Thursday, February 21, 2013

Being a Servant of Ahashverosh

Purim is a post-Zionist holiday if ever there was one. As the closing credits of the Megillah roll by, Mordechai and Esther stay happily situated in Persia, never batting an eye towards the land of Israel. The Esther story defies the traditional happy end of Biblical Judaism – and of most American tales – of finding redemption in the promised land.
The Book of Esther is belligerently acting outside the traditional Jewish paradigms of Exile vs. Redemption (or Zion vs. Diaspora, Old country vs. New land, dark past vs. bright future). Sure, there are a few throw away lines in the Megillah – traditionally sung to the tune of Eicha – that remind us of the exile tragedy in the background. But Purim offers something much more interesting than the simple dichotomy of Exile/Redemption. Purim is about living with the absurd, or in the language of the Talmud: “Being a servant of Ahashverosh.”
The Talmud in Tractate Megillah is troubled by the fact that Purim does not fit the traditional mold of redemptive Jewish holidays. This is manifested halakhically through the question of whether Hallel, that string of praiseful Psalms said on joyous occasions, should be said on Purim:
Purim commemorates a miracle –
shouldn’t Hallel should be said? […]
Rava said:
On Passover, Hallel can be said, for we recite there “Give praise servants of the Lord” – and not servants of Pharaoh!
On Purim however, can we really recite “Give praise servants of the Lord” – and not servants of Ahashverosh!? Why, now we indeed are servants of Ahashverosh!
Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a and Arakhin 10a

"פורים דאיכא ניסא לימא! [...]
רבא אמר:
בשלמא התם, הללו עבדי ה' - ולא עבדי פרעה,
הכא הללו עבדי ה' - ולא עבדי אחשורוש?
אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן".

תלמוד ערכין י ע"א

As Purim arrives this year, I hear Rava’s statement ringing in my ears. Are we indeed all servants of Ahashverosh?
Rava, might be making a simple claim: living in 4th century Babylonia under Persian Sassanid rule he is indeed a “servant of Ahashverosh” in the full political sense.
Reading this text today however, I can’t help but feel that the idea of being a “servant of Ahashverosh” has an existential edge to it which is ever so relevant. It is Rava’s focusing on Ahashverosh as the truly challenging aspect of Purim that might explain this better.

At first glance, the Purim story is about a face-off between bad-guy-Haman and good-guy Mordechai and Esther on the other. Haman tries to politically maneuver the King and the people to do his self-aggrandizing bidding, and Mordechai politically out-maneuvers him to protect his family and nation. Haman decrees to annihilate the Jewish body, and Esther cunningly using her own Jewish body in response, causing Haman’s to hang. Seemingly, it is the vanquishing of Haman that we are celebrating, a classic moral tale of the conquest of good over evil (The centrality of the body in the Purim story might also be an explanation for the many libations of the body celebrated on Purim, say some commentators).
Yet if Haman is dead and genocide averted, why is Rava not fully rejoicing? What is so terrible about being a “servant of Ahashverosh”?
In one of the most chilling lines of the megillah, Ahashverosh and Haman seem to be in full cahoots: “…the decree (of genocide) was proclaimed in the fortress of Shushan; the king and Haman sat down to drink; and the city of Shushan was dumbfounded(Esther 3:15). It is important however to acknowledge the difference between Haman and Ahashverosh. Haman is the instigator, the depraved mind who masterminds the whole affair. Haman represents radical evil, and the moral of this story is clear: it is up to us to become Mordechai and Esther’s, combating evil wherever we encounter it.
However it is Ahashverosh who is actually the scarier one here, for he is the one who blindly acquiesces to Haman. Ahashverosh is even scarier when he ends up acquiescing to Esther and protects the Jews, for equally random and superficial reasons. True, he is now in the service of “the good guys”, but without any sense of having seen the error of his previous ways. Ahashverosh even refuses to roll back his initial edict to kill the Jews, instead simply “allowing the Jews to defend themselves”. What is the moral of the story if we are to remain servants of Ahashverosh?
Ahashverosh, the giddy king of randomness, is deeply disturbing because he evades the dichotomy of good and bad. Like the devout drunkard on Purim, he makes no real distinction between “Blessed Mordechai and Cursed Haman”. Haman’s radical evil can be redeemed. Ahashverosh however, who acts the same whether in the right or wrong, undermines our hopes of a full redemption. Ahashverosh is the realm of the absurd, where morality has no foothold.

Rava, 1600 years ago or so, claimed he was a “servant of Ahashverosh”. How about today? In many senses, Zionism put an end to Rava’s claim. We are no longer the “court Jews” of Ahashverosh, stooping to debasing tricks of seduction in order to survive. We now have the power to decide our own history. Whether in the Israeli promised land of Zion or in the American promised land of “New Zion”, Jews exercise power as equal members of the national and international community. We are no longer in exile – we have been redeemed!

At the same time, however, who can claim full redemption? The promised lands are far from fulfilling their promise. We have come to a point – call it post-Zionist, post-messianic, or simply post-modern – where we realize that the dichotomy of exile/redemption no longer answers everything. For all of our political power, Ahashverosh is alive and well, and we are his servants: whether in the samsara of life and death, health and vulnerability; or through the constant disconnect between reward and merit. And that is even before we begin to unpack the dysfunction of our systems, the power of corporations or the misguided nature of our leadership structures. Where are the days where we could fight radical evil? The absurd is a much more challenging foe.

Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross,
master of overturned categories
Does Purim also offer a redemptive way to survive being a “servant of Ahashverosh”? I believe it does. Maimonides himself describes Purim as the only holiday to stay relevant in a post-messianic, unredeemed world. True, we cannot say a full-mouthed Hallel, but we can counter the absurd through humor, joy and parody; through disguises and costumes and overturning categories; and through telling history as a tale of meaning rather than as a dark absurdist story.
Most importantly, however, we flourish despite Ahashverosh through cultivating community. The radical evil of Haman is driven out with the arm of Mordechai-ian politics, but we fend off Ahashverosh by small acts of camaraderie. The mitzvoth of Purim bring these to bear: It is a day of sharing food with friends (mishloach manot) and giving money to the poor (matanot la’evyonim). It is those small face-to-face encounters which hold the seeds to redemption. Having gone too deep into the realm of the absurd, perhaps the only way out is by returning to the small – but through small acts of friendship and compassion. It is in those small acts that the greatest meaning can be found. This is where Maimonides leaves off in his “Hilkhot Megillah” in the Mishna Torah:
16. One is obligated to distribute charity to the poor on the day of Purim… We should not be discriminating in selecting the recipients of these Purim gifts. Instead, one should give to whomever stretches out his hand (Jewish or not…). Money given to be distributed on Purim should not be used for other charitable purposes.

17. It is preferable for a person to be generous in his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends, for there is no greater and more splendid joy than gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts.
One who brings happiness to the hearts of the unfortunate resembles the Divine Presence, who seeks "to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts."

18. All the books of the Prophets and all the Holy Writings will be nullified in the Messianic era, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the five books of the Torah and the halachot of the Oral Law, which will never be nullified.
Although all memories of the difficulties endured by our people will be nullified… the celebration of the days of Purim will not be nullified, as Esther 9:28 states: "And these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews, nor will their remembrance cease from their seed."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Five Big Hartman Ideas

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, 1931-2013
By Mishael and Noam Zion
originally published at The Times of Israel
If you walked into his class, you were probably going to get yelled at. The most boring thing you could say to him was “I agree with you.” His sharpness – and fallibility – managed to revive the Talmudic Beit Midrash, bringing students, intellectuals and politicians to his door.
Our teacher David Hartman, who passed away this week at age 81, was more Socrates than Plato. He challenged young and old alike on their sacred presuppositions. Yet he sought not to condemn self-righteously, but to engage in dialogue. The educational process he nurtured was based not on Shammai’s disdain of fools but on Hillel’s acceptance of his students at their own starting point without predetermining the outcome of that process. While he was with Hillel in seeking a big tent of social peace, he was with Shammai in never compromising his truth-telling.  He was a fiery personality whose thirst for questioning his tradition – Jewish and Western – was never quenched. He challenged his people - and all people - to reimagine themselves, through a true encounter with text, people, and reality. While we will no longer get to encounter him inspiring humanity, we have only begun to play out his ideas and questions.
In his honor, we offer five of his most influential ideas enshrined by the provocative catch-phrases he often used to describe them.
“Sinai or Auschwitz?” – In the 1970’s, the Holocaust came to dominate the strategies for enhancing Jewish identity in Israel and America. Hartman was sharply critical of what he saw as a “Holocaustization” of Judaism. Without detracting from the calamities of the Shoah, the center of Jewish experience must be Sinai, not Auschwitz, he claimed. Sinai is the blue print for a living community which seeks to embody in practice a world of justice, solidarity and service. Dwelling on the indignities of the past will not renew our passion for a just life – rather the creation of a vibrant future-oriented discourse must be the basis of our identity. Hartman loved teaching a passage in Maimonides which addresses a seemingly ritualistic question: The Candle of Hanukkah and the Candle of Shabbat, which candle takes preference? In Hartman’s keen reading, this was a question of philosophy, not blind ritual: What takes precedence - commemorating heroic wars and the defense of God and the Jewish people, or conserving shalom bayit and the intimacy of a candle-lit Shabbat dinner? Maimonides resoundingly subordinates Hanukkah to Shabbat, which to Hartman was a call to subordinate historical memory and messianic dreams for the joy of a Shabbat meal and the vibrancy of family life. As his teacher Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik said: “The Jewish people were not put in this world simply to fight Anti-Semitism.”
“From Sinai to Zion”, from Children to Adults –Hartman’s book A Living Covenant was translated into Hebrew as From Sinai to Zion. For many Jews, Sinai represents the moment that God forced Israel to accede to his commandments, a God of paternal authority who threatens to destroy those who do not obey him. Instead, David Hartman’s theology emphasized God as a loving parent who gradually steps back. A wise parent creates room for his child to grow into an adult and make his own mistakes. Loyalty to God’s is tested by constantly reinterpreting God’s living covenant: If in the Bible the Jewish people are children in the desert who need God to miraculously intervene in everything, they grow into a self-defending and self-governing people when they enter the Land of Israel under Joshua and later David. The Rabbinic project continues God’s ceding of responsibility to a preponderance of human wisdom in the partnership of God and Israel. Hartman made Rabbi Joshua’s cry – “it is not in Heaven” into the canonized text of all liberal minded Jews. God’s self-ironizing response: “My sons have out-argued me!" is the supreme expression of Hartman’s notion that Torah education is a millennial process of making Jewish children take on the adult responsibilities of shaping the Divine law in human hands. Zionism was the final stage in this movement, where the Jewish people took on not only law, but also history.
But where others saw messianic redemption in the State of Israel as the achievement of Judaism’s vision on earth, Hartman saw it as only the expansion of a challenge that puts our Jewish adulthood to the supreme test. The Jewish state in Zion with its empowerment over all aspects of society is the laboratory to test the Jews capability of fulfilling the desert vision of Sinai in a real world without miracles. But it is also a test-tube for Judaism to see if it has matured enough to provide not just idealistic sermons in the synagogues of the Diaspora, but to guide a modern democratic Torah-inspired state with a concern both for human rights and for security, for democracy and for Jewish identity. Hartman had a profound faith that Judaism can offer constructive wisdom for the modern world and that if Rabbinic visions compete in the marketplace their ideas could prove relevant and realistic. Yet he was equally fearful that Rabbinic Judaism as developed so far in the era of the long exile was not yet ready for that challenge. He created the Hartman Institute’s Advanced Studies Center to meet that challenge by identifying insightful strengths and terrifying weaknesses in Talmudic texts and medieval Jewish philosophers. He knew as he passed away that the outcome on the grand experiment in an adult Judaism with political and military power in the State of Israel was still in doubt.
There is just as much a Jewish morality as there is a Jewish science!” – Hartman had no patience for the self-congratulatory discourse of an essentialist “Jewish ethics”, and enjoyed counting the reasons why: First, he recalled that historically Jews in all generations held a myriad of opinions and that the gap between even their best moral maxims and the actual communal behavior was often appalling. In this way, he was a student of the Biblical prophets who have pointed this out in every generation. Second, the strength of Jewish thought is not in celebrating a common core but in revisiting the grand debates of Judaism. His books engaged in a series of living dialogues: the Bible versus the Rabbis, Maimonides versus Nachmanides and HaLevi, Rabbi Kook versus Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rav Soloveitchik. Judaism is not a monolithic tradition, but a series of grand debates and fiery revolutions. Third, “the God of Sinai is still the God of Creation,” and any other claim is a desecration of God’s name. Jewish ethics is first a universal ethics based on the creation of all human beings in the image of God. Human dignity is not divisible and the chosen people cannot preach their own intrinsic superiority, discriminating against others in the name of becoming a holy people. Hartman loved to cite the story of a Talmudic rabbi who was urged to use a legal loophole to justify cheating a nonJew in the purchase of his donkey. The Rabbi retorts: “What, shall I become a Babrbarian?!”. That Jewish law, like other systems, cannot prevent one from being a barbarian, was one of his most profound lessons. Hartman’s most uncompromising diatribes against venerable Jewish wisdom were his angry dismissals of the racist presuppositions he found in Kabbalah, Chabad or Rav Kook…
 “Out of the Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh!” – Hartman sought to hold two poles – the ghettoized and the cosmopolitan. On one hand there was Torah study as an all-encompassing passionate practice, such as he experienced in the Lakewood yeshiva  among the great scholars of Lithuania who escaped the Holocaust. In Lakewood, just as since the destruction of the Temple all God has is the four ells of halacha, thus today all a Jew needs is the four walls of the Beit Midrash. IN many ways, Hartman never left that Beit Midrash.  On the other hand Torah is meant to be a torat hayim – a guide for life in all aspects of human endeavor. He loved to quote Maimonides who cited Aristotle’s Ethics to illuminate Pirkei Avot: “Accept truth from whomever has spoken it”. For Hartman this meant that Jewish scholars must come out of their intellectual ghettos to seek a critical dialogue with Western thinkers and with other religions.  Hartman could be sharply critical of liberal Judaism for neglecting deep Jewish learning in quality and quantity, even though he honored their commitment to adapting Judaism creatively. On the other hand Hartman, whose parents and siblings would today be called Haredi, would often lash out at the Orthodox community for what he saw as a turning of the “Talmudic Sea of Halakha” into the sordid “Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh”. Halakhic Judaism had become obsessively concerned with libido – kosher eating, kosher sex and kosher dress. The Shulkhan Aruch avoided pursuing the Talmudic discussion of capital punishment, the ethics of war or statecraft. Following in the footsteps of his “patron saint” Maimonides, Hartman sought to revisit and renew a Jewish discourse of political thought. Statehood was the opportunity to return Judaism to the cosmopolitan sea of conversation, bringing Jewish texts back into a true engagement with the street and the marketplace, not just the synagogue and the kitchen.
 “What can I say? I love my people…” - David, whose name means lover, loved both the Torah and the Jewish people. He abhorred those who used Halakha to degrade the ordinary Jew’s failure to reach its ideals. Yet he never promoted a facile, apologetic Judaism to pander to Jews seeking a self-congratulatory religion. He loved the Jewish people with a passion, but wanted them to be a sea of raging intellectuals, a yeshiva where all Jews and indeed all seekers of truth could sit, study, and argue. He loved Rabbinic Judaism precisely because it preserves and engenders perennial ongoing debates about conflicting values. His heart was made of many rooms, but these were not neatly distanced conference rooms for polite toleration of difference, rather it was one big Beit Midrash with many dueling study hevrutas. Rather than a return to the pristine days of old, Hartman celebrated the living covenant of Sinai, where each generation applies a constant reinterpretation to the ancient texts. In this way Judaism is not a community of shared beliefs or values, but rather a community of interpretation – where different readings of shared texts create the boundaries of the community.
Rabbi Nachman of Bresov, who David Hartman had very little patience for, once taught that since the essence of a person is his or her da’at, their unique wisdom or attainment, therefor “a person should leave after themselves a blessing – a child or a students – so that their da'at [wisdom, attainment, uniqueness] will remain down here even when they have risen from this world… For when a person's da'at remains through children and students, it is considered as if that person itself is still in this world.” (Likutei Moharan II:8).  
David Hartman’s da’at was unique and powerful. He is no longer around, but his da’at will continue to do his work for many years to come.

Noam Zion has been a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem almost since its founding. Rabbi Mishael Zion studied and taught at the Hartman Institute in Israel and North America and is now the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships. Together they are the authors of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” and the Hebrew Halaila Hazeh haggadah, which are sequels to Noam Zion’s bestselling “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah”, popularly known as “The Hartman Haggadah”.