Adar, this March, is the month of Purim, that one-day festival in which we celebrate, eat, drink and refuse all signs of sadness. These characteristics of Purim persist despite the fact that the story, as told in the Book of Esther, is one of the most difficult chapters to comprehend in all of Jewish history.
And that is because the Book of Esther tells us of a Persian plot, probably in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, to annihilate the entire Jewish people. Behind all the celebrating is a dreadful story, one that we have experienced all too often.There have been two streams of assault against the Jewish people since Abraham appeared in the annals of history. We label them under the rubric of that longest and most virulent of ethnic and religious hatreds, “antisemitism”.
The first is told in the story of Esther: the attempt to destroy the Jews physically. It happened again after Rome defeated the Bar Kochba revolt in 135CE, then sporadic Islamic jihad from the 7th century on, 400 years of crusades from 1096, expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, the 1648 Chmielnitski massacres in Ukraine and 19th-century pogroms in Tsarist Russia, leading finally to the Shoah. Jews were murdered because they were Jews.
And then there is the Book of Maccabees, the story of Chanukah and, in 168 BCE, the first attempt to destroy our Judaism, culminating in the first recorded instance of a revolt for religious freedom. With the physical attacks went book-burning (the Talmud in 14th-century Paris), destroying synagogues, desecrating Torah scrolls and eliminating Jewish education, notably in the Soviet Union.
The practice of difference
Why do we rejoice as we do, for both Purim and Chanukah, when behind them lies a story of such sadness and darkness? I think the answer lies in our cherished tradition of meeting sadness with life, with celebration, without forgetting the countless times we have had to hope, pray and, as now, fight for our right to exist in our own land, Eretz Yisrael, and our sovereignty in the modern State of Israel.
For the best, succinct, single-volume review of the scourge of anti-Semitism, I always recommend Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s Why the Jews? This fine book tackles the issue of this endemic and violent hatred. The common thread is the Jews’ desire to remain different. This arouses hatred and intolerance of the “different”, who reject the majority culture.
In antiquity, it was because the Jews had an invisible God, rejecting paganism. In medieval times it was because they refused to convert willingly to either Christianity or Islam. In the modern period, the refusal of the Jews yet again to obliterate themselves, as they integrated into a new liberal law-bound society, led to the coining of the word Antisemitismus by Wilhelm Marr in 1879.
Marr was promulgating his quasi-scientific racial theory that both put Jews at odds with Germans and forecast that Germans would lose out. It was this anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoah. Today, hate-filled antisemitism, attached to the State of Israel and Zionism, still targets Jews.
Our Jewish response
Our Jewish response to all this madness? Life, study and celebration! Join us for our Purim festivities. Join us for this month’s joint course with St Peter’s Church on “Religious Extremism”.
And get ready everyone: Professor Jack Wertheimer, world-renowned Jewish historian and former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, author of over 16 books – and my mentor throughout my rabbinic career – is coming to visit us. He will speak briefly at Friday night service on 1 April and at length after Shabbat dinner that night on “Judaism in an Age of Religious Recession”.
After Kiddush following Shabbat morning service, he will speak on “The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews”. On Sunday morning, 10-12.30, he will address our Adult Discussion Group on “Orthodoxies in Transition”.
There will be a special evening reception and talk on Monday 4 April for our generous patrons who have made this scholar-in-residence week possible.
I will see you all in synagogue for our continued first-class offerings. Wishing you all a month of learning, celebrating and rejoicing in our challenging and never dull Jewish life here.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler