Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education for American Jewish World Service (and a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay), writes,
“Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove’s blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are relevant almost exclusively through creative hermeneutics. We may look to Vayikra for inspiration. We may find its details somewhat disturbing. But no matter our potential discomfort, one thing is certain for all of us—we would never remove these passages from the Torah.“
We would never remove the passages because, as Wolkenstein puts it, “none of us is better off by forgetting any part of the past.” To the contrary, the past should inform and improve our present; earnest discourse about (and with) the past makes us better Jews and better human beings. Such soul-searching, though, is often uncomfortable, and few Jews outside of our clergy make a regular habit of it. Those who do and who elect to share their ruminations are too often criticized or ignored.
Case in point: every year, a handful of Jewish writers point out that the Purim story has a “a dark and dangerous underside.” Invariably, these voices are lambasted and labelled “self-hating” or “naive.” In fact, it is the reactionary critics, those who refuse to reside in the uneasy and uncertain space of Purim, who do a grave disservice to our tradition and, importantly, to our future. Lest this seem like a partisan broadside, however, the Jews at the other end of the spectrum – those who refuse to observe or celebrate Purim because they’ve written it off as a politically incorrect tale of “bloody revenge” (and even attempted genocide by Jews, not of Jews) – are no less misguided.
Two years ago, writing in The Forward, religious studies professor Shaul Magid, allowed as how “Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence.” But he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t suggest that Purim should wither on the vine or be reduced to a Disney-fied carnival, an intellectually impotent combo of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Instead, he suggests a way forward by sharing a story. How very Jewish of him.
“If you want to approach Purim with a spirit of open-mindedness this year, I’ve got an idea of how to do it. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l). During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, ‘Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.’ His Hasidim were petrified. ‘What could the master mean?’ Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.
The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.
You want to blot out Amalek? […] Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously.“
Put another way by David Bowie (z”l),
“Let’s dance — put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Let’s sway — you could look into my eyes
Let’s sway under the moonlight,
this serious moonlight.“
This year, maybe, we can dance with one another (and with our tradition), warts, disagreements, and all.