Purim 5779

Rabbi Danny Rich – 18 March 2019

 
The Megillah Says What? ‘We killed 75,000 Persians on Purim’

Although lacking any historicity, the Book of Esther tells of a Persian King, Ahasuerus, 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 and advises his niece to inform the king. The Jews are saved, Haman and his 10 sons are hanged, and the Jews go on to kill 75,000 Persians in defence of their own lives.

The early adherents of Liberal Judaism either ignored or made an articulated decision to reject Purim.

As Britain’s first Liberal Rabbi, Dr Israel Mattuck, wrote: “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 and, in modern times, our communities are awash with fancy dress and hamantaschen.

There are two important reasons to celebrate a festival whose bloodthirsty ending we still reject – 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’.

With the shocking rise of antisemitism in the UK and beyond, Purim might make an annual moment of reflection for us.

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’. 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”.

[This piece appeared on the Progressive Judaism page in The Jewish News]

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