The holy day of Purim is based upon the Book of Esther, which stands out in the Bible, as a great example of the anti-theological nature of Biblical theology – as the term God does not appear even one time in the Book of Esther. The story of Purim is one of an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people.
The central mitzvah (commandment) of Purim is to get drunk as formulated by Rava, a great Talmudic rabbi, who says – “A person is obligated to get drunk until one does not know the difference between cursed is Haman (the villain of the story) and blessed is Mordechai (the hero of the story)” (Megillah 7b). Before attempting to explain the shocking commandment of Rava, I want to discuss the Book of Esther.
The holy day of Purim is based upon the Book of Esther, which stands out in the Bible, as a great example of the anti-theological nature of Biblical theology. The term God does not appear even one time in the Book of Esther, and everything that occurs in the story appears to happen by chance. The name of the holy day of Purim (based upon the story) comes from the word “Pur” in the story (Esther 9, 26), which means “lot” in the sense of the random casting of lots in the attempt to exterminate the Jews (Esther 3, 7 and 9, 24).
It is often rationalized that what appears to be happening by chance in the Book of Esther is in reality Divine providence, as God is directing affairs behind the scenes. This is a rationalization because it turns a completely secular story, not mentioning God, upside down, interpreting it in accordance with a major theme of the Hebrew Bible of Divine providence. This is a theme, for example, of the story of Joseph and his brothers, in which Joseph sees the hand of God directing affairs in his having been sold into slavery in Egypt, when he says to his brothers – “So now it was not you who sent me here but God” (Genesis 45, 8). The Book of Esther, in which God does not appear, and is on the face of it a glaring exception to a major theme of the Bible that God directs all human actions, is then rationalized and twisted so that it conforms to the Biblical theme of Divine providence. I want to suggest that the term God does not appear in the Book of Esther because the book is a completely secular book, in which the focus is not God but the people Israel.
The Book of Esther is a story of an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, written long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Furthermore, I want to suggest that in the Biblical conception there is no fear of raising the possibility that God does not exist (and is not provident), and that events in life may occur merely by chance, as expressed on the face of it in the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther, in my view, is characterized by an attitude of faith in the sense of an optimistic outlook, according to which even in the case that God does not exist (and is not provident) and events may occur by chance, we as human beings are able to take responsibility for our lives and influence events (at least to a certain extent) thus improving our “lot”.
The Book of Esther is a story of anti-Semitism (Jew hatred) and persecution of the Jewish people, and thus there is no mention of God, and no connection to theology, as the entire focus is the Jewish people. Indeed, there is a central passage that, in my view, stands out as a high point of the book, in which Mordechai expresses a truly profound spiritual and religious message to Esther. Mordechai wants Esther, the queen, to intercede before the king on behalf of her people, the Jewish people, who are to be exterminated. However, according to ancient Persian court procedures, none (including the queen) may approach the king without being called, under penalty of death – unless the king allows the person to live (Esther 4, 11). So, Esther must risk her life if she is to approach the king on behalf of her people. Mordechai tells Esther (Esther 4, 13-14):
Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews. For if you do at all remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from elsewhere. But you and your father’s house shall perish. And who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this?
From this remarkable passage it is clear that, in the Biblical conception, such central religious ideas as responsibility, faith, salvation and a sense of transcendent purpose or mission may be expressed in a completely secular formulation (the formulation or vocabulary in which the ideas are expressed not necessarily being crucial). Mordechai here makes three points of a deeply spiritual and religious nature, especially expressing his profound faith in the sense of an optimistic attitude.
First, if Esther does not intercede her fate will be the same as that of all other Jews – “Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews”. Here Mordechai is encouraging Esther to take responsibility regarding the fate of her people (even though events may occur by chance) by pointing out that her own personal fate or lot will not be any different than other Jews. Second, in any case, salvation shall come, if not from her, then from elsewhere – “For if you do at all remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from elsewhere”. This is a profoundly spiritual and religious message of faith in the sense of optimism and trust that there will be salvation for the Jewish people, if not through Esther then through some other agency. However, Mordechai, strikingly, does not say that salvation shall come from God! Mordechai’s expression of faith that salvation will come is expressed in a completely secular, anti-theological formulation. Third, Mordechai asks Esther to consider that perhaps her mission in life, and the ultimate reason that she has been chosen queen, is to intercede and save the Jewish people – “who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this?”. This, too, is a profoundly spiritual and religious message that Esther may have been singled out and chosen for some larger, transcendent purpose or mission – perhaps by fate or chance (lot), and not necessarily by God. Significantly absent is any reference by Mordechai to her having been chosen by God. Parenthetically, this message may be understood allegorically as referring to the Jewish people as having some larger, transcendent purpose (the notion of chosen people in the Biblical conception is intended to be a feeling not of superiority but of responsibility). But, significantly, the message is expressed by Mordechai not in a theological formulation of God having chosen Esther for some larger, transcendent purpose – rather, the message is expressed in a completely secular formulation encouraging Esther to take responsibility regarding the fate of her people in viewing herself as having been singled out and chosen for some larger, transcendent purpose or mission without any mention of God.
The Book of Esther as a completely secular book reflects the anti-theological nature of traditional Judaism as a religion. Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in theological sense of a faith commitment. What defines Christians as Christians, and unites Christians as Christians, is faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah. In principle there can be no such thing as a secular, non-believing Christian. Traditional Judaism is a religion in the anti-theological sense of a culture or way of life of the Jewish people. What defines Jews as Jews is not a faith commitment but being born of a Jewish mother or having converted to the Jewish people – and, what unites Jews as Jews is not a faith commitment but a shared history, national homeland (Israel), national language (Hebrew) and a shared culture. In principle, there can be such a thing as a secular, non-believing Jew who is a part of the Jewish people and who identifies with his or her heritage.
If we return to Rava and his statement that on Purim we are obligated to get drunk until we cannot distinguish between the hero and villain of the story, this commandment is shocking for two reasons.
First, traditional Judaism is characterized by moderation between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism. There is an ideal of asceticism in classical Christianity characterized by denial of physical, material and earthly pleasures – the ascetic life of a monk of “celibacy, chastity and poverty”. This ideal of asceticism flows from a dualism in which the heavenly and spiritual are viewed as good and sacred while the earthly, physical and material are seen as evil and sinful. By contrast, traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible, is characterized by unity rather than dualism (God is one, and the universe is one with no dichotomy between spiritual and physical). According to the opening Biblical account of creation, the entire universe is seen as good having been created by a good God – “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). If everything is a creation of a good God, then nothing in existence (including the physical or material) can be inherently sinful. We may use things for good or bad purposes, but nothing is sinful in and of itself, having been created by a good God.
According to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, the human being, as distinct from other animals, has a twofold tendency or inclination (good and evil), whereas animals have only one tendency or inclination (evil). The evil inclination is the animal side of human nature (the drives and passions) that is shared in common with all other animals. The good inclination is the Divine side of human nature (reason and moral conscience) that separates the human being from other animals – the Divine image of the human being. However, the “evil” inclination is not evil in and of itself having been created by a good God. The Talmudic rabbis taught that when God at the end of the opening account of creation declares “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31) – this refers to the evil inclination, which is actually very good having come from a good God. Without a sex drive we would not be able to reproduce and continue the human species in fulfillment of the command “be fruitful and multiply”.
The ideal in the Jewish tradition is thus not one of asceticism and denial of physical and material pleasures (as in classical Christianity), but one of self-control and self-discipline, in which one controls one’s drives and passions (the evil inclination), as written in the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 4, 1) – “Who is a truly strong person? The one who controls one’s inclination”. It is clear that the evil inclination is intended here in the use of the term inclination. The term inclination, though, is used (omitting the term evil), indicating that the evil inclination is not evil in and of itself.
This is simply shocking that Rava says that on Purim we are to get drunk. In traditional Judaism, we are not ascetics and we are accustomed to drink wine on sacred occasions expressing joy – and, we bless over wine on the Sabbath and holy days in sanctifying holy days. However, we are not hedonists and do not get drunk.
Second, the essence of religion in the Biblical conception is not faith in God, or law or ritual practice, but a moral life of righteous and goodness, as reflected in the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel in Hebrew contains the word God as well as the word righteous (the very same word righteous as in the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”) – and, if the name Israel is divided in the middle, it means righteous of God. The people Israel then are to be a people devoted to righteousness and right living as the essence of Judaism. Also, Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out as a person who “will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19) – and, even though the term righteousness regarding Abraham is not the same word righteous that is found in the Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel, it is a synonym. In the Biblical conception, “the way of the Lord” is a moral life of righteousness and goodness as the essence of religion. The two greatest Talmudic rabbis were Hillel and Rabbi Akiva who both formulated the essence of Judaism not as faith in God, and not as observance of law and ritual, but as universal, moral decency – faithful to the Biblical conception of religion. As the essence of Judaism, Hillel pointed to the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cited the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”.
This is simply shocking that Rava says that on Purim we are to get drunk until we cannot distinguish between the hero and villain of the story – thus, blurring the distinction between righteous and wicked. The distinction between righteous and wicked is of the essence of traditional Judaism reflected in the very name of the Jewish people, Israel – righteous of God.
I want to suggest that the reason for this shocking commandment of Rava is psychological. We as Jews have suffered by far worse than any other people in the history of humanity. According to the Biblical account, our history as a people began in ancient Egypt with oppression and suffering – and, an attempt of Pharaoh to exterminate the Jewish people. We have suffered thousands of years of the worst persecution and oppression. The story of Purim is a story of an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people – and, in my view, Rava is commanding that on Purim, one day a year, when we commemorate this story, we get drunk in order to forget our pain and suffering. In my view, Rava is commanding us to get drunk as a kind of catharsis allowing us to release our pain and suffering.
One last thing – immediately after bringing the shocking statement of Rava that we are to get drunk on Purim, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) brings a story that is clearly raising a practical problem with the commandment of Rava –
Raba and Rabbi Zeira made a festive Purim meal together. They became drunk. Raba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day he (Raba) prayed for mercy and he (Rabbi Zeira) returned to life. The next year, he (Raba) said to him (Rabbi Zeira) – Come and let us make a festive Purim meal together. He (Rabbi Zeira) replied – Not all the time does a miracle occur.
The Talmud is clearly bringing this story to make clear that from a practical point of view, the commandment of Rava may be extremely dangerous to apply. In light of this story, there are legal authorities in the Jewish tradition who argue that rather than getting drunk as Rava so shockingly commanded, one should drink only a little wine and go to sleep – as during sleep one cannot distinguish between righteous and wicked thus fulfilling the purpose of Rava’s commandment without actually getting drunk.