Purim is the beloved holiday of all of Israel’s (Jewish) children. One of the reasons for this is that the country institutionalizes the holiday’s observance. Two days before Purim (itself a school holiday) Israeli children beginning in pre-K come to school in costume, ranging from characters in the Esther story, to current cartoon favorites, to such standbys as wonderwoman, policeman, and soldier. From the age of three, therefore, children are socialized to love Purim. Adults, at least this adult, have a more difficult time with the holiday.
Traditional Orthodox rabbis valiantly try to cram all sorts of lofty meanings onto Purim, even going so far as to link Yom Kippur with it through the wordplay of ki-Purim (like Purim). Try as they might, it’s hard not to see the holiday for what it is: a light-hearted, revelous, topsy-turvy day before the onset of preparing for Passover (whose laws are supposed to be studied thirty days before the holiday – i.e., the day after Purim). Think of it as a Jewish Mardi Gras. It is a fun, intoxicating (!) day, commemorating a story whose historicity cannot be authenticated, a day whose customs and rituals seem obviously designed by human beings to enhance the holiday’s experience.
[Spoiler Alert: Reading the rest of this column may lessen some of the pleasure you would have otherwise gotten from reading my 1991 book, “Strategies for Sustaining Religious Commitment: The Art of the Religious Life,” a used copy of which, due to scarcity, can be yours from Amazon for $89.99, not including shipping. LOL.]
A funny thing happens if you think about Purim for too long: The teaching about ki-Purim reverses itself – not that Purim is as serious as Yom Kippur, but that even the Day of Atonement is play. Just as for many of us the laws and customs of Purim seem clearly to be human made, you start thinking this about all of our laws and customs. Paranoid? Perhaps. Sacrilegious? No. One of the things that characterizes our humanness is our ability to play; indeed, as Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga wrote in a 1938 book called: “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture,” “the concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness.” And a year before that book, in a work entitled “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” theologian Roman Guardini says about liturgy – though by extension about all religious ritual – that it “unites art and reality in a supernal childhood before God… It has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play.” [I think it is important to mention that both of these men were critical of and thus persecuted by the Nazis, Guardini being forced in 1939 to resign from the University of Berlin, and Huizinga being held in detention by the Nazis from 1942 until his death in 1945.]
It is up to each individual to think about the divine and human elements in their religion. But at their deepest, here’s what Guardini and Huizinga teach us: Human elements may contain the divine. We learn in Genesis that human beings were created in the image of the Divine, and we know that part of our humanness gets expressed in our playfulness. The Day of Atonement and Purim each mark different phases of the year, but the impulse of play that gave rise to each day’s traditions is a holy impulse. The rabbis were right after all – at heart there is something deeply holy about the playful merrymaking of Purim.
So go ahead: Leave your misgivings aside, and have a merry, Happy Purim!
Teddy Weinberger writes from Israel.