(Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog, along with our Song for the Month of Adar.)

Hidden - a poem for Purim

As my final project for the feminist exegesis class I took in my last year of rabbinic school, I wrote a series of poems exploring Biblical women. One of those poems has already been shared here -- Seven Miriam stories -- and I'm sharing another one now in honor of the festival of Purim which is almost upon us. This is written in the voice of Esther, the hero of the megillah of Esther which we read on Purim.



Vashti, the first favorite
was well before my time, though
I still wonder sometimes
why he asked her to strip.
Maybe he’d grown tired of her
and needed an excuse.

Of course I use my body
to get what I need: what woman
doesn’t? But until now
all I’ve needed were clothes,
bread, the freedom to read
in a quiet corner of the room.

The king thinks I hung the stars
but when the time comes
to make my play my hands shake.
And Haman leers. He’s thinking
casual threesome! score!
but I know karma's a bitch.

The story ends in celebration
and bloodshed, a revenge fantasy
your children will retell
for generations, but listen--
I’m not a paragon of virtue.
I’m not your blank canvas.

I was never hiding. I’m not
a Torah scroll to be concealed
behind ornate walls, then
revealed bit by bit (here a flash
of ankle, there a glimpse of hip)
for your viewing pleasure.

I’m not God, veiling My face
like the newest of moons.
I’m a dark-skinned Persian girl
raised on twisty Shushan streets
who gambled for a favor
and won.

Purim Katan: a koan of a festival

In a leap year, as previously noted, there are two months of Adar. Each month of Adar has a 14th. On the 14th of the second Adar, we'll celebrate Purim. On the 14th of the first Adar, we celebrate "Purim Katan," "Little Purim." Because leap years arise only seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, Purim Katan is a relatively rare occurrence. So what does one do on Purim Katan? The rabbis of the Mishna tell us the following:

There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah, sending mishloach manot (reciprocal gifts of food), and gifts to the poor. (Megillah, 6b)

Let's unpack that. The Mishna is telling us that there is no difference whatsoever between the two Purims -- except the actual acts whose performance signifies Purim! On Little Purim, we don't read from the scroll of Esther, we don't send mishloach manot, and we don't give charity to the poor. So what can it mean to say that there is no difference between them, when at first glance it appears that they have nothing in common save their name? (I can't help thinking of the quote from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere.")

But I think we can find, in the koan of this invisible festival, a deep teaching.

Sometimes our celebrations take visible forms. Reading the megillah, dressing in costume, making noise to drown out the name of Haman -- sending mishloach manot, and feeding the poor -- these are the visible external signs of Purim, just as eating matzah and telling the tale of the Exodus are the visible external signs of Pesach, and eating dairy and studying all night are the external signs of Shavuot, and so on. The external manifestation of each holiday does matter! The physical acts which embody the observance of a festival help us experience that festival wholly.

But sometimes we can evoke the emotional and spiritual valance of a celebration without actually doing the acts we associate with the holiday at hand. Imagine if, a month before Thanksgiving, you had the opportunity to spend a day meditating on gratitude and family, thinking about the festive meal you were going to prepare and enjoy, imagining your dinner table and the people who will join you there. You wouldn't actually make the turkey or the cranberry sauce, but you'd think about them, and you'd contemplate gratitude and thankfulness and what role those spiritual states play in your life. How might that change your experience of Thanksgiving a month later?

That's the invitation of Purim Katan: to spend the 14th of Adar I meditating on the deep mysteries of Purim (the God Who is hidden from the simple text of the megillah, but plainly manifest all over the story; the queen who pretends to be something she isn't in order to preserve and celebrate who she truly is; the need, once a year, to ascend to a place where binary distinctions, like those between Haman and Mordechai, are no longer relevant) in order to begin to prepare ourselves for the festival that's coming, so that when the festival gets here, it's different for us than it otherwise might have been.

There are a couple of tiny ways in which Purim Katan is traditionally marked. We don't say tachanun, the (weekday) prayers of repentance, on Purim Katan. The tradition also prohibits fasting on this day. And many sources argue that there is an obligation to celebrate and rejoice. One d'var Torah I found online, written by Greg Killian, makes the point that "Purim Katan has no halachic requirements. Whatever we do to increase our joy on Purim Katan, we do because we want to, not because we have to."

Here's a teaching from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema. (This teaching is based on a talk given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; I found it online here.) The Rema begins his commentary on Orach Chayim, one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch (a central text of Jewish law), with a quote from Psalm 16:8 -- "I place God before me constantly." Later in his commentary, on the subject of Purim Katan, the Rema writes that in his opinion, it is not obligatory to feast on Purim Katan, but one should still eat somewhat more than usual, quoting Proverbs 15:15 "And he who is glad of heart feasts constantly." Note the two usages of the word "constantly."

The sages tell us that his first use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "I place God before me constantly," shviti Hashem l'negdi tamid, which I've written about before) is understood to suggest reverence for God; his second use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "he who is glad of heart feasts constantly") is understood to suggest joy. He mentions reverence first because it's a necessary precursor to doing mitzvot; he mentions joy second because joy is the natural outgrowth of doing mitzvot. What strikes me, reading this, is that there are no active mitzvot associated with Purim Katan. This holiday challenges us to experience the shift from reverence to joy without actually "doing anything."

Purim Katan begins this Thursday evening. How might you choose to mark this rare minor festival -- how might you reflect on the Purim story's teachings, and increase your sense of joy, so that in thirty days' time the observance of Purim itself can be more meaningful and more sweet, and so that your reverence can transmute directly into joy?

Entering Adar א

I mentioned a few days ago that 5771 is a leap year on the Jewish calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where a "leap year" means that February 29th enters the picture, on the Jewish calendar a leap year means a whole extra month is added. In a leap year, there are two months of Adar, called Adar 1 and Adar 2. Or, in Hebrew, Adar א (Aleph) and Adar ב (Bet), since Hebrew letters double as numbers.

Why do we engage in these calendrical shenanigans? The Jewish calendar is metonic, also known as lunisolar. If our calendar were purely lunar, our festivals would move around the Gregorian calendar by a few days each year -- much as the festivals on the Muslim calendar do; that's why Ramadan moves by about 10 days each year. But the rabbis of the Talmud felt it was important that Pesach be in the spring, so they instituted a system whereby we add this extra "intercalary" month 7 years out of every 19, to ensure that our calendar is "re-set." (The Talmudic rabbis were, of course, operating in the northern hemisphere; it never occurred to them that for Jews in the global South, Pesach would fall in the autumn and Sukkot in the spring. To anyone reading this in the southern hemisphere, my apologies for our tradition's borealcentrism.) Anyway. This is a leap year! Which means there are two months of Adar this year.

I have two different teachings to offer on this front. First, from Rabbi Jill Hammer of Tel Shemesh: in Hebrew, a leap year is called me'uberet -- pregnant. There's a tradition which associates the 12 months of the ordinary calendar with the 12 tribes of Israel, each of which is linked with one of Jacob's sons, and associates this occasional 13th month with Dinah, Jacob's daughter. Rabbi Jill Hammer has written a powerful poem arising out of those ideas: Dinah's Month: Poem for Adar Aleph. She begins:

Adar Aleph is the month most often missing
as you are most often missing, your story
lacking like a year without a season,
your life events reduced
to a syrup of rape and vengeance,
a place to pour out anger...

It's a gorgeous poem; go and read.

And, taking an entirely different tack: Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center recently emailed out a beautiful teaching about Adar, and I want to share part of it with y'all. He writes:

The Adar we are about to proclaim is a strange Adar because it has no Purim -- yet that makes it the most Purimdik Adar of all. For by omitting Purim it is pretending not to be Adar. It is hiding behind a mask, just as we do on Purim, and the hiding actually reveals the deeper truth beneath the mask. In Megillat Esther, God hides – is never mentioned – and the name "Esther" itself echoes "nistar," hidden, just as she hides her identity in the palace so as to be more fully who she really is when the time comes.

We usually think "Adar Aleph" just means "the first Adar, "Adar 1." But it could also mean "the Adar of The ONE." The Adar that speaks through silence, through hiddenness, just as some say that the only sound God actually spoke at Sinai was the sound of the first letter, Aleph, of the first word, "Anokhi, I" – and the sound of the Aleph is silence. An open throat.

On the surface, Purim is a festival that's all about merriment and revelry. We wear costumes, we dress up as people who we are not, we swing loud noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of the bad guy in the story. It's Carnival-esque. And God is never once mentioned in the megillah, the scroll of Esther, which we read on that day.

On a deeper level, God is all over the megillah, the hidden Presence Who is never named but always felt. Look at the scroll itself in Hebrew and you'll note that many columns of text begin with the word המלך, "the king." Scanning the scroll, one sees "the king," "the king," "the king," again and again. On the surface, that king is Achashverosh; but he's a laughable ruler, barely in charge of anything. The real King in the story is the one who's never named. The real Jew in the story is the one whose identity is hidden. Reb Arthur sees wordplay between "Esther" and nistar, "hidden" -- a word which the Hasidic tradition also often applies to God.

I love Reb Arthur's idea that Adar 1 is the Adar of the א -- that silent letter in which the whole aleph-bet is mystically contained. That's the month we're entering today. What do you make of this koan that the aleph speaks through silence, that the hidden divinity is the divinity which may be most present, that sometimes the masks and veils we wear allow us to show who we most truly are?

And I love Reb Jill's suggestion that our years are pregnant with the stories of our ancestors, the tales we tell and the tales we keep silent in our own minds and hearts. What is growing in you this month as we move slowly toward (northern hemisphere) spring?

A basket of Purim links

Happy Purim!

Not surprisingly, given the existence of our three-month-old son, I haven't had the chance this year to write anything new about the festival. So instead, I figured I'd point to this blog's Purim category, which includes all of the Purim-related posts I've made in years past.

And as a kind of virtual mishloach manot (basket of tasty goodies traditionally given to friends at Purim-time), I offer these links to three of my favorites among those posts:

  • 2009: The end of Esther. Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

    But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

  • 2008: מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen? As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

  • 2006: Purim homily. On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.

Those are three of my favorites, but there are plenty of other posts which take different tacks. I hope you find something in these Purim posts which resonates with you, and I hope your Purim is joyous and sweet!

The end of Esther

A lot of bloggers are posting "Purim Torah" today -- think "April fool's posts," more or less. I don't have any Purim Torah to give over, so instead I'm posting a serious piece that I meant to post a few days ago but life got in the way.

There's a lot to love about the megillah of Esther. I've waxed rhapsodic about it before in these pages (I direct your attention especially to last year's Redemption and the true king and to The whole megillah, my 2006 review of JT Waldman's gorgeous graphic novel rendition of the story.) But near the very end of the scroll, there's some material I don't love quite as much.

Chapter nine of the megillah describes the revenge the Jews take on those who had desired to slaughter them, and reading it makes me uncomfortable.

Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

Continue reading "The end of Esther" »

Purim: accepting the highest Torah

You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.

I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.

We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)

One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.

I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.

Continue reading "Purim: accepting the highest Torah" »

(Late) Cookies for Purim and Norouz

Last Sunday we went to Northampton for lunch with my in-laws. We had planned to spend some time bopping around town, browsing the aisles of the used-cd stores, but most things were oddly closed; apparently Sunday was some kind of holiday? (Joking! -- obviously -- and I wish a blessed Eastertide to all my Christian readers.) Still, we were bemused when we realized that even secular institutions seemed to have closed for the holiday; the only place open downtown was, amusingly, the bagel shop. So we bought some bagels and then we continued on down the road to Tran's World Market.

The layout of the stores is similar: You enter to an array of phone cards, Indian videos, over-the-counter medicines, scents and packaged snacks. Most of the stores take credit cards. The aisles are roughly divided by country or by food type. Typically, there is a row of dried noodles -- rice, wheat, cellophane (pea flour), fat and thin -- and spring roll wrappers. The soy sauces, oyster sauces, Sriracha hot sauces and fish sauces fill nearly an entire aisle. There is aisle of bulk spices, dals (lentils) and canned fishes...

That's from this post, which describes several different world markets in the Pioneer Valley. The first one on the list is Tran's, which is one of our favorite stores. Several of our cooking staples come from there: dark soy sauce in big plastic bottles, good sesame oil and sriracha hot sauce, soba noodles and strange spicy pickles. I love the sense of culinary possibility I feel every time we're there, and the way ingredients for different cuisines collide on the shelves. It's a little bit like traveling the world without leaving home.

It had only been two days since I blogged about hamentaschen, and in the process learned about the Iranian poppyseed cookie naan-e berenji, which are made with orange flower water and poppy seeds and rice flour. First I spotted the rice flour; then the black and white poppy seeds; and then the bottles of various flower waters. I couldn't resist. I brought them home, and today I tried this recipe. So Purim was a week ago; who says I can't still enjoy an Iranian Purim treat?

I suspect I should have softened my butter further, because my dough wound up a little crumbly even though I opted to use the lesser of the two amounts of rice flour the recipe offered. But the cookies are tasty; they have a fine grain, like rich shortbread, and their aroma is amazing. (Orange flower water is awesome stuff.) Having just seen Persepolis, I'm delighted to have made a first foray into Iranian cuisine.

A little bit of digging reveals that many folks enjoy these on Norouz (the Persian New Year); they're one of seven sweets that are traditional Norouz fare. Norouz begins on the vernal equinox, which in Jewish tradition we call call the tekufat Nissan; I was born on the equinox, so I feel an affinity with Norouz. (Hey, it marks a new year for me, too.) It sounds like in Iran people celebrate Norouz for 13 days, so -- these cookies may be a late Purim celebration, but they're still right on time for the Persian New Year. Happy new year to all those who celebrate at this season! I'll enjoy a cookie for you.

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מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?

Despite the lovely savory hamentaschen recipe posted recently at the Jew and the Carrot, I decided to go oldschool and to make good old-fashioned sweet hamentaschen to bring to my shul for our Purimspiel tonight. But Ethan asked me a fine question while I was baking: what's the story with hamentaschen?

As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

D'var acher / another interpretation: "mohn" means poppyseeds, and (as this article notes) it was customary to eat poppyseeds and honey at Purim-time all the way back in ibn Ezra's day. These cookies were originally called mohn-taschen, "poppyseed pockets." And then someone noticed that ha-mohn and ha-man sound alike, and started associating poppyseed sweets with our story's villain. (According to this article, poppyseeds were the tradition in Central Europe; the custom of filling the cookies with plum or prune filling is Czech in origin.)

Continue reading "מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?" »

Purim: redemption and the true king

In Hebrew school yesterday we unrolled a small scroll across the seminar table to show our b'nai mitzvah prep kids the megillat Esther. (No, not the JT Waldman rendition, though I've just taken my beloved copy off the shelf to re-read as I do every year at this season...) We noted a few interesting things about this particular megillah -- like, for instance, the fact that the first line ends with the word המלך / ha-melech (the king) and then in the next ten or so columns the first line begins with that same word, again and again. The king. The king. The king.

Clearly this text has something to say to us about the king. Who's the king? Obviously the king is Achashverosh, right? The first line of the text says so plainly! Of course, Achashverosh doesn't seem very bright. He's clearly ruled by his own sexuality (first the episode with Vashti, then the two times when he, er, raises his sceptre to Esther his new queen.) He can't make a single decision without an advisor there to tell him what to do. And toward the end of the story he admits that he can't annul a single one of his own decrees. Some king.

This story is filled with hints of another kind of power. The power that caused Esther to be placed in a position where she might save her people. The power to which the righteous Mordechai would bow (Haman demands the obeisance and is furious that he can't have it, but the text tells us simply that Mordechai "bows to no man.") The kind of power that would avert the severity of an evil decree and enact righteousness and compassion in its place. But that power, that form of kingship or sovereignty, is never mentioned. Purim is a festival when nothing is what it appears: Queen Esther is more than she claims to be, and the gallows on which Haman meant to hang Mordechai becomes his own undoing, and the true king in the story is never mentioned at all.

My rabbi gave over the following teaching: Pesach is the beginning of the festival cycle, the first holiday in the wheel of the year. (Yes, yes, the new year is in the fall, but the beginning of the holiday cycle is in the spring. The Jewish year has four starting points.) In the story of Pesach, the Jews are in jeopardy and we are redeemed by God, "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The vast miracles of that story (the plagues, the splitting of the sea) could only have come from God. Yes, there's a human agent involved -- Moshe -- but the traditional haggadah barely mentions him at all. In the story of the Exodus, God is the agent of change.

Move all the way around the wheel of the year, through Shavuot and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Chanukah and Tu BiShvat, to Purim: the last festival in the year, the last stop before we begin again. In the story of Purim, the Jews are in jeopardy and we redeem ourselves: through the wisdom and faith of Mordechai, the fasting of Esther and the people, and then Esther's insight, and then the new decree she convinces the king to sign (which gives the Jews permission to defend themselves, turning their prospective day of destruction into a day of rejoicing.) Yes, God is involved -- but God is hidden, never mentioned by name. God may be the agent of change on a deep level, but the change is made manifest by our own hands.

We begin our festival year by relying on God to save us; we end our festival year by owning our own capacity to transform our world ourselves. And each year we recapitulate the journey from one to the other. In that sense, Purim is the ultimate celebration of human agency. Maybe that's why the sages of Jewish tradition suggested that in the World to Come, when creation is redeemed, all other festivals will fall away but Purim will remain: it's the quintessential messianic holiday, because it celebrates our ability to create a redeemed future with our own hands.

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Purim homily

Chag Purim sameach -- a joyous festival of Purim to you! In my CPE class we take turns offering the "opening," which is sometimes prayer and sometimes a meditation or homily, drawn from our own religious traditions. I think of it both as a way of setting our collective kavvanah (intention) for the day and a way of educating one another about our respective traditions.

Last time I had the opening I led us in the birchot ha-shachar, a series of blessings from the Jewish morning liturgy, and in the asher yatzar blessing (for the body) and the elohai neshama blessing (for the soul). I'm "on" again today, and this time I'm offering a meditation -- a (roughly) thousand-word d'var on Purim, its history and celebration, and how it can speak to us as chaplains in the work that we do. I share it here, for you as well.

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New Orleans Purim

The moon is waxing; Purim will be upon us soon, beginning on Monday evening when the sun goes down. In honor of the coming festival, I want to point folks toward an essay that offers a fairly unique perspective on Purim: the view from New Orleans.

Though Mardi Gras, like Halloween, has become a thoroughly American holiday, I like to think of it as Catholic Purim, especially this year, when the holiday falls between the full moon of Tu B'shevat-- the Jewish New Year for Trees--and the full moon of Purim. Both Purim and Mardi Gras involve masking, both celebrate turning the world upside down, both encourage inebriation: The two holidays are in many ways soulmates.

That's from Mardi Purim, an essay by Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus (among many other titles) who blogs at talkingdream.

As you might imagine, Purim in New Orleans is like nothing else. Rabbi David Bockman used to lead a Purim service at the old Chevra Tehillim synagogue, which included a stuffed gorilla on a string, flashing lights and sirens, and at appropriate moments, a traditional New Orleans marching band, complete with caps and uniforms and doubloons marked "Krewe of Tzedekah." (A krewe is a Mardi Gras marching club, and tzedakah is Hebrew for charity; there's that cultural gumbo again...)

The essay was written, he says, a few years ago -- 2002, maybe. That its provenance is pre-Katrina is evident; I imagine if he were writing the essay today he would mention what changes the events of last fall have wrought. Still, the piece doesn't feel dated. Mardi Gras happened this year in New Orleans despite the ravages of the hurricane -- I imagine Purim will be celebrated there, too. Anyway, the essay is good stuff; read it here.

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The whole megillah

Last summer I posted about a new graphic novel, Megillat Esther by JT Waldman. It retells the story recounted in the scroll of Esther, and since I am both a Judaic geek and a fan of good comics, I badly wanted a copy. I bought one a couple of months later, at the Biennial last November. Since I like to read things at appropriate times of year, I decided to save it to read during the wind-up to Purim. Now that we've gotten our belated Tu BiShvat observance out of the way, it's officially the wind-up to Purim, so this afternoon I curled up with the book and devoured it.

I am really impressed with this book. First of all, it's a good graphic novel; each page is striking, the pictures collaborate with the words in a way Scott McCloud would surely applaud, and I would like to spend time contemplating the visual prosody of every page in the book. (The art is also a style that really works for me -- black-and-white, like woodcuts, but elaborate and detailed. Apparently the iconography is largely drawn from Persian art from 600-400 B.C.E.) Secondly, it's a faithful retelling of the original: the whole megillah is in here, in Hebrew and in English. Most often the English words are boxed and the Hebrew calligraphy is woven into the frame, but one way or another, Waldman's respect for the text is clear.

And thirdly, there are these wonderful digressions. Between the acts of the primary drama, there are vignettes, other stories, subplots, fanciful dips into midrash. Oh, and did I mention the part where this is such a topsy-turvy tale that midway through, one has to flip the book over and read it right-to-left like Hebrew text (or, to make a genre-specific analogy, like manga)?

It's possible I am the ideal reader for this book. I've been reading comics voraciously since 1993, when my friend Cynthia plunked a volume of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman into my hands. And regular readers of this blog don't need to be told how much I dig Jewish texts. So putting the two together is pretty much designed to make me bounce around in glee. But I'd argue that if you're a fan of Jewish texts, or a fan of comics, you ought to read this -- if you're not a fan of both before you begin, I'd wager you will be by the time you finish.

Seriously, this book is stunning. I count myself incredibly fortunate to own an original page from Howard Cruse's glorious classic Stuck Rubber Baby; I've got to admit, some part of me is wondering how exorbitant a page from JT Waldman's Megillat Esther might be. Anyway, original artwork aside, buy the book and read it before Purim. And be sure to say the blessing for Torah study before you crack the spine. Even if you think you know the whole megillah, you'll learn something new reading it this way.

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Holy days

This morning I went to shul for a short morning service, the reading of the Purim story, and a little ceremonial whiskey to mark the celebration. (Good thing I'd had coffee and a donut first!) There's more to Purim than I realized as a kid, when I thought it was just a dressing-up and making-noise kind of day. It is those things, yeah; but there's other interesting stuff going on. God, for instance, is never mentioned in the Megillah of Esther -- which the mystics take a sign that the book is imbued with the essence of divinity entirely beyond the binarism implied by names and naming. In other words, this most profane text (full of court intrigue, harems and eunuchs, and thinly-veiled sexual innuendo) is so holy it goes beyond any of the names for God which we can conceive.

Today seems to be holy for a lot of folks, actually. It's the Indian festival of Holi, a celebration of spring marked by merriment and shedding of inhibitions. (Hm. There's a lot of that going on.) An Indian friend of mine who lives in Singapore has told me wonderful stories about the custom of inundating people with color: colored powder flung out of windows, color exploding out of water balloons. (And the traditional beverage thandai sounds pretty tempting, though I think I'd go for it in its non-intoxicating form -- especially since I started my Purim morning with a nip of Johnny Walker red!)

Meanwhile, for Christians today is Good Friday, the day when Jesus' death is mourned. (Christian readers, help me out here: isn't March 25 also the Feast of the Annunciation, when his conception is celebrated? Having them coincide is quite a koan.) Karen has posted a powerful Good Friday sermon on her blog, which resonates for me across the differences between our traditions. "How simple it is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and feel that  swell of indignation that we all experience when we hear about a great injustice that has been done. And yet every day each one of us, in our own little way, gives quiet assent to the persons and policies that bring despair and death to humankind." Really worth a read.

It seems strange that today, when my tradition celebrates with costumes, percussion, and storytelling -- Purim, which some teach is the one holiday which will persist in the World to Come because it's a festival of unadulterated joy -- others are facing an annual dark night of the soul. There's a disjunction there, like a song being played in two keys at once.  Though I guess joy and sorrow coexist in the world, even on the holiest days. And I realize different faiths aren't all playing the same song -- at least, not in any melodic way we can recognize. In the (metaphorical) ears of God, I suspect there's harmony.

The Feast of Lots

Tonight at sundown begins Purim, a holiday I haven't celebrated since childhood. This year I'll be in costume again, for the first time in many years; I'm playing Haman in my shul's Purimspiel. All of the characters are cast cross-gender; our (male) rabbi is playing Vashti, our (male) past president is playing should be a kick. I'm planning to do drag as thoroughly as I can, up to and including a necktie and a stick-on mustache! Only trouble is, I can't seem to find a tricorner hat anywhere; I think I'm going to substitute our black velvet Hogwarts wizard's cap.

I had hoped to write an essay about the upside-down fun of revealing ourselves through costuming and cloaking, why the Purim story makes a satisfying fairy tale, and the interesting resonances that arise since Purim falls this year during the Christian Holy Week. But orchestrating the spiel took up more time and energy than I expected, and I haven't had time to formulate any interesting thoughts. So instead, here's a roundup of what other folks are saying:

  • Debra Fran Baker posits a theory on why Haman acted the way he did: he had a crush on King Ahashverosh. The book of Esther is full of subtext and innuendo, so this reading strikes me as completely valid, and also pretty entertaining.

  • On a more sober note, Rabbi Arthur Waskow connects Purim with the Baruch Goldstein massacre which happened on this day. This week's Shalom Report e-newsletter also included a thought-provoking piece called "Good Friday and Purim Together: Resurrection, Rebirth and Reversal in the Face of Empire Today," but that doesn't seem to be archived online anywhere.

  • Danya talks about how she really likes Purim. DovBear, meanwhile, has some issues with it.

  • This one's from last year, but it's worth pointing to again, because I like it so much: Naomi Chana muses on what's hidden and what's revealed in Purim.

  • And SoccerDad has put up a special Purim-themed edition of Havel Havelim, which includes links to a Unitarian take on Purim, some digital hamentaschen, and a suggestion of organizations to support when fulfilling the Purim mitzvah of giving to the poor.

Chag sameach to all! May your Purim be joyful.

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Purim, Take Two

The inimitable Naomi Chana posted some excellent thoughts on Purim in response to my first Purim post. I'm amazed that it never occurred to me that Esther and Mordechai are thinly-disguised variations on Ishtar and Marduk. That's a pretty classic forehead-slapping moment, there. I guess I was so familiar with the story that it never occurred to me that these aren't exactly standard Hebrew names. I'll have to re-examine the Purim story in light of that, and see how that awareness changes it.

This morning in meditation, Jeff told a lovely story attributed to Reb Nachman, about a kingdom where all the grain became infected with a disease which was going to turn everyone mad. There was only enough untainted grain to feed two people, so he decided to save it for himself and his primary advisor; but the advisor observed that in a kingdom of madmen, "sane" people would be considered mad. So they decided to eat the infected grain, too, with one caveat: each marked the other's forehead with a black thumbprint, so that in future, when they saw each other making mad decisions, they might each remember the madness of the world.

The story relates to Purim in a certain way. The world, Jeff pointed out, is pretty mad. In the Torah we learn that God said, of creation, that it was good -- but clearly the world is not what it could be. It can be hard to look directly at everything that's wrong with the world, for fear of becoming overwhelmed by how badly things are broken. Purim is our chance to accept, momentarily, how topsy-turvy and out-of-control things really are...which, ideally, helps us keep things in perspective the rest of the year.

I don't derive the joy from costuming that some of my friends do, and I'm still not real into drunkenness, but I'm grudgingly starting to admit that there may be more to Purim than meets the eye.

There's a saying about the Hebrew month of Adar, the one we're currently in: mishne-nishnas Adar, marbim b'simcha, "When Adar enters, joy increases!" (From Ta'anit 29a.) Whether or not you're celebrating Purim, may your Adar (and mine) be joyful.