The Dark Side of Purim, Kahane, & the Soul of Israel

There is a dark side to Purim,  that upside-down, downside-up festival of masks and laughter.

To inoculate us in advance against the break-through of that dark side, the rabbis long ago prescribed that the day before Purim would be the Fast of Esther, drawing us from dawn to dusk into a world of inner contemplation. In a moment, below, you will see an invocation I propose for the Fast of Esther, to strengthen its healing in our day.

Yet the dark side broke out 25 years ago and again in the last ten days. 

On Purim twenty-five years ago, a follower of the racist and murderous “Rabbi” Meir Kahane murdered 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer in the Tomb of Avraham/ Ibrahim/ Abraham, our shared Father and Founder. The Kahanist murderer chose Purim quite deliberately, for reasons we will explore below.  

Just this past week, the Prime Minister of the State of Israel honored the followers of Kahane by greatly easing their path for election to the Knesset.

I intend to join in the Fast of Esther this year on March 20, the day before Purim, and I invite you to join in fasting in sorrow for the way in which our own tradition is streaked with blood:  And I suggest that we begin the Fast by chanting this Vision, this Hazon, that I share with you.  After it are the explanations of how this Vision appeared to me. --  Shalom, Arthur  

The Presence of an Absence

And then appeared Darkness,
Her Head wrapped in mourning,
Her tallit all black,
Her Place only Absence,
Her Voice but a Silence,
Nistar b'Nistar:
”When Esther came hidden
In the name of one hiding,
She cried out to Me
To emerge from My Mystery.
“So I came to defend you,
My people beloved;
I strengthened your hand
to beat back your foes;
But then you betrayed Me.
For your hand became frenzied,
You struck down the harmless,
You struck down My children
While they reached out to Me.
“On the day of rejoicing
You hollowed My Name.
In My Own Tree of Life,
You hollowed out life,
left only a mocking
 Pretense of My Self.
“And I see -- yes, I watch--
That in days still to come
Your deeds will give warrant
To a child of your children,
To murder your cousins,
The children of Ishmael,
The children of Abraham,
In the Place of his grave,
On this day of rejoicing.
“So My Name I withdraw --
Yes, My Name will be hidden,
Nistar b'Nistar;
“For I will not permit you
to call out from this Scroll
My Name on this day.
“Yet I teach you that Purim,
Alone of the seasons,
Will continue beyond
the time of Messiah.
“On the day that both families
of Abraham's offspring
turn away from their murders,
their killing each other,
on that day will my Name
take its Place in the Scroll.
“On that day Purim
and Yom Ha’K'Purim
at last will be one.
“On that day, at last,
A Purim will lead you
And light up your way
to the Days of Messiah.
“On that day all the nations
will laugh and will dance,
will turn robes of power
into masquerade mirth;
will turn every gun
to a clackety grogger.
“On that day will My Name
Take Its Place in the Scroll
In letters of Light.”

Ten notes of Background and Suggestions, for Purim and the Fast of Estherr this year: 

1. Spiritually, perhaps the most important “background” is this: The Name of God does not appear anywhere in the Scroll of Esther. It is hidden, and the Hebrew of “hidden” is nistar.  Esther’s own “name,” so close to nistar, echoes that her true name, Hadassah, is hidden in the story.

2. The next most important spiritual lesson is that (as many modern scholars teach) the Scroll of Esther is not history but satire –- an over-the-top tale of an evil prime minister and a pompous, stupid king. In this view, every element in it is a satirical exaggeration for a serious purpose  to laugh at the vileness and stupidity of those who get drunk on their own power. (No accident that the story begins with a royal drinking-party that goes on for months.)

3. The story weaves together two jokes of the same genre: The anti-hero keeps slipping on the banana peel he himself has tossed on the ground. The pompous, stupid king gets the tale going by insisting that no woman is going to tell him what to do. His insistence creates precisely the result that he does exactly what his Queen Esther tells him what to do. And his evil prime minister sets out to bring about the genocide of the Jews in his realm, including the impalement on a gallows of their leader, Mordechai. By thus over-reaching, he brings about his own impalement on that same gallows and the destruction of his political party.

4.    Chapter 9, verse 16 of the Scroll of Esther says that after a day of successful self-defense from those Persian terrorists who had prepared a genocide of the Jewish people, the Jews killed an additional 75,000 Persians. The greatest moral and ethical danger in the story is that some will read it as history, not satire, and will read its excesses as instructions  -- especially the tale of this massacre.

5. Inspired by this passage of massacre,  on Purim 25 years ago, an American-born Israeli Jew grotesquely named “Baruch” (“Blessed”) Goldstein, committed mass murder.

6.  Rabbinic tradition teaches that on Purim we should get drunk or “mellow” enough to the point of not deeply knowing (“ad lo yada,” not grokking) the difference between “Baruch [Blessed be] Mordechai” and “Aror  [Cursed be] Haman.”  (Haman was the genocidal arch-villain of the story, and Mordechai its co-hero.)  The rabbinic teaching was intended to move us to lift ourselves  -- to get high – to ascend -- beyond collision into a world of ultimate Unity. But Goldstein, who thought he was “Baruch, “Blessed,”  actually got drunk on blood, not alcohol, and dragged himself down into the abyss where he became not Baruch, Blessed,  but “Aror,” Accursed.

7. There is an old rabbinic pun:  Occasionally, in Hebrew, the Day of Atonement is called Yom HaKippurim. Someday, the Rabbis said, Yom HaKippurim would become a Yom Ha K’Purim, a day like Purim. When Mashiach comes, they said, the day when we need to atone for our sins would dissolve into a day like Purim, a day of joy and laughter beyond sin because all sin would be transcended. Of all the holy days, they said, only Purim would become so transcendent that it will still be celebrated after Messiah comes.

But the equation is also true in reverse. There must be an element of Yom Kippur in Purim, and that element is the Fast of Esther. 

8.The Rabbis instituted Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther,  on the 13th of Adar. That was the very day, according to the Scroll of Esther, that the revenge massacre had taken place. And that very day had been “Yom Nicanor,” a festival that commemorated a Jewish military victory by the Maccabees over Nicanor, one of Antiochus’ generals. The Rabbis shattered a celebration of victory in war to bring people to quiet inward meditation. Perhaps they feared that Chapter 9: 16 of Megillat Esther would one day bring about an Aror Goldstein.

9. In 1994, when I woke on Purim morning after a joyful evening of laughter to hear the news of Goldstein's massacre, I thought: "I wrote Purim midrash with a costume and a pen; he wrote bloody midrash with a machine gun. Which midrash will come to express the Soul of Yisrael, the Godwrestling folk?"

Step by step, the machine-gun interpretation of Torah has in the State of Israel been winning. Will Netanyahoo's invitation to Kahanism at last be the overreach that sends our own Haman to oblivion on his own banana peel?  Can the Soul of the People Israel bring a Turning to the Soul of the State?

I am relieved to report that almost the entire spectrum of American Jewish institutions, minus the ultra-right-wing so-called "Zionist Organization of America," condemned Netanyahoo's despicable support for Kahanism. Still sad that it took this level of governmental betrayal of Jewish vision and vaues to bring a strong rebuke.

So for the sake of a deeper Turning, I will fast this year on Taanit Esther. And I suggest we go further. Two thoughts:

10. In 1995, one year after the massacre, on the evening before the sunrise Fast of Esther,  we brought together in our creative Jewish and multireligious neighborhood in Philadelphia, a public meeting in which a knowledgeable Jew, Christian, and Muslim each looked into and spoke about the bloody streaks in her/his OWN tradition. 

As we approach the 25h yahrzeit of this murderous Purim, especially at this moment in world history, as we look at the rising level of violence “justified” by claims of godliness  --  when  violence from each of our traditions is besmirching the Truth of our roots in the ONE  --  this unblinking gaze into our mirrors would be valuable. Wherever it is still possible, I suggest that our communities bring together such a conversation.

In this way, each of the three Abrahamic communities could face – not through accusation of the other but through self-assessment --  our own tugs into bloodshed.

And finally, I suggest that Esther 9: 16 be chanted in the wailing, sorrowful un-melody of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Just as we break a glass at a wedding, a time of greatest joy, on this day of laughter let us recall that even this day bears within it the danger of making even more broken the cracked and dangerous world that we inherit.  

 Shalom, salaam, sohl, paz, peace --  Arthur

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