[Blog] Why today’s Liberal Jews have reclaimed Purim

Rabbi Leah Jordan
13 March 2017

It’s hard to imagine now – with our synagogues full of spiels, fancy dress and hamantaschen – but for much of our movement’s early history, Liberal Judaism downplayed the festival of Purim. The reason is because the Book of Esther, the Megillah, ends in bloody triumphalist violence.

The Jews of Persia have spent most of the book’s few short chapters in fear for their lives from Haman, advisor to the king and infamous Jew-hater, who has persuaded King Ahasuerus to kill the Jews of Shushan.

At the thirteenth hour, the heroes of the story, Esther and Mordechai, succeed in changing the king’s mind — but too late, the decree to kill the Jews has already gone out. So all that can be done is to issue another decree, giving kingly consent for the Jews to assemble and defend themselves.

So we read that on “the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” (Esther 9:1).

Like any great revenge drama, disaster is barely averted, and so the (likely entirely fictional) bloodletting is meant to be cathartic, an emotional release, a revenge fantasy for a marginalised, diasporic people.

Recent modern scholarship, Elliott Horowitz amongst others, points to the troubled, fascinating way in which Purim played out throughout the centuries – as a time that anti-Jewish Christian rhetoric pointed to in order to paint Jews as ‘bloodthirsty’ and as a time when ‘the playful, theatrical violence’ of the festival has led to real anti-Christian violence on the part of Jews.

Liberal Jewish communities have now reclaimed so much of this complex narrative in their Purim celebrations and spiels, recognising that the festival is a vehicle, through its ribaldry, contradictions, masks and unmasking, to explore these tensions of particularist Jewish narrative and contemporary identities.

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