Ritual | Purim vs. Politics: Getting Wasted with the Enemy

Purim contains the best Mitzvah in all of Judaism: to get so drunk that we can no longer tell the difference between our hero and our enemy. In the words of the Talmud (Megillah 7b): “One is obligated to drink on Purim until one does not know the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman.’ Mordechai is the hero of the Book of Esther, and saves the Jews from Haman—an ancient Persian who wanted to exterminate us. In short: we have a spiritual obligation to blur the line between the Good Guys (us, of course) and the Ultimate Enemy. For one night, Judaism gets carnivalesque, or Dionysian. Purim can be seen as the Summer of Love of Jewish holidays. While some more staid Rabbis fulfill the letter of the law by taking a nap, some Rabbis—like the ex-hippies I met in Jerusalem—fulfill the mitzvah by taking LSD.

In a mystical, Hasidic, or stoner interpretation, Purim represents a chance to see beyond the illusory duality of good and evil. But the mitzvah is not to see the mystical unity behind everything. The mitzvah—and I’m a bit of a stickler on this one—clearly demands that we get so wasted that we can no longer differentiate between our blessed Selves and our cursed Enemies. Now why on earth would this be a Righteous Commandment?

Purim masquerades can be quite conventional. For quite a few years, the Hasidic kids in my neighborhood would dress up as Osama bin Laden. Dozens of cute little Bin Ladens with curly payos running up and down the block. Obviously this dress-up game doesn’t actually question our definition of the enemy. But hey, these are children: they’re not bar mitzvahed, so they’re too young to get drunk. Adults, however, have certain obligations.

So why do we need to question our definition of the Enemy? Here in Canada, Stephen Harper (cursed be his name) is trying to spy on your private internet use. Bill C-30, originally called the Lawful Access Act, would let the government force your internet provider to give them access to all of your internet records—without a warrant. Faced with opposition to the intrusive bill, King Harper’s trusted advisor Vic Toews renamed the bill the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.” This grammatically awkward title enabled Toews to declare that you “can either stand with the government or with the child pornographers.” Really? That’s our choice? Harper’s Conservatives or Child Pornographers? Maybe Vic Toews is the one who needs to take a little LSD.

Governments love enemies. Haman & Mordechai, Bush & Bin Laden, Netanyahu & Ahmadinejad—if there’s anything these leaders can agree on it’s that enemies are great at helping control your own population. Look at Harper’s dastardly strategy: create a Watch List starting with international terrorists and white supremacist groups (no debate there). Then, when no one’s watching, add “eco-extremists, animal-rights activists, and anti-capitalists.” The supposedly foreign enemy is all of a sudden your neighbor. Anti-terrorist legislation ends up targeted at Greenpeace. Seriously, Steve? Who’s next, Margaret Atwood?

It’s enough to drive a person to drink.

Jews and enemies go together like peanut butter and jam. Or perhaps hummus and falafel. On the Shabbas before Purim we recite the infamous injunction to “Remember what Amalek did to you… as you came forth from Egypt, how he encountered you on the way and cut down all the weak who straggled behind you.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18) Amalek, the prototypical enemy of the Jews, is a direct ancestor of Haman—and both of them get compared to Hitler. But while the memory of Amalek provides a chance to remain aware of genocidal evil, it can also turn into a certain myth: that we are plagued by an eternal enemy, the perpetual anti-Semite who takes different forms in every generation. Contemporary secular Jews may throw out everything biblical, spiritual, and Talmudic about Judaism—but they will hold onto the myth of the enemy and the memory of victimhood. The nice thing about being persecuted is that it proves that you are extra special. But the idea that our enemies are linked—that they turn into one another, is mythic baloney. Amalek turns into Haman turns into Hitler turns into Arafat, turns into Osama bin Laden turns into Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad does appear to bring the story of Purim persecution full circle: from Haman, the advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus, right back to the ongoing saber-rattling of Israel and Iran. For some, Iran is yet another instance of the eternal enemy of the Jews on the genocidal warpath. This is certainly what Netanyahu would have you believe. But Bibi is no Mordechai: his number one goal is maintaining his own precarious power. In this, he is the perfect Tweedledum to Ahmadinejad’s Tweedledee.

Let’s talk about Hitler. Clearly, the Nazis were shitheads. Historically, scientifically, objectively: shitheads. But then we turned them into a pure myth: the über-enemy. At this point, everybody and their dog calls everybody else a Nazi. Right-wing settlers put on stars of David and compare the Israeli government to Hitler. Left wing Israelis call Lieberman a Nazi. Conservative American Jews call Palestinians Nazis. Palestinians call Israeli soldiers Nazis. Its all one big pile of Nazi. And Fascism is turned into an empty metaphor—when in actuality it is a very specific way of doing evil.

The Bible commands us to remember what Amalek did to us. He picked out the weakest members of the tribe when we were vulnerable: just escaped from Egyptian slavery, but still wandering in the desert. We were homeless, nomadic: refugees. The identity of the enemy is a red herring: doesn’t God in fact promise to blot out the name of the bastard? Evil is neither a myth nor a person: it is a means, a method, a way of being towards others. The Talmud debates what Amalek represents: The one who attacks the weak and homeless? The ‘crooked line’ that confuses us as to what Good is? The cold rationality that kills divine joy? The indifference that disconnects us from our responsibility to others? Hasidic and Kabbalistic thought move beyond the myth of the Enemy when they investigate the nature of our “inner Amalek”: recognizing that evil is not just the identity of our enemy, but a possibility that exists within each of us.

Originally, I was going to write that this Purim we should celebrate a Jewish-Iranian Spring of Love. Jews have been living in Iran/Persia since 586 BCE. To this day, there are more Jews in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East, except Israel. Biblical monotheism is inconceivable without our exile in Babylon and the exposure to Persian culture. It was the Persian King Cyrus who eventually helped us get back to Jerusalem to build the first temple. Only Haman—and now Netanyahoo & Ahmadinejerk—pretend that Jews and Persians are enemies. So I wanted to end this piece with an intoxicating call to embrace our historical ties to Persia, and to proclaim our love for the people of Iran.

The problem is that Iran really isn’t my Enemy. If I heed the Kabbalistic imperative, and investigate my own ‘inner’ Amalek I find a different demon. The one I really hate is Harper. He makes me FURIOUS. My editor, cursed be her name, points out that my anger at Harper reproduces the very myth of the enemy I am trying to question. Holy Shit! I have become that which I attack. Stephen Fucking Harper is lurking, lingering, hiding—deep inside my own heart.

Which brings us back to Purim. The genius of this celebration is to take us beyond the politics of enemies: where we can’t tell the difference between those we bless and those we curse. The Talmud commands us to get drunk—drunker than Politics, with all its cursing. Drunker than History, with its long list of enemies. The Jews & the Persians, the Iranians & the Israelis, Vic Toews & the Child Pornographers. Haman & Mordechai, Netanyahoo & Ahmadinejad, Stephen Harper & Me. A terrible list of nincompoops.

L’Chaim, then! Let’s drink to forgetting our enemies, and remembering Joy—the Joy that combats the closed fist and tight heart of anger. The Joy that refutes the cold indifference of political calculation. The Joy that opens us beyond ourselves. Let’s drink ourselves beyond Good and Evil. At least for one day. And let Haman, Hitler and Harper have a three way.

Joseph Rosen is a writer and teacher based in Montreal’s bagel district. He has a PhD in how fucked up the world is, but that can’t stop him.  This article is the 2nd instalment of his series Talmudic Graffiti.