Wednesday, March 07, 2012
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. And unlike Chanukah, on Purim, the Jews did not wait around to be massacred for a decade or two before they fought back, instead they carried out a preemptive strike.
During the winter, liberal pundits occasionally write horrified articles about the origins of Chanukah in a violent rebellion and a civil war between nationalists and internationalists, a handful of narrow-minded fanatics who wanted to keep their rituals and customs and were willing to die for it-- and the enlightened elites in the capital who were on the board the imperial train and eager to reeducate the barbarians in the settlements out of their beliefs.
Purim summons up fewer of these articles as if the revisionists are too tired to even deal with the actual story and throw up their hands and make up their own. At the Huffington Post, a liberal clergywoman explains that the holiday which culminated with bloody street fighting and public executions actually teaches us to forgive other people and not to take revenge on them. Another suggests that the message of Purim is speaking out against prejudice. The head of the radical left wing group, Uri L'Tzedek, explains that Purim is really about promoting progressive taxation. I'll spare you the transgender Purim which turns out to be a metaphor for coming out of the closet.
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 G-d 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.
Like old men we feel our history in our bones, we can chart our injuries, locate our frailties and then advance slowly but surely into the future. We have been doing this for a few thousand years, we may yet do it for a few thousand more. We are the turtle winning the race with those who would kill us, plodding on with fresh wounds that will scar over in time, while they sit down, gasp and cannot go on any longer.
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 care very little about a sustainable environment or lesbian adoptions, and instead walk through the corpses of their enemies with no regret or apologetic wince. 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 hurried to reassure 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 Sushan, 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.
And so the Jewish people, loosely break down into Jews and New Age Jews. The Jews wandered on their meandering course through history using ancient maps and concerning themselves with a past that modern people dismissed as myth and legend, more ancient than that story about Troy, and even more dubious.
The New Age Jews saw the coming of a new era of history, a bright and shining plateau that made all those old moldy beliefs completely irrelevant. History had ended and now a new age had begun. The age of Alexandria, the age of Sushan, the age of Berlin. How, in such a new age, could they be expected to take a few bygone fairy tales retold by barbarians seriously? Such things weren't for enlightened people who were witnessing the end of history.
History never ends. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, of Purim and of countless other horrifying intrusions of the old into the new. The shining new era that begins with grand public spectacles and displays of the power and might of an empire, ends with corpses and men and women fighting and running for their lives.
The old Jews know what the New Age Jews do not, that history has not ended, that the past is still with us and that it has sharp teeth. They know that Man has not changed, that his sophistication is still only a shell and that sooner or later the shell cracks. If it does not crack from within, then it is cracked from without. While the New Age Jews sneer at the Holocaust obsession, Jews know that the past in all its awful terrors is a map and that forgetting it carries a terrible price.
Those who feel time in their bones know the patterns of history, reading ages like constellations, can never lose themselves in one age or fall into the fallacy of a new era. They know that there is nothing new under the sun. Machines may come and go, but the world is a broken place because the hearts of men have not turned from their ways. And so they remember that every age carries within it the seeds of its ruin. They witness the ruin, climb out of the ashes and move on.
Liberal pieties embrace the new age, fixate on a final transformative era of history at the hands of messiahs who promise hope and change, who will uplift us and inspire us to make the world into a better place. Clergy who preach the cant of Tikkun Olam, whose climactic religious holiday of the year is Martin Luther King Day and who like Caliph Omar on witnessing the Library of Alexandria proclaim that if the bible contains liberal dogma then it is redundant and if it does not, it is heretical, cannot meaningfully cope with that history. Their religion has no room in it for all these chambers of history or for the bloody-minded men who stride through it, without saving the whales.
Purim, a holiday preceded by a fast kept by the men going into battle and their loved ones, is not about forgiving your enemies, progressive taxation or coming out of the closet. It is about survival. Not mere survival, but the skin of the teeth sense of how close we came, that moment of revelation which pulls back the curtains of the material world and reminds us of the impossibility of our survival under all the ordinary rules of the world that new ages are found on. It reminds us that behind the scenes of the brick and mortar, steel and steam world, is something else entirely. A force that breaks apart the towers of history, that saves us when we should have died, that has entrusted us with a mission. It reminds us of what the world is and reminds us of Itself and of what we are.
When you stand on the edge of death, life is a revelation. It is not our deaths under the Egyptian sun, the blades and bullets of a thousand empires and kingdoms, or the ovens of Dachau that we are obsessed with. It is that moment of survival. The revelation that even amid the horrors of all that we have witnessed and the terrible things that we had to do to survive, we have risen out of the ground, watched the flesh cover our bones and stood alive again upon the earth. Every time we survive, we are reminded of the fragility of the world and of our enemies who wielding every power and trick, have failed to destroy us. Each time we rise, we transcend the world, in confronting our dead, we confront our immortality.
It is not a purely joyous experience. The day of Purim is preceded by a day of fasting. Before the celebration comes a day of battle as the struggle to survive, the long decline into the abyss, the final desperate hours, suddenly give way to the upheaval of an impossible salvation. We remember the pain, the sense of the grave closing over us, the bodies lying everywhere, the certainty that we will be next. We accept the hopelessness of our situation and then we walk out of the grave and praising G-d, sit down to the feast.
This is Jewish history. It is an alien one to the New Age Jew who clings tightly to the new era and its rules, to its pieties and its mores, who scowls at the old ones for refusing to come and join the imperial festivities where the vessels of the temple are used to serve drinks and the mob toasts that the 70 years have come and gone, and still there is no chance of the Jews returning to their Jerusalem and reclaiming the lost history. "The past is the past," says the New Age Jew. "The past is the present is the future," says the Jew.
The feast of the New Age is the celebration of the end of history, a golden time when there is an unlimited bounty for all, where the wine and the free health care will never run out, where everyone will live together under one government in perfect brotherhood for all time. Many Jews are drawn to this feast, its golden vessels, its vast bounty and its glorious ideals. But then enters the Grand Vizier and some of them begin to frown for though he wears rich garments and speaks soothing words, he is a monster. They don't always know how they know it, but it is a nagging feeling that creeps into them that there is something rotten at the heart of this new age.
Most of them still bow to him, touching their heads to the floor, some even embrace him and celebrate his vision. They assure others that he is our friend, the only man who can realize the promise of this age, a wise and noble leader whose vision of change brings new hope. But one or two stay away from the feast and refuse to bow to him. Instead they look to Jerusalem, to where the battle between good and evil was once fought, and where it will be fought again. They know him for what he is.
The Grand Vizier knows that he must destroy them, must destroy them all, because they have seen through what he is, and they have seen through the shallow trappings of the golden age of fools. They know that there is more to the world than the might of men and the cornucopias of kings. They know that he is not all-powerful and when he looks at them, a scowl wrinkles his face, because he knows it too.
So he casts a lot, random chance in a random world where chance is supreme and the whim of every ruler outweighs the weight of history. The bills are signed, the laws are passed, the decrees go out, the officers from the vast imperial bureaucracy are assigned to inform every citizen that their new age will be inaugurated with blood. A people who are not a proper part of the multicultural empire of laws must be wiped out in a properly democratic fashion. Crowd-sourced genocide.
And then the Grand Vizier ends up dangling from a rope, the tanks break through to Berlin, the chariots fall into the sea, the mustachioed dictator dies in a bedroom in Moscow his clothes soaked in his own urine-- and everything has gone completely wrong.
It's an old story and a new story. We tell it over and over again because it is always happening. It is our story and the story of the world. It is the story we have accepted from our parents and it is the story that we will pass on to our children. It is the story of the blood sacrifice of the New Age that goes wrong. The sacrifice survives, bloodied and scarred, the New Age goes down to ruin.
Once again we are the sacrifice to be slaughtered on the altar of the Arab Spring, of peace with the Muslim world, of a global age of global government for which only a few million people need to die. The knife is sharpened, the Grand Vizier and his aides smile, and the time is almost here. But it is not here yet. Now we sit down to hear the Megillah and remember how the story always ends.