Thursday, March 19, 2009

Public Service Announcement

To the person who wished me Chag S'meach yesterday, it is not yet Passover! It is not even erev Pesach. Let's say - generously - that erev Pesach begins two weeks before the holiday. Well, that is not until next Wednesday. So please!

True, our sages tell us to start learning the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, and many of us may remember someone at the Purim meal (though I don't; see below) getting up to fulfill this mitzva.

I also fully understand people - like my wife - who begin the slow task of cleaning the house for chametz weeks before the holiday. But I don't really get the people who perform their religious observance in an aggressively public way.

It's a tricky thing really. For a good way to stay away from hypocrisy is to denounce all forms of outward religious observance as inauthentic - to be a kind of antinomian like one of my favorite poets, John Milton. But we Jews have a different mandate - which is to render the world holy by means of our performance. So the trick is to have those performances - in another language, mitzvos - serve as a way of expressing ourselves in service of G-d, and not as a means of the expressing our supposed superiority.

As with any thing, it's a matter of tone. So I don't mind my neighbors who - every year - cheerfully and without any appearance of attitude empty the entire contents of their house on to the sidewalk in their preparation for Pesach (though, it should be noted, this is probably spring cleaning and not Pesach cleaning). But I do find objectionable the women who - last year in the local makholet (grocery store) - shrieked at one of the arab workers who had inadvertently put a cup of instant coffee on the counter for 'treifing up' her vegetables.

The mitzvos are a vessel for holiness, not for our neuroses. So while I know that Pesach is one of the times of year when we attempt to be stringent, if we sense that our observance is turning into the expression of hysteria or self-righteousness - it's called frumkeit - it may be better to turn things down a notch.

The wife of a good friend of mine suffered pneumonia during the winter. Under doctor's orders, she has been instructed not to exert herself this year. Her husband consoled her for not being able to keep the stringincies she has in years past. 'I suppose,' he said, 'we'll have to settle and just keep the Shulchan Aruch' - the laws of Pesach as expressed in the authoritative code of Jewish Law. For the rest of us, that may also be enough.

So happy - oops I almost said it - shabbat shalom!

Monday, March 9, 2009

'Whose Letter is it Anyway?': Aristotle, Esther and the Art of Letter Writing

I think the first philosophical question I pondered was that posed by a Razzles advertisement: 'candy or gum?' My first brush with categorical indeterminacy - Razzles, it turns out, depending on your perspective is both candy and gum (but in both cases revolting).

On Purim, there's another one of those category confusions - Megillat Esther refers to itself as both an igeret, a letter, and as a sefer, a book. Our sages point out this generic ambiguity: 'Megillat Esther is both a book and a letter.' When the Megilla refers to itself as a letter, Esther's name precedes Mordechai; when it refers to itself as a book, Mordechai's name comes first. So whose letter - or book - is it anyway?

A book has permanence, written for the generations; while a letter partakes of the day to day - the quotidian. Our sages tell us that the Megilla's establishement as a book entailed its inclusion among the rest of sacred scriptures, canonized for the generations. But even when included with those sacred texts - older sacred scrolls included not only the five books but the books of the prophets and writings as well - the Megilla has to be on parchment of a different size. At once sacred like the rest of the books in our tradition, but at the same time separate, distinguished from the rest of the books of the Torah - and different. To make matters more complicated, our sages explain that the events that transpired in Shushan had already been written, and were catalogued in the Baghdad Library: 'I am in the Persian Chronicles,' say Esther! So - if we have the chornicles - why do we need another version, the hybrid book/letter which is Megillat Esther?

The events of Shushan do seem - on their surface - to be the stuff of the everyday, material for a letter or maybe even a newspaper report. In the Megilla, there are court intrigues, domestic disagreements, beauty contests, sleepless nights, lotteries. Not the events we associate with the rest of the Torah, not even what we would associate with a successful literary work. In the Poetics, Aristotle argues for the importance of 'unity of action.' All parts of the story - down to the last detail - must serve the end of the plot. If there is an episode that doesn't fit, Aristotle advises the author, 'Get rid of it!' The Megilla, by Aristotelian standards, is a failure - nothing fits! A history that seems without reason, random, episode after episode - like the history present in Macbeth's 'tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.' Pesach, by contrast, the first holiday in the Jewish liturgical cycle, shows the providential hand of G-d at every turn. But in the story of Purim, there is no evidence of G-d's presence; the divine name is absent. Purim is the contemporary holiday - contemporary in the sense of accomodating our experience of G-d's absence. 'Where do we find Esther's name in the Torah?' - our sages ask. In the verse from Deuteronomy - וְאָנוֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר - and 'I will hide my face,' anochi hastir astir. Esther - and the work that bears her name - is associated with hiddenness.

And yet. The history that bears no evidence of the divine presence reveals itself - in the end - to show an order which we did not originally suspect. The apparently random details of the Megilla prove to be essential to the salvation which comes at the end. Those events - check them out tonite - which seemed all to conspire towards the destruction of the Jews of Shushan ultimately lead to their salvation. The episodes are intrinsic to the story - with the right perspective, the Megilla turns into an Aristotelian success story - where every event is necessary to the whole. V'anha'fuku - and everything turned around! We didn't know, but the letters from Shushan is sacred.

The Persian Chronicles will not do: for chronicle just lists events; they don't tell a story. Only Esther gives a complete narrative - with all of the necessary links between what readers in Bagdhad may have construed as unrelated events. The version in the Persian Library chronicled an unconnected set of random events; but the Megilla, unified through the consciousness of Esther, tells a story where everything fits, so see even in the apparent randomness of events, G-d's providential presence is revealed. To the question: whose Megilla is it anyway? The answer (the envelope please!) is undoubtedly Esther's. So Esther's name precedes Mordechai when it comes to authoring the 'letter.' But when Esther approaches the sages of her generation, asking to establish her letter as part of the Holy Writings, then Mordechai's name precedes her for his role - as member of the Sanhedrin - in transforming the letter into a book.

Our practice - watch in synagogue tonight - is to unroll the Megilla on the bima before we start reading it. We read the Megilla like a letter, to show that we are not reading from the other books of the Torah (And we also roll it up in the end showing how all the details are collected - igeret also means to colllect - in the scroll). All who hear the Megilla must know that this letter/book is fundamentally different from the other books of the Torah. The Megilla must be read as a letter to emphasize that the what we are reading could be - and is! - on a par with reading a newspaper, current events. A letter is merely transitory and temporal, a disposable witness to the life and times of daily life - a testimony to our own recurrent sense of 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.' The events of Shushan are the everyday. But when the Jews of Shushan fasted and repented, then from out of the meaningless randomness of life, the hester panim revealed itself. When at the end, events are revealed through the eyes of Esther, the letter becomes a book. Esther asked of the sages 'make my letter into a Book!'; turn my account of the everyday into a Book on a par with the other Holy Writings! Show the way in which the everyday - the dark repetitions of seemingly unredeemed history - are also a pattern of the divine!

A happy Purim!