18 March 2011

Qadaffi's Mustache

You don't have to believe that things happened in the Scroll of Esther the way the Bible says they happened in order for them to actually mean something.  In fact, there's near universal agreement that of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, Esther's plot actually never occurred and in reality, what we're dealing with is a *construct* or meta-idea about certain historical truths that in a dramatic flow of ancient trope and costumed mayhem yields greater truths about human existence than say, an historical document.

The Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld once famously said in an interview with Philip Roth that in writing about the Holocaust, fiction and fabrication allowed for deeper truths to be revealed than a mere recitation of facts.  I think of that when I think of the Scroll of Esther, its farcical tale told of the City of Shushan, it's hapless King, his Jewish adviser, a brilliant beauty named Esther and the Evil Haman.   Why do they need to be real when there's Hitler, Qadaffi's mustache, and Kim Il-Sung?  Purim, of course, is set in Persia and who but Ahmadinejad is more focused on the destruction of Jews today?  We've enough macabre mendacity coming from real dictators.  Literature allows us to laugh in the face of such evil, a necessary release in order to keep our minds from crumbling under the pressure of evil's relentless march in this world.

We make a whole helluva lot of hay out of Charlie Chaplin dressing up as Der Fuhrer and kicking an inflatable globe about on the silver screen while forgetting (thanks for the reminder, Bronstein) that the Stooges were making fun of Hitler's perverse perceptions even earlier.

Of course, the Sages got it even earlier, often disguising various evil emperors' actual identity by citing Amalek or Pharaoh when they really mean to refer to a particularly evil Roman emperor whose ire they were in no position to repel.  When Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz was preaching in Berlin in the 1930s, he did it too, according to historian Michael Meyer, in an effort to give moral uplift to his community in the face of the Nazi oppression because "the presence of two Gestapo officers at every service required ingenuity in delivering an unvarnished message.  He effectively achieved that by using negative biblical images symbolically:  Haman for Hitler, Amalek for the Nazis, and the like."

The text as truth or a mirror of truth--which is which does not always matter--and that is Purim's ultimate message.

We Liberal Jews don't believe it happened--so that's our Truth--but don't actively stock up our Food Pantry for the Poor and take too much care in delivering Mishloach Manot--meal packages--as a sign of celebration and thanksgiving.  Traditional Jews read the Scroll as if it happened (a fabricated truth) but collect food and feed the poor with an admirable, loving and humbling fervor that can call into question classic Liberal Jewish tropes like "Tikkun Olam."

One of our members announced on email today that he is organizing a new initiative in our community where we are going to make ourselves responsible for feeding the hungry at a local shelter on a monthly basis.  To buy, prepare, cook and serve the food--once a month--without fail. 

Here's another thing that can't fail:  selflessly feeding the hungry.  An historical narrative that is factually verifiable or a metaphoric farcical expression of ancient literature yields the same result:  humans digging deep into pain of personal suffering and demonstrating their understanding of their personal suffering by redeeming others.

That one gets to laugh along the way as the sun goes down tomorrow night and the words of the Scroll are unrolled for another year is cause for great joy.

God willing it will be heard--what with all that jelly and poppy seed stuffed into Haman's ears.

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