Tonight begins the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim commemorating a historical incident of little relevance to the present day, involving a plot to exterminate the Jewish people. It is one of those holidays, that like most Jewish holidays, is inconvenient for liberal clergy because it involves violence and nationalism.
Jewish holidays often make a poor fit with liberal pieties. Three of them end with mass bloodshed, not with reconciliation commissions, suggesting that life is a zero sum game and that those who try to kill you, deserve what’s coming to them. There is nothing vague or ephemeral about those holidays, they mark historical events and the constant presence of death as a reality in the lives of men and nations. They testify to a God of history who is less concerned with feelings and tolerance, than with justice and truth.
Some accuse Jews of being obsessed with the Holocaust. It would be more accurate to accuse of us being obsessed with Egyptian slavery, the Amalekite raids, the Philistines persecutions, the Babylonian holocaust, the Syrian-Greek repressions, the Roman holocausts and on and on for more pages of history than most would care to hear until we reach the present day.
The more liberal a Jew is, the less likely he is to celebrate the substance of his people’s holidays as they conflict with his worldview and virtues. Moshe, the Maccabees and Mordechai don’t seem like role models, not even if you rebrand them as community organizers and claim that they were fighting prejudice. There is something relentlessly bloody-minded about them. They walk through the corpses of their enemies with no regrets or apologetic winces. They don’t seem to want to make the world a better place, all they really do is stand up for their own people in a regrettable show of tribalism that perpetuates the cycle of violence.
Take Purim which began when a narrow-minded fanatic refused to bow to the Grand Vizier of a multicultural empire. Jewish leaders hurriedly reassured him that this fanatic was in no way representative of their values of tolerance and appeasement. Hadn’t they attended the feast where the sacred vessels of their own people were used to serve wine and spirits to the mob? Rather than anticipating the return to their land at the end of the prophesied 70 year period of exile, they had cheered the brutish tyrant and made Shushan, his capital, into their new holy city.
A handful of fools may have gone back to their land, which the empire had in the intervening period, repopulated with other peoples. Those peoples had managed to convince the king to deny them permission to set up any more settlements and rebuild the temple. One of those Zionist leaders, a descendant of two families of kings, Mordechai, who could trace his descent to King Saul and to the House of David, was still busy working on behalf of the return from exile. And he refused to humble himself before the ancient enemy of his people.
But certainly they, the local establishment, were not so foolish or intolerant as to insult the Grand Vizier who ruled over a sizable portion of the known world, who had the king’s ear and designs on his throne. They were good citizens, they assured him, with no interest in any fantasies about the return to a promised land. That land was gone along with the other ten tribes.
Perhaps in ancient times some deity had liberated them from Egypt, but here in the modern present, it was the fall of the Babylonian Empire which had raised them up out of slavery and given them a place among the subject peoples of a new empire. In that exodus their people had been massacred by the ancestors of the Grand Vizier and the ancestor king of that Mordechai fellow had massacred the Vizier’s people, for which they were naturally very sorry, but it was all water under the bridge now. This was a new era.
Except it wasn’t a new era at all. It still isn’t. The illusion of history is that every age brings with it the end of history, a new age whose awesome achievements break with the past and usher in a boundless future. And then the walls come crashing down and the new era of history ends up buried under the rubble of time.