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    Purim was saved by the antisemites

    March 17th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 17 March, 2019.

    Painting by Boris Shapiro

    The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Purim spiels, Purim deals, Purim meals… all are part of the celebration.

    No one can imagine the Jewish year without it. But it had its ups and downs. It was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitised and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.

    What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a lighthearted response, and Purim provided the answer.

    The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, and the heroic Mordechai and Esther.

    The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation.

    It took considerable effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A biblical book that doesn’t mention God? Events that seem to have nothing to do with Eretz Yisra’el? Preposterous, some said! Every now and then the scholars even questioned its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was Judaized to save it from being jettisoned!

    The historian Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled the struggle for status of a foreign colony in the Persian realm.

    Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods, and maybe that’s how Purim came to be. Unfriendly gentiles accused Purim of breathing a spirit of Jewish clannishness, dual loyalty and vengefulness.

    The Jews themselves turned “The Day of Mordechai” (as it is called in Second Maccabees) into Purim. They endowed the Purim events with such importance that by the time of the Mishnah the festival was a decisive part of Halacha and the exegetes endorsed its veracity. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always be vigilant against the Amalek-spirit (Ex. 17:14-16).

    Late in the Second Temple period, Purim was so firmly established that even the Temple priesthood had to hear the megillah. Significantly, the Dead Sea sect did not ascribe much value to the festival. Historians linked the conflict between Haman and Mordechai with earlier tussles between them in Judea in relation to rebuilding the Jewish temple and state.

    Folk frolics crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hanged Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought that this was the beginning of the medieval blood libels.

    The suffering Jews of that period derived comfort from the thought that Purim was evidence that God would never let them down. Wandering minstrels and play-acting brought light to the ghetto gloom, as Israel Abrahams shows in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.

    In the 19th century, the Reform movement accused Purim of fostering a spirit of revenge, though later Reformers became more sympathetic. Contemporary Jewry (even Reform!) is unanimous that Purim is a symbol of Am Yisrael Chai (“The Jewish people are alive.”)

    All ages relish the Purimspiels, the gift-giving, the hamantaschen, the hilarity. Megillah readings attract large crowds: celebrations range from Rechavia in Jerusalem where restaurants sponsor megillah readings, to central Sydney in Australia where one year the Great Synagogue collected people from all over the metropolis in a London double-decker bus and brought them together to hear the megillah.

    There are serious adult themes that inspire modern Jews when they think of Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the “dual loyalty” theory, the psychology of the persecutee who says gam zeh ya’avor (“This too will pass”), and women’s contribution to Jewish survival. Immanuel Lewy said, “Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority” (“Congress Weekly”, 19.3.1951).

    Historians constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story. One of the best books is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther.

    Jews who were depressed about antisemitism could always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b), evidence that repentance is always possible.

    Jews who were uncertain about the history of Purim were certain of its future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there would always be a Purim. The messianic age will know no sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.

    Bringing yourself – Vayikra

    March 10th, 2019

    Sentence structure is an important component of literary style.

    So when the Torah says, “When a person brings of you an offering to HaShem…” (Lev. 1:2), we ask if the words simply mean, “When any person among you…” or whether something extra is implied.

    The message may be that if you bring an offering, part of you must accompany it. Perfunctory ritual means very little; you are only going through the motions. Your heart and soul must be in it.

    These days when so many important appeals for worthy causes are directed to us the temptation is to give out of political correctness, to get the fundraisers off our back, or because people may talk if our name is not on the list of givers.

    Obviously we cannot give to everything, nor can we give the same amount to every appeal. But everyone should have one or two favourite causes, and give as much as possible to them with passion and commitment: and it should not need social pressure, hard sell tactics or the hope of acclaim and applause to motivate us.

    On your own – Vayikra

    March 10th, 2019

    Im nefesh achat techeta, says the sidra: “If one soul shall sin…” (Lev. 4:27).

    Rabbi Avraham Chaim of Zlotschov said, “You can be a great tzaddik and still sin. How can this be? The Torah says, ‘If one soul shall sin…’ If the tzaddik is ‘one soul’, concerned with himself and his own righteousness, that’s a sin. A tzaddik should be anxious both for himself and for the rest of the community.”

    There are some religions that despair of the world and concentrate on their own souls. There may even be a few Jews who are tempted to follow that path. But this is not the Jewish way.

    For Judaism, the sparks of godliness that were scattered at the time of creation have gone everywhere and could and do rest in all of us, waiting and ready to be recognised and redeemed.

    The tzaddik does not write anyone off, no matter how unpropitious they may seem. The Talmud says, tzaddikim nitpasim al ha-dor (Shabbat 33b) – “the righteous are seized (by God) for the sins of the generation”.

    This is not punishment by proxy, vicarious atonement, but the recognition that if the generation sins, it may be because the righteous have not exerted themselves sufficiently to bring them back to righteousness.

    The moment that we say or imply, “You’re not worth my time, you don’t deserve my love, you can stew in your own juice”, that’s when there is a hole in our own righteousness, that’s a nefesh achat techeta – a soul that sins because it has abandoned the souls of others and forgotten that we all have a godly spark.

    Jewish space travel

    March 8th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 8 March, 2019.

    Israel has entered the space race. What is still a dream is that one day the travel agents will offer space cruises with day tours on other planets.

    Did the Bible ever envisage moving through space? Moses went up to God (Ex.19) and Elijah ascended to heaven (II Kings 2:11) but these may be one-off miracles from which we cannot derive doctrinal tenets.

    The Bible says that the heavens belong to God (Psalm 115:16). Nachmanides understands “heavens” metaphorically, as a state, not a place. Others say the heavens are a real place to which the men of Babel and Nebuchadnezzar tried to ascend (Gen. 11; Isa. 14:13-15; Talmud Pes. 94a, Sanh. 109a).The Talmud thinks the sky is a solid dome which no-one can penetrate (B.B. 25a/b). The Kiddush Levanah prayer insists that man cannot reach the moon.

    Space travel has come a long way, but it is still more fraught than a plane trip and evokes the halachic warnings against taking risks. Exploring space is subject to the rule, “You shall diligently guard your life” (Deut. 4:15). Things can go wrong, as they did with Ilan Ramon and his colleagues.

    Yet it has an attraction. It arouses awe of the Creator (Ps. 19:2). Kant says, “Two things fill my soul with holy reverence and ever-growing wonder – the starry sky and the moral law which raises us to infinite dignity”.

    Do the mitzvot apply in space or are they limited to “the days when you are alive on this earth” (Deut. 12:1)?

    Rav Benzion Firrer says that the mitzvot only apply in a terrestrial habitat. Rav Shlomo Goren says that if man is in space, his life still depends on elements transported from earth, and he is governed by earthly rules. Rav Firrer says that when earthly materials come into contact with the moon, they gain the status of lunar matter. Rav Menachem Kasher rules that the mitzvot are obligatory wherever we are, even on the planets.


    • Shabbat: do we apply earthly rules to life in space? Do we keep Shabbat for the period of one orbit after every six orbits? Since the festivals depend on earthly dates, do we suspend them?

    • Prayers, tallit, tefillin, etc.: Rav Kasher says, “The situation on the moon [or Mars] is equivalent to the north and south poles; therefore in a 24-hour day, we alternate periods of 12 hours day and 12 hours night regardless of the presence or absence of light from the sun”.

    Kashrut: do foodstuffs retain their nature and status when in space? Are all the dietary laws the same as on earth?

    • Ethical laws: does “Love your neighbour” apply in space? Does “neighbour” have an earthly connotation?

    Judaism speaks of other worlds: “What does God do by night? – Perhaps what He does by day; maybe He floats in 18,000 worlds” (AZ 3b). 18,000 is a round figure, but possibly on the low side, since some of the stars or suns in our galaxy may have what we call a civilisation.

    Rabbi Judah b. Simon said: “‘Let there be evening’ is not written, but ‘and there was evening’: hence a time-order existed before this.” Rabbi Abbahu said: “The Holy One, blessed be He, went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one and said, ‘Those did not please Me, this one did’” (Gen. R. 3:9). In Josh. 5:23, Meroz refers to an inhabited planet, maybe connected with Mars (MK 16a).

    A person who goes space-travelling may encounter other civilisations. Sa’adia Ga’on says: “Though there exist so many creatures, we need not be confused as to which is the goal of creation… If anyone imagines a being outside man endowed with superior qualities, let him show us these qualities or even some of them in some other creature.”

    Maimonides is more measured: “Do not believe that all beings exist for the sake of man. On the contrary: all beings are intended for their own sakes, not for the sake of something else. Even according to our view, which holds that the world was produced in time, the quest for the final end of all the species of beings collapses. We say that through His will He has brought into existence all the parts of the world, some intended for their own sakes, others intended for the sake of some other thing that is intended for its own sake. Just as He willed that the human species should come to exist, He also willed that the spheres and their stars should come to exist. He also willed that the angels should come to exist. In respect of everything being He intended that being itself.”

    The Yom Kippur prayers tell man not to boast of his greatness: “What is our life, our goodness, our virtue, our help, our strength, our might? What can we say to You? The heroes are as nothing in Your sight, the famous as though they never existed, the learned as though they were ignorant, the wise as though they were unintelligent. Most of their actions are worthless in Thy sight; their entire life is a fleeting breath… Man has no pre-eminence over beast. for all is vanity. Yet from the first You singled out mortal man and deemed him worthy to stand before You. Who can say to You, ‘What are You doing?’”

    If there are intelligent beings outside the earth, are they bound to keep the Torah? The answer seems to be yes, provided they can say Na’aseh v’nishma, “We will observe and hearken” (Ex. 24:7).

    Rav Moshe D Tendler says, “I would be perturbed if He gave them a different Torah… with different commandments… If on Mars there are people who have a mind and free will, then the exact same values should apply… If the aliens aren’t Jewish… they would have to be bound by the Seven Noahide Laws”.

    Professor Herman Branover adds, “The difference between human beings and animals is free will. You cannot give a command to a creature that doesn’t have free will. If we assume there are human beings elsewhere in space, it would be a contradiction. If they are human… they have to have free will. That means they would have received the Torah. Now, they could either have a different Torah than ours, or our Torah. But since our Torah is the truth, they cannot have a Torah different from ours. (T)hey cannot have ours because it would be irrelevant to them since our Torah was given at a specific time, in a specific place and to a specific people” (Jerusalem Report, 19 Sept. 1996).

    Let us return to Tendler’s “If the aliens aren’t Jewish.” Since the Torah arose within Jewish history, and non-Jews on Mars or elsewhere lack that history, the non-Jews have to be regarded as B’nei No’ach who must observe the seven Noahide laws which apply to all people outside the Jewish fold.

    You can count on me – P’kudei

    March 3rd, 2019

    This Shabbat brings us to the end of the book of Sh’mot.

    Its final sidrot are full of minute architectural detail. The tabernacle in the wilderness has been reported on, it seems, to the last wooden board and the smallest nail and screw. Some would say it is all inexpressibly dry and boring.

    Yet in any important project every detail counts, every individual matters.

    Who were the individuals involved in constructing the tabernacle?

    Betzalel, the ideas man, full of enthusiasm. Oholiav, the organiser and craftsman able to implement the grand ideas.

    Kol nediv lev – all the generous donors who brought their free-will offerings. Kol chacham lev – all the skilled workmen. The women, who contributed gifts, love and effort. The nameless rank and file helpers in the work.

    All were joint partners in the project. None was unimportant, none was dispensable.

    What a great lesson for our age in Jewish history in which so much building, rebuilding and upbuilding is the order of the day. In our era, as never before, every Jew counts.

    A firm once advertised for a young man with a university degree and experience in accounting.

    That afternoon an elderly man appeared at the firm’s headquarters and announced he had come about the advertisement.

    Puzzled, the manager asked how old he was.

    “77,” the man said.

    “We wanted a young man!” the manager said; “But are you, at least, a graduate?”

    “No,” came the reply, “l have never been to university in my life.”

    “Do you have any experience in accounting?” the manager went on. Again the answer was no. Understandably irritated, the manager said, “So why did you come here?”

    The reply came quite calmly: “l just wanted you to know that on me you shouldn’t count!”

    There are people who are always adamant that no project, no cause, no ideal should expect to count on them.

    But that philosophy is suicidal for Judaism. It needs the other kind of people, who say, “I just want you to know that on me you can count!”

    That’s how it is when it comes to giving. We need a 100% plan when it comes to supporting Israel or local causes, so that every single one of us gives as a Jew.

    That’s also how it is when it comes to living. We need a 100% community in which every one of us lives as a Jew. No ifs, no buts, no whens.

    To make a sanctuary of our homes and communities and of our own lives is the most exhilarating thing there is. But we will achieve something only if we all proudly say, “On me you can always count!”