Purim and the Challenge of Remembering

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Today is Purim, but for the first time in years, I’m not going to
write Purim Torah for the occasion. (Of course, some of you may regard
what follows as Purim Torah – that is, silliness- anyway, but it’s not
deliberate Purim Torah.)

I hope I will not offend any member of this Torah study community by
referring to the recent words of an American politician. Referring to
these words must not be construed as a partisan endorsement of his
candidacy, but are merely a response to some ideas put out into the
American discourse in the past week, ideas which I believe have some
resonance in and for the Jewish experience.

Today is Purim, and so last night and this morning we read the scroll
of the Book of Esther, containing a story which will be familiar to
many readers. Esther becomes queen of Persia, but does not reveal her
true identity as a Jew until forced to by external, existential
pressures. The wicked Haman is linked to Amalek, the nation at war
with Israel since the days of the Exodus- in fact, the Torah reading
for Purim is Exodus 17, recalling Israel’s war with Amalek. The
message seems clear: in the days of Moshe and in the days of Esther
and in every generation, an Amalek arises against the people Israel,
and so Jews can never let down their guard, must always suspect the
worst, can never be fully at home when enemies may be present in any
society in which we live.

I have known many Jews who have suffered real and undeniable
anti-Semitism, either in Europe or here in North America- and yet for
many Jews, myself included, it’s almost impossible to imagine not
feeling entirely at home in America. Generations who have suffered
bigotry may not understand those who come after them who haven’t, and
vice versa. Those who have known Amalek first-hand may have a very
different sense of what it means to be a Jew than those who – not
incorrectly- see the Jewish community in America as mostly prosperous,
powerful, and integrated into civic institutions.

To me, Senator Obama’s recent speech on race relations in America
resonated deeply with my own thoughts about the Jewish experience. If
you substitute “Jim Crow” for “Amalek” in the paragraph above, I think
you get at what he was trying to say about the disconnect between
those who have suffered greatly, and whose worldview has been greatly
shaped by that suffering, and others, perhaps in a different
generation, who believe that a society can, in fact, progress and change.

This is where I find the Book of Esther and the readings about Amalek
so challenging: of course I think we must remember our encounters with
Amalek, but I also think the Jewish community and Judaism itself are
sometimes overburdened by history, which wasn’t (isn’t) always so
tragic. As I said on Shabbat Zachor, the problem with remembering what
Amalek did to us is remembering that not every critic or political
opponent is Amalek- and far too often we resort to archetypes which
make ordinary conflicts seem like existential threats.

Every community struggles with its history, but history is rarely
simple. On Purim, we let loose and have fun, but we also struggle with
challenging texts- stories which demand a thoughtful response, stories
which challenge simple notions of “remember what they did to us.”
Amalek is real, but the world changes and evolves. Both are true, and
admitting the one is not denying the other. That’s what I heard said
in Philadelphia, and that’s what I remembered last night at our Purim
celebration.

Happy Purim, and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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