This weekend was of course Purim – the annual Jewish festival that comes exactly 6 months after Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year with its purification from sin. Purim is an uncharacteristic Jewish festival – people wear costumes, they have a kind of carnival where games are played, henna tattoos are made, candles are made, and too much food and drink is consumed. The Megillah (The book of Esther) is read in Hebrew and every time the Jewish hero Mordechai’s name is mentioned, the congregation rallies “Yeah!”, every time the villain Haman is mentioned, the congregation boos. The book is later acted out in a musical play with the rabbi playing the role of king, and everyone singing. The more orthodox will fast for the day before Purim – I did a full 3 day fast last year as was originally performed by the Jews (no food at all, but water allowed). It is a reminder that wars are not won with might, but that prayer and dedication (the 3 day fast of the Jews) can also overcome.
Esther is an unusual book of the Bible because it is the only book in which God is not directly mentioned. The story occurs in Babylonian exile, and the play-like aspects may in fact derive from Persian influence. Historically, the Jewish people have had several periods when the culture has lived under subjugation. The most well-known case was the 400 or 210 years (if you go by the midrash) of Egyptian slavery. The exodus was followed by several rounds of enslavement followed by multiple almost messianic rescues described in Judges (written by Samuel). Finally, there was of course the splitting of the kingdom, followed by the Babylonian exile first of the northern kingdom and then Judea.
The question of which elements of Judaism’s history are native to Judaism and which are imported from other cultures (sometimes under coercion) is a problem that has to be seriously considered by any anthropologist. It is not just a Jewish question – but one also that confronts anyone attempting to understand two cultures that live together – like a couple. The two cultures must struggle between maintaining identity and integrating (or being dominated and lost). These struggles also confront Indians and Spanish/Anglo cultures, African American and White cultures, Arab and French, Turkish and German, Persian and western.
Why does it matter? From an identity point of view, it does. So if we consider each culture as a set of particles acting under its own set of rules, and each particle having a graded influence on the other particles in its set, then what happens when one moves one or more particles into another set, and imposes a non-lethal penalty each time that set’s rules are violated, and a reward each time that set’s rules are satisfied? Which of the native rules survive the exile experience? Which of the “foreign culture’s” rules are imported? To some extent, this is a Brownian motion thought experiment with a random number generator at the beginning of the experiment. The outcomes will be different depending on the random number used to seed the experiment. The parameters (the rewards and penalties associated with certain rules as well as the rules themselves, the graded influence or social structure/hierarchy, as well as the size of the groups) can be changed. Perhaps one can even devise some global quantifiers expressing “difference”, “power differential”, or “cohesion” within each culture, or between the 2 cultures. For example, the variable cohesion might be quantified by releasing the foreign individual from any constraint or incentive to stay in the foreign culture, and measuring its rate of return to its native culture. Certainly, greater minds than mine have thought about these questions. But these kinds of thought experiments have broad and profound implications for human rights’ questions – questions about tolerance and being different and allowed to express one’s identity.
From an experimental point of view, the experience is often cruelly reenacted over and over again in cultures over the question of sexual identity. The origins of homophobia are not really understood by me. While there may have seemingly been a rational basis for this – parents wanting grandchildren, this is of course no longer true. Many gay couples do successfully have children today, and the Nobel Prize in Medicine was recently awarded not only for this accomplishment, but also for increasing the ability of all who desire children to conceive. Someone once remarked to me: “Why would anyone choose to be gay?” I thought about the bias implied in the question: that somehow being straight is better, and I thought: many people do. It can be a choice. It can be a way of expressing one’s individuality, and in some careers, it can definitely be an advantage. That said, to say that it is always a choice, is like saying “swimming uphill” in a culture where the current is going the other direction is something that everyone would choose to do. Not everyone can, and for some it will be easier than others.
So, why is Purim seemingly such a different event for the Jewish people? First, Jewish law has traditionally forbidden theatre as a kind of idolatry. Some of this may have been a self-defensive reaction to Greek influence – the Greeks were decidedly pro-theatre. In Greek theatre, only men were allowed to act. This meant that men had to act the female parts as well. In the Purim story, both genders are present, and so there would have been the violation of the traditional orthodox rule against men dressing as women, and women dressing as men.
All of this relates somewhat to this week’s Torah reading and discussion. The parashat focussed on the requirements surrounding the burnt offering – namely how the ashes are treated, and the requirements that neither blood nor the fat be consumed. I understood the prohibition against blood as deriving from a mystical understanding of the nephesh or soul – that expressed very early in Genesis when Cain slew Abel. God hears Abel’s blood calling to him from the ground. The ground therefore refuses to yield to Cain. So, the blood of a sin offering must not be consumed. The fat question was a little more problematic for me, but the rabbi explained that it has to do with the fact that fat melts, and is what produces most of the odor in smoke because of its low melting temperature. Therefore, the smell of a burnt offering (the fat) is moved toward the sky (the heavens) and therefore is reserved for God. The penalty for violation of this rule is stated to be separation from kin. I interpreted this translation to be an injunction to watch over one’s family that the family obeys the rules, but it was later clarified to me that the word used for kin is actually ” ” meaning “the people. Respect for the sacrifice was important. The ashes of the sacrifice are not simply swept aside by housekeeping. They are removed from the altar, placed next to it for a while, by the priest who must be dressed in white linen.
So, this being a reform congregation, there was a lot of discussion about “Why?” Does one simply observe certain practices without understanding the meaning behind them? An argument was made that one should look at the practice, and ask “not why, but rather how does/can this elevate me as a person?” So there are a lot of rules – 613 to be exact – some of them more sacred than others, and the commandments are generally divided into 3 categories – written in the Torah, oral in the Torah, and rabbinical (from the Talmud). There is, for example, an injunction to say a certain number of blessings every day – not only every time you eat, but also when you observe interesting and beautiful things in nature, or meet friends that you did not expect to see again, or see the first day of spring when you were not sure that you would. Some of these rules are seemingly more arbitrary than others – injunctions about what order one should put on one’s shoes, for example. Some would argue that this makes life a prison. An argument was made that it was these rules that have allowed Judaism to survive for 3000 years, and therefore that the rules should be respected. Other cultures have not survived. I don’t believe this to be accurate. There are many old surviving cultures such as the aborigines in Australia, Egyptian culture, Indian Culture, and Chinese culture, not to mention native american, to name a few.
One of the things that I like the most about reform Judaism is that it is thoughtful. It evolved as a grass-roots movement, incorporating and attempting to answer the moral questions confronted when the traditional culture met other cultures. Unlike the Torah, which many have pointed out cannot be ammended like the constitution to incorporate that which was not foreseen, reform Judaism does consider and incorporate change. I consider this to be a fundamental quality of a serious world-view or ethical system.