Purim: For the People

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

What should one do when the needs of the Jewish people conflict with the needs of Judaism? When the only way to keep our people Jewishly involved is to bend (or perhaps break) the norms of a traditional way of life? The Jewish people have been debating this question since the Enlightenment. With the ghetto walls crumbling, most Jews sought out new ways to express their Jewishness, unwilling and perhaps unable to maintain traditional frames of reference.

Navigating between Jews and Judaism led to the founding of Reform, Conservative and even many of the varieties of Orthodoxy we see today (they, too, are reactions to modernity). Hard as it for us to imagine, many of our greatest rabbis opposed the granting of equal rights to Jews, preferring our second-class status to emancipation. They fully understood that these benefits to Jews would exact a horrific price from Judaism, and felt that it was not worth the cost. Whether they were right is no longer pertinent. Our concern today must be to make Judaism meaningful to the masses in an age of unprecedented freedoms.

Such issues are not limited to the modern era and find expression in different contexts throughout Jewish history. It seems that Mordechai and Esther argued along these same lines.

"Then the King's scribes were called on the 13th day of the first month and it was written according to all that Haman had commanded" (Esther 3:12). The decree of Haman to destroy the Jewish people coincided with Pesach, the holiday that celebrates the formation of the Jewish people. While Mordechai demanded that Esther use her position as Queen to plead on behalf of her people, he was quite taken aback by Esther's suggestion "to gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan and fast for me, neither shall they eat or drink for three days, night and day" (4:16). This would entail fasting on Pesach, thereby cancelling the seder (there was only one in those days, even in Shushan), with its crucial role in transmitting Judaism to our children.

Mordechai reasoned that salvation would not come about through transgression. It would take a miracle to save the Jewish people, and surely G-d would be less likely to perform miracles for sinners. G-d can still save us if we fast next week, Mordechai argued. Tampering with Jewish law is too dangerous, regardless of the situation. While Mordechai may have been a political activist, he was a staunch defender of Jewish law.

Nonetheless, Esther's suggestion carried the day. "If there is no Israel, for whom will there be Pesach?" she retorted (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 50). Without a Jewish people there can be no Torah. First, we must save the people, afterwards we can discuss Jewish law. From a halachic perspective, Esther invoked the principle of “there is a time to act for G-d, they nullified Your Torah” which allows (insists?) that in times of emergency, emergency measures be taken even if they negate Jewish law. It is this principle that allowed Rebbe Yehuda HaNassi to transform the Oral Law into the written text of the Mishna despite the ban on committing these teachings to writing (Temurah 14b). It is interesting to note that our Sages viewed Purim as the holiday that celebrates the Jewish people's acceptance of the Oral Law (Shabbat 88a).

Rav Soloveitchik has often pointed out that it is the father's role to be the disciplinarian, the teacher and enforcer of Torah rules. The mother, on the other hand, nurtures, caresses and affectionately leads the child into a life imbued with Torah values (Family Redeemed, pp.158-163). In other words, the father focuses on Judaism, whereas the mother focuses on Jews. And ultimately it is the mother who passes Judaism from one generation to the next. It is precisely because the mother is the one who most often sets the religious tone of the home that she was chosen to biologically pass on Judaism to her descendants.

Making Judaism relevant and meaningful for the masses of Jewry who have rejected the binding nature of Jewish Law is one of the great challenges facing us today. Living in a world in which those committed to halacha are but a small minority of the Jewish people, it behooves us to be especially cognizant of how our practice of Judaism impacts on the vast majority of our people. Does our commitment to Jewish law serve as a kiddush Hashem in the eyes of the masses of Jewry or are we viewed as people only concerned with the narrow needs of the committed? If we want Judaism to be meaningful for all, our practice of Judaism must embrace all.

Nowhere are these questions more crucial than in Israel. How do we create a modern state fully committed to the entirety of Torah (something impossible in the Diaspora) while taking into account the entire Jewish nation? How are we to operate an international airport (not just an airline), an army of the people, a modern-day economy, a justice system - the list is endless -in accordance with Jewish law, yet responsive to the needs of the present? While the answers are not simple, we must grapple with these questions in order to create a state that reflects our special relationship with G-d, and is a light unto the nations.

Despite, or shall we say precisely because the story of Purim took place outside the land of Israel, our Sages insisted that the celebration of Purim remind us of the centrality of the land of Israel. They ordained that Hallel not be recited on a miracle taking place outside the land of Israel. While the miracle may have happened in Shushan, ”in order to give honour to the land of Israel” our Sages ruled that Jerusalem, too, should read on the 15th of Adar. “From Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem”.

As we celebrate the event in Shushan many years ago, may we merit celebrating the complete redemption of the Jewish people, allowing for a joyous recital of Hallel.