[Sermon] It’s a Topsy Turvy World!

10 March 2017
As published in the Crouch End Chavurah magazine

Purim (meaning ‘lots’) falls this year on the evening of Sunday 12 March.

The biblical book of Esther is the source of Purim. Although lacking any historicity, the Book of Esther tells of a Persian King, Achverosh, his Jewish Queen Esther and an attempt by his Chief Minister, Haman to wipe out the Jews on a date selected by the drawing of lots. Esther’s Uncle, Mordechai, discovers the plot, advises his niece to inform the King and, as a result, the Jews are saved at the cost of the hanging of Haman and his ten sons and the Jews killing 75,000 Persians in defence of their own lives.

At Purim Jews are obligated to hear the reading of the Book of Esther which is often accompanied by riotous, even drunken, fancy dress parties and the consumption of hamantaschen: pastries filled with poppy seeds, jam and/or chocolate and shaped as Haman’s ears or pockets. Perhaps more endearing and in accord with Esther 9:22 which speaks of mishlo’ach manot (‘sending portions’) many Jews send edible gifts to family and packages or money to the poor.

The early adherents of Liberal Judaism either ignored or, in some cases, made an overt, articulated decision to reject Purim. In ‘Liberal Judaism; An Essay’ Claude Montefiore observed that ‘…Purim and the Fast of Av, which, though not mentioned in the Pentateuch, once played an important part in Jewish life, but which are now dropping into desuetude. Only one non-Pentateuchal festival seems likely to maintain itself: the festival of Chanukah, commemorating the Maccabean revolt’.

A generation later Britain’s first Liberal Rabbi, Israel Mattuck wrote,

‘There is another traditional feast which, though observed by some Jews, is not observed by all –the feast of Purim. The basis for it is the story of Esther. It is a sort of spring carnival with, I think, no particular religious significance. The story upon which it is based is historically doubtful. And there are some objectionable features in its celebration. For these reasons, but particularly because it lacks religious significance, many Liberal Synagogues do not observe it.

Over the years Purim re-established itself in Liberal Jewish circles such that in its ‘Affirmations of Liberal Judaism’ the National Movement publication ‘affirm{ed} the importance of the major festivals and Channukah’ and ‘encourag{ed} the observance of other days of celebration, such as Purim…’

Other than being an excuse for a communal party it may be that this coming Purim will be important for two reasons –one ancient, and one modern.

Following the Talmud injunction that one must recite a blessing on returning to a place having been saved from danger Jewish communities around the word began to mark their own local ‘purim’. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists some 100 special Purims dating from the 12th to the 19th century. The British Jewish community rightly considers itself secure in modern Britain but perhaps the events of the 20th century in central Europe coupled with the resurgence in continental European anti-Semitism might make an annual moment of reflection on the dual aspects of modern democratic life a relevant one.

Perhaps too the early Liberal Jews missed a feature of the Purim story in which in typical fairy-tale style there is a clear division between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’, between righteous conduct and evil. If modernity has taught humanity anything it is this: politics, economics, even history and all the manifestations of human existence are rarely ‘black and white’. Living and its challenges are often much more complicated and grey than we might wish them to be but in that uncertainty and doubt is real challenge and great excitement.

Whether Purim 2017 is an excuse for a communal celebration or a moment for philosophical reflection may it be a source of strength and an impulse for good in our lives.
 
 

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