Casaubon's Book

My Purim Spiel

Note: It is customary at the Jewish holiday of Purim to give money to charity, and also to give out Mishloach Manot, or gifts of food to friends and family. This week, besides being just a bit more than a month before my book deadline, is the grand baking festival of hamantaschen. Hamantaschen are filled cookies, shaped like the legendary three cornered hat of the bad dude, Haman. We’re making about 200 of these, plus unbelievable amounts of spiced almonds and gingerbread, so posting may be light. Also, it is traditional at Purim to get drunk – Purim is a holiday of wild exuberance, celebrating life, and the tradition says you are supposed to get so smashed that you can’t tell the difference between Haman (who has all the markers of evil, twirls a mustache and has a three-cornered hat) and Mordechai (good dude, notably different hat, expression of kindness and generosity and all that goody-goody stuff) – this requires a lot of alcohol (ok, in a woman who nursed for a combined 8 years and lost her tolerance, this might take as much as three glasses of wine). So your blogiste may be a little less attentive to detail than usual this week ;-), and maybe a little hung over this weekend. All of which is just a long way of saying “I’m busy, here’s a re-run.” ;-)

We are getting ready for Purim at our house. Someone or other once pointed out that pretty much all Jewish festivals can be summed as “They tried to destroy the Jewish people, they were foiled, let’s eat.” And so it is – Purim celebrates the story of Esther, and the preservation of the Jewish people. It is a lot of fun – people wear costumes, drink, dance, make noise and are silly. And we are commanded to (twice!) rehear the story that explains all this revelry.

The “hearing” is not very sedate – don’t think “Bible reading” think “Rocky Horror show” – it is acted out in comic plays, the text is read aloud but half the time you can’t hear it because when Haman’s name is mentioned everyone yells and rattles noisemakers to block out his memory. Still, if you’ll forgive me for making something serious out of something silly, there’s a story in there worth hearing.

Esther didn’t particularly want to be a heroine. She was pleased to get to be queen (the queen of a rather sleazy king, who had dumped his previous wife, Vashti because she refused to come display himself for his male friends), and there is no real indication in the story that she is at all displeased to have assimilated into non-Jewish culture. She conceals that she is a Jew because her uncle fears that king will not take her as a wife, not out of any particularly noble motive, and she doesn’t seem much troubled by it.

Megilla Esther is first and foremost the story of acceptance by and of the dominant culture, of not making too many waves, of assimilation. But what separates Esther is her refusal (and Mordechai’s) to allow her commitment to and investment in the dominant culture to shape her moral thinking.

When Haman calls for the people of Ahasauerus’s realm to murder all the Jews within it and plunder their goods, Mordechai calls upon Esther to plead with the king to preserve the Jews. Esther is understandably frightened both to reveal herself as a Jew and also to go before the king without his summoning her, since the penalty for that is death. She tells Mordechai if he tries to speak to the king, she will die. And Mordechai’s answer is decidedly un-avuncular, essentially “So what?”:

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will excape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to your position for just such a crisis.”

Mordechai has raised Esther as a daughter, but he does not fail to speak harshly to her of her duty. And so she risks death twice, first by going to the king, and then by asking that he spare his queen and her people. And, of course (or we would not be celebrating) Ahasaueros does – the bad guy gets the gallows, the good guy wins, like all such stories. Esther ends up right at the end, of course, but she does so by recognizing that if she came to power in the dominant culture, it does not absolve her of moral responsibility, but heightens her obligation.

Peter Parker said it too, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think most of us have no idea how powerful we are, and thus, how responsible we are. Virtually all Americans command power and wealth unimaginable to most of the people in the world. Virtually all Americans are wealthier than 90% of the world’s population. Most of us have more education – even if we graduated only from high school – than a majority of the world’s population. It doesn’t feel that way, when you are in debt and struggling economically, but most Americans are richer and more priveleged than Kings in most of history.

Because we do not see ourselves as powerful and rich – we view ourselves mostly in comparison to our neighbors who are similarly powerful and rich, and we are all caught up (me too) in our struggles. We do not tend to think that *we* are the people who have great responsibility in the world, that we are responsible to act. Other people are powerful, not us – and there’s some truth in that – but only some. Other people can change things, not us – and again, there’s some truth here, but only some. We have a thousand good reasons not to act – we are merely getting along, we do not have time, we do not have energy, we do not have money enough to spare.

But if we do not, who on earth has the time and the money, the energy and the power to change the world, to make things better, to prepare us for what’s coming? Who will you ask to do it for you? Someone poorer and weaker and less priveleged? Someone who has had less good fortune?

In many cases they *are* doing that work – all over the world, the poor have spoken up about climate change and resource use, land reform and sustainability. I have read analyses of global warming and the WTO written by 12 year olds from Nicaraugua and India that put the writing of professional adults to shame. The world is full of people who work harder than you and I, who have harder lives, fewer and whose very lives are set at stake by the changes in our world, and who still have time to stand up and speak out.

I have written this elsewhere, but I repeat it, and will keep repeating it as long as necessary: almost all that is good in human history over the last three centuries is that oppressed and frightened, impoverished and angry people have stood up to those that did them harm, that mortgaged their future and endangered their lives and said “No More.” This was never simple, it was never easy, but surprisingly often, they succeeded in winning, despite lack of things you and I have plentifully – power, money, education, comfort. Our own national history includes, along with its dark side, a remarkable and courageous tradition of not counting the cost to do what is right. And virtually every single person who has ever stood up in resistance has been less well educated, less wealthy, less priveleged, less safe, less comfortable than you and I are today. How is it that we keep finding reasons to do less than they?

Most of us are not living up to our moral responsibilities, or using our privelege and wealth to create justice. We, like Esther, are afraid, although our stakes aren’t as high as hers. We are afraid we will lose our comfort, some of our wealth and our privelege. We are afraid to take full responsibility for the changes that have to come – we would rather put them off on future generations. The thought that we might have to give upthings we are accustomed to and change to something entirely new is frightening. So mostly, we are a silent.

But Mordechai’s words “Perhaps you have attained your position for just such a crisis,” should speak to us all. Whether you believe in G-d or good fortune, in the randomness of all things or in some sort of intentionality, perhaps if we are very lucky, it is because we are supposed to, or perhaps simply morally obligated to, use what power we have transformatively. Perhaps we are meant to lead, no matter how little we like the work, how frightened we are of the consequences, or how comfortable we are ensconced in the dominant culture.

We are like Esther. We are afraid of what it would mean to stand forth from the culture and demand that it change. We are comfortable in our palaces, and happy with our embroidered robes. And we, like Esther, are tempted only to act if we can forsee happy consequences for ourselves. But as Mordechai rightly points out, sometimes what happens to us isn’t really the point – sometimes what matters is that we, in our power, have done the right thing, without counting the cost to ourselves. It takes courage. And that is not in over-great supply. But I suspect there is more of it out there than we like to admit, even to ourselves.

Chag Sameach! A happy Purim to all!

Comments

  1. #1 History Punk
    February 22, 2010

    “We do not tend to think that *we* are the people who have great responsibility in the world, that we are responsible to act.”

    The United States, just in the realm of foreign policy, halted and in many cases, threw back the Soviet Union, held the Chinese in check, stopped genocide in Bosnia, stopped genocide in Kosovo, threw back Serbian aggression in Croatia in 1995, helped the Serbs liberate themselves from Milosevic in 2000, liberated the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban, liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, and keep Islamic fundamentalism in as much check as European surrender to will allow.

    The US did this will at best modest support from the rest of the world, and, with the exception of those we liberated and saved, for the most part, nothing but carping and ill-informed criticism.

  2. #2 Cavanaugh
    February 22, 2010

    Liberated the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban? The women of Afghanistan who had been guaranteed equal rights with men by the Afghan constitution in 1976—a clause that is to this day not in the US Constitution, by the way—until the US gave money and weapons to GUESS WHOM the TALIBAN (among other right-wing Islamic fundamentalist groups) to fight the Soviets for us? That kind of carping and ill-informed criticism, you mean?

  3. #3 Minnesota Mamaleh
    February 22, 2010

    thank you for this thoughtful post. there’s so much more than face value to most things, but especially to holidays for sure. i love the idea of looking to “characters” such as esther for lessons and examples, as well as non-examples. often an excellent teaching tool as well. beyond food for thought, there’s an element of critical thinking that is amazing to model and teach. purim is a great place to embed a lesson like that!

  4. #4 NM
    February 22, 2010

    Thank you, Sharon, and Cavanaugh.
    Beautifully said.

  5. #5 Joseph
    February 22, 2010

    Again Sharon, it depends upon how you want to define The Great Work, and concepts like tikkum olam.

    Humanity as a species has lost touch with true spirituality and has thus been lost in “the nightmare of history”, a point well known for centuries by some who dedicated their lives to the spiritual advancement of humanity. And in the past 50 years, a large number of people all over the world have woken up and tried to dedicate their lives to this “Great Work”, this re-emergence of esoteric spirituality and an exploration of the innate spiritual potential we are capable of.

    Go back and listen to the Moody Blues “A Question of Balance” or George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” as examples of the incredible spirituality that tried to sprout up between the cracks of our spiritually degenerate *civilization* and got crushed by _____?…..I’ll leave it blank so as to give anyone who cares to the space to explore that question for him or herself.

    I agree with all you do and advocate, it is simply that there is a LOT more to all of this than you are aware of, and without which you couldnt even be who and what you are today.

    I just read that the US has spent around 5 trillion dollars on the military the past decade. 5 trillion……Did not the 60′s counter-culture try to warn everyone about the severity of the situation, only to be spit on and then crushed?

    So as far as I am concerned, people just freaking out today over the insane way of life we are living are to some extent johnny-come-latelys. So, as for you advocation of things like you mention above, and things like tikkun olam, all I can say is “welcome to the club.” However, when I speak of tikkun olam, I am thinking about Lurianic kabbalah and similar esoteric spiritual systems, and that places the human drama in a whole larger context.

    Perhaps such a context goes beyond the parameters of a Peak Everything blog. Then again, the very act of my writing this may itself be just one small sample of tikkun olam itself. So here you go.

  6. #6 Claire
    February 22, 2010

    I know this has nothing to do with the greater message of your post, but it’s something I am curious about. My DH got a Jewish calendar for the current year from the Interfaith Partnership organization that he does some volunteer work for. The illustration for the month of February is titled “Purim” and shows someone wearing a three-cornered hat whom I assume to be Haman from your description above (we aren’t Jewish so I did not know the meaning of the holiday before reading your post). What I find interesting and curious is that the colors of the costume worn by Haman are similar to the colors associated with Mardi Gras (gold, green, and purple) and Haman looks very much as if he’s ready to celebrate Mardi Gras. Your description of the celebration itself reminds me a lot of Mardi Gras: wild drunken partying being the key Mardi Gras theme. Maybe there is some cross-pollination of traditions that resulted in the similarities. Or not. Do you have any ideas about this?

  7. #7 Joseph
    February 23, 2010

    Here is a quote:

    “The question our century puts before us is: Is it possible to regain the lost dimension, the encounter with the Sacred, the dimension that cuts through the world and goes down to that which is not world but is the mystery of the Ground of Being?”

    Theologian Paul Tillich, Hillel Society, Harvard University, 1956

    Had we done that – addressed that question and made it the basis of our existence – starting around 1956, instead of blowing our fossil fuel inheritance creating consumer fantasyland built on Imperial exploitation, we wouldnt be in the situation we are in today, and all those who dedicated their lives to such a proposition were spiritually advancing the human race as best they could.

    I mention this because your post seems to have a bit of a brow-beating, guilt-tripping tone, and that is not really appropriate for the kind of people reading this blog because many have probably done their share of trying to lesson the suffering of those around them and helped them prepare in one form or another.

    I only suggest that that tone is better directed at the super-rich and the power elites, who are the ones who REALLY need to hear it.

    BTW, Nader’s latest, “Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us” is at least a masterful attempt on his part to say to the wealthy and the very wealthy, “Hey, you need to use your wealth to jump-start-fund The Revolution needed.”

    As I have said before, the message I got a long time ago was about trying to redirect and utilize the macroeconomic wealth of civilization to create a controlled descent instead of a Crash, and minimize the suffering as much as possible.

    That may no longer be possible, I dont know, but I hope Nader’s ideas catch on with enough of the rich and the super-rich to make a difference.

  8. #8 Larry Langman
    February 23, 2010

    In answer to Claire’s question about the similarity of woodcut images of Purim celebrations to Mardi Gras celebrations. While the objectives of a “Purim Party” and “Mardi Gras” are totally different:- A Purim Party celebrates good guys over bad guys and Mardi Gras is a “last hurrah” before the commencement of Lent. I would feel that the Jews of the day shown in the woodcut, cut around 16th or 17th century of the common era, simply took their queues from how their neighbours threw a party. Very much in tune with the idea of the format of the Seder meal at Pessach following the format of a Greek Symposia.
    My recollection is that the “masked” Purim Party first came in the Purim parties of Italian Jewry and then became the Ashkenaz (European) vogue. I could be corrected on whether masking or disguise is part of the tradition of Sephardi (Mediteranean) Jewry.
    The idea of masking, disguise, things being not as they seem is a very strong theme in Purim discussion and tradition.

  9. #9 hickchick
    February 23, 2010

    I’m perplexed by the G-d thing. Why not just write God? Would that be taking His name in vain? Are your non-believer readers sensitive? Would the scienceblogs people give you a hard time?

    I mean, you’re writing about a religious holiday that you are celebrating, the cat’s out of the bag.

  10. #10 Paul S.
    February 23, 2010

    I have to agree at least partly with History Punk on this – a large portion of the military expenditures of the United States since World War II should actually be considered a kind of foreign aid. With an isolationist foreign policy, the USA almost certainly would have developed both more generous social programs and a vastly smaller national debt, probably at the cost of leaving considerable portions of the rest of the world in worse shape than they are today.

  11. #11 NM
    February 24, 2010

    Hickchick, I’m not all that familiar with the Jewish faith and it’s been awhile since Sharon wrote about this (on ye olde blogge), but as I recall, one of the tenets of the faith is that God’s name shouldn’t be lightly written out.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    February 24, 2010

    Hickchick, it is a jewish custom not to name G-d in media that are transient. It has nothing to do with science blogs, just Jewish practice.

    Paul and History Punk – Do we count it as foreign aid even when the population had no desire for our help, or when we killed more of them than the dictator in question did? One doesn’t have to be isolationist to question whether all of that stuff counts as aid.

    Sharon

  13. #13 Paul S.
    February 24, 2010

    Do we count it as foreign aid even when the population had no desire for our help, or when we killed more of them than the dictator in question did?

    Well, in pretty much every military intervention that the US has ever participated in, there has been part of the population that desires the intervention and part of the population that opposes it. There has never, as far as I know, been a case where 100% of “the population” has had no desire for US intervention. I’m not sure if there has ever been a case where the US killed more civilians than their opponents, either – both sides in any war generally blame as many civilian casualties on the other side as they can while minimizing those caused by their own side, so it can be almost impossible to get anything even close to an objective account.

    There is also a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to so much that the US does in other countries. If we had never done any military intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq, it is highly likely that we would be severely criticized for NOT intervening – and some of the critics would be the same people who have condemned our involvement. Likewise, it is often deplored that the United States did NOT intervene in Rwanda in the 1990s, but if we had intervened and then got bogged down in a long-running guerrilla war with high casualties, I am almost certain that the USA would be blamed for “screwing up” Rwanda, regardless of how bad the situation had been before.

    I instinctively greet the “Americans are the source of most of the world’s problems” claims with a lot of skepticism. I realize that the original post was referring more to people from all relatively wealthy countries, not specifically Americans, but I do agree with History Punk that when the United States does try to help, it tends to get little credit. If the US had, by some twist of history, become a world leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and moving toward a society that was less wasteful of resources, I suspect that it would not be any more popular around the world than it is today.

  14. You made an important point, Sharon, that isn’t taught enough in this crazy world – sometimes, you just have to stand up for what is right, no matter what. So what if you don’t want to do it – if you don’t you’ll perish anyway.

    We live in such an age of appeasement, with blinders on, never wanting to offend anyone – G-d forbid! – that the “right thing” gets lost in seas of relativist rhetoric.

    I sometimes wonder if G-d’s reason for making the Harry Potter books so wildly, unreasonably, insanely popular, was precisely to teach that message to a whole generation of children – a message that our schools, society and many parents are not transmitting.

    We may soon be in need of that lesson as events in Iran show that Haman’s descendants are no less committed than he was to sowing destruction. Where is our Queen Esther? Perhaps the answer is that she is in each one of us.

  15. #15 hickchick
    February 27, 2010

    I’m glad to learn this is just Jewish convention. I’ve had a hard enough time being taken seriously by science types because I have breasts. I try to keep all mention of faith out of discussions because I can practically see the estimation of my intelligence dropping.

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    February 28, 2010

    I think there’s a real difference between not 100%, and “popularly wanted” – and while I agree with you that the US is not the only source of world trouble by any means, I think categorizing most of our interventions as “foreign aid” is self-serving at best. I don’t think there’s a credible case to be made that we invaded Iraq for the betterment of its people. As for Afghanistan – there was a credible case for the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, but that was a response to attack, not a humanitarian impulse. I don’t deny that some of American military interventions in the world have had humanitarian intent – but categorizing the most recents ones or vast majority of them that way involves a serious rewriting of history.

    Sharon

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!