Taking Purim Seriously

How to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim without reinforcing the holiday’s violent backstory.

It’s time for us to get serious about Purim. Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence and a holiday of revenge. We drink to celebrate blotting out Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zakhor, Jews gather in synagogues to read the only biblically mandated Torah reading of the year, the verses that command genocide against the Amalekites. We are commanded to get so inebriated to simulate the notion of blotting out the memory of Haman in the very act of remembering. We are commanded to blot out the enemy—not mercifully, but through genocide.

It is true that the rabbis long ago were aware of the danger of this commandment and put it to rest by saying we no longer know who Amalek is, but as Elliot Horowitz shows in painful detail in his must-read book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Jews never really gave up on Amalek. In his Introduction he cites an interview Jeffrey Goldberg did with now Knesset member Moshe Feilglin in Haaretz in 1994. Feiglin told Goldberg “that although he could not link the Arabs with Amalek ‘genetically,’ their behavior was ‘typical of Amalek’.” What did Feiglin imply here? A pregnant teenager, Ayelet, was asked if she thought Amalek was alive today, and she said to Goldberg, “Of course,” and pointed toward an Arab village in the distance.

Moshe Feiglin is an elected member of the Israeli government. And Ayelet is not an atypical settler supported by the government. And Goldstein’s grave in Kiryat Arba is a shrine for a whole community of Israelis. Amalek is arguably alive today in the minds of many Jews in ways it has not been in a long time (I recently saw a picture of Ahmadinejad with Hamantaschen ears on the Internet). An enemy is one thing. Amalek is something quite different.

I have taken Purim very seriously my entire adult life. And I have paid for it the next day in spades. But Baruch Goldstein ruined that for me. It was a loss of innocence. I am sorry but I could never celebrate Purim the same way after Goldstein’s massacre of praying Muslims in 1994. And if you want to take Purim seriously, as I do, neither should you. What to do? That remains a topic for debate. But Baruch Goldstein lives in the minds of many citizens of the Jewish State. His actions may have been an aberration but his thinking, sadly, is not. The problem with the Jews today is not only the liberals who don’t take Purim seriously, but also with the Jews who take Purim seriously. Very seriously. Too seriously.

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