It seems eerily familiar.
The Jewish people are in exile. The dominant forces liberalise their empire. Jews can participate as full equals. Emancipation and liberty are declared.
But in reaping the benefits of the newly opened society, the younger Jews start to lose their identity. Assimilation threatens the continuity of all but the most stalwart of traditionalists.
That, according to the Talmud, is the backdrop against which the Purim story takes place.
And the Jewish story might indeed have ended there and then if not for an all too familiar force that served to awaken the roots and common bond of every Jew: genocidal antisemitism.
'Go and gather every Jew,' instructs Queen Esther. And for three days the entire Jewish world was united in fear, united in prayer, and united in love. The Talmud attests to the massive renewal of Jewish pride, Jewish engagement and Jewish connection that took place. It was those days of unity that empowered Esther to take the critical step to risk her life to beg for her people.
However beneath the joyful ending lurks an uncomfortable thought. Is Purim a precursor of an inexorable pattern of our history? That we cannot engender a depth of identity and unity except when faced with annihilation?
There are many today who learn such a lesson. There are many, indeed, who watch the demographic trend-lines and conclude that the Jewish future is not salvageable save for the few ardent traditionalists.
But such a reading of the Purim story misses a deeper lesson. Once the threat has been removed, the Jewish nation does not slip back into abandonment, nor apathy. Instead whilst deeply embedded into Persian culture, they undergo a renaissance of identity and reawakening of Jewish commitment.
'For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy, and glory' (Esther 8:16).
The Talmud points out that each of these four adjectives has a special association with a particular aspect of Judaism. 'Light' relates to learning; 'happiness' to the festivals; 'joy' to the covenant of continuity - circumcision, and 'glory' to Tefilin. The conscious state of rejoicing was an outgrowth of a renewed commitment to their heritage and tradition.
Note that whilst the Talmud links each term to the relevant Jewish practice, in one sense it begs the question: if that was what the verse intended, then why not be more explicit? Why could the Megila not simply have stated: 'For the Jews there was (commitment to) Torah, festivals, circumcision and Tefilin'?
The secret lies in the Talmudic interpretative method. What is overt in the text, is overt in the world. What is only implicit within the text, is likewise only implicit in the world.
Ordinarily we associate Jewish faith, study and practice with the outward acts, the rules and restrictions. But in Shushan the order was reversed. An observer would not have described the experience as Jews studying; they would have described it as Jews in a state of enlightenment. They would not have described it as Jews observing their festivals, but as Jews in a state of celebration. The covenant of circumcision was a covenant of joyful commitment.
And therein lies a powerful secret to Jewish survival. Within the texts and practices of Judaism, lies an infinite reservoir of wisdom, depth, truth and beauty. When all of that can be made accessible to each and every Jew, regardless of background and observance, then the result is pride in Judaism and commitment to its future.
And that is exactly what we and you have set about to do. Those of us who work full time, and those of you who support our work, are all united around our core mission:
To translate the wisdom, depth and beauty of Judaism into the language of the twenty-first century young Jew. To empower a love for our shared heritage and a commitment to its future. To work together with partners and friends to build a brighter future for our community.
Thank you for all that you do.
Rabbi Daniel Rowe
Executive Director Aish UK
- March 23rd 2016