No image of torture? I want to proceed as Raphael did and never paint another image of torture. There are enough sublime things so that one does not have to look for the sublime where it dwells in sisterly association with cruelty; and my ambition also could never find satisfaction if I became a sublime assistant at torture…. Nietzsche

Purim is an unusual holiday in the Jewish calendar in that as opposed to the solemnity of most holidays, it is one which phenomenologically appears as one of unbridled levity. Children and adults dress in costumes, one is meant to drink until “Blessed be Mordechai” is confused with “Cursed be the evil Haman”, a large meal is held which frequently was accompanied by itinerant comic and satirical theater performances. The message is that events in the world are not as they appear at first glance, even when it appears that all is lost, salvation is just around the corner, or lurking beneath the surface.

The story is told in the Book of Esther- an evil minister of the Persian king, Haman, attempts to get back at another courtier, Mordechai, who Haman feels has ‘dissed’ him. Instead of taking on Mordechai directly, he spends a lot of his own money bribing the king to wipe out Mordechai’s entire people, the people later to be known as the Jews. This decree is accepted by the Persian king, until it is revealed that his beloved Queen is also an MOT (member of the tribe, in Jewish campus slang), and instead the king hangs Haman and his clan, and give Mordechai a good government position. Hence the levity surrounding the holiday, and my presentation of it is in that spirit.

The Rabbis, however, while institutionalizing the rowdy nature of Purim, also recognized the darker aspects of the story. While in this particular instance the outcome was a favorable one, the mere possibility of a situation of mass murder of innocents is a terrifying one.

Thus, for example, the Talmud equates the response of the people to this deliverance to that of the revelation at Sinai — according to the Talmud (BT Shabb. 88.), at Sinai, it appeared as if God held the mountain over the people of Israel and gave them the Torah under compulsion, whereas at the time of Mordechai and Esther, the people re-accepted the Torah, but this time, out of love. One might say that Sinai was a heteronymous acceptance, whereas Purim was an autonomous one. We will return to this midrash later.

To reinforce this darker side of Purim, the holiday is always preceded by a Sabbath Torah reading in which the portion of the Torah dealing with the attack by the Amalekites upon the newly freed slaves, is recounted. We are told that this desert tribe targeted the weakest flank of the Israelite camp, and that this fierce attack was unprovoked; in fact, the text states, the Amalekites essentially stumbled upon the freed Hebrews, and decided to attack them on the spur of the moment. Thus the Amalekites became synonymous with the unlimited capacity for human cruelty, and the command, repeated twice in the Torah, was to remember the attack, and to blot out their memory.

One obvious connection of the Amalek episode to Purim is that Haman is described as an Amalekite in descent, yet there is more to it than that. For example, R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin points out, Haman’s connection to his progenitors was more than merely one of genes- the name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the lottery, the pur, that Haman cast in order to determine when to kill all those people — a celebration of random violence apparently being a deep seated Amalekite tradition.

It is important to note, that while perhaps in antiquity there were skirmishes with actual Amalekites (such as the one that cost King Saul his throne), in traditional Jewish discourse, way after the term lost any connection to any actual people, the term “Amalek” became a metaphor for all that is bad in the world; in mystical thought the term is a cipher for the evil itself.

Among the Hasidic masters, recognizing the use of singular rather than plural commands in connection with the commands to remember and eradicate Amalek, Amalek came to mean the “evil inclination,” that is, the flawed aspect within each individual that requires transformation and sublation. R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his Pri Haaretz, whose reading we will study at length, notes several oddities in the text of the commandment and comes up with a reading that presages that of Freud regarding melancholia and fetishism, as we shall see. The Pri Haaretz notes that a commandment to remember is problematic, since forgetfulness tends to be viewed as an accidental, not an active process. Furthermore, the remembrance is explained as being necessary in ‘erasing the memory of Amalek’. If God had wanted Amalek’s memory to be erased, why mention them at all? Without a textual mention to keep their memory alive, would they not be forgotten like so many other tribes and civilizations that left behind no trace? Aside from the fact that the people Moshe was speaking to in the desert didn’t need to be reminded of this episode, as they had lived through it. So what is this command to remember to forget actually about?

In order to understand his answer in contemporary terms, let us take a brief detour through Giorgio Agamben’s presentation of Freud’s understanding of the concept of melancholy: “In melancholy, the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time.”

Agamben quotes Freud, whereby the melancholic ego, unable to let go of the lost object, withdraws from reality, and invests its energy into creating ‘phantasms of desire’, which substitute a superior reality for actual reality. What Agamben realizes, is that the relationship of the ego to these phantasms of desire constitutes the basis of all cultural creation and progress:

No longer a phantasm, and not yet a sign, the unreal object of melancholy introjection opens a space that is neither the hallucinated oneiric scene of the phantasms nor the indifferent world of natural objects. In this intermediate epiphanic state, located in the no-man’s-land between narcissistic self-love and external object-choice, the creations of human culture will be situated one day…

Agamben sees this no-man’s land, this intermediate state of incompleteness and desire, as being the motivating factor behind artistic development, for example, here is Paul Celan:

…I speak, yes, of the poetry that does not exist!

Absolute poetry, – no certainly it does not exist, it cannot exist!

But it does exist, yes, in every existing poem, it exists in every poem without pretense, this question that cannot be evaded, this unheard-of pretense…

At any rate, what is central is the sense of lack, absence, deficiency that can bring about the neurosis of melancholy, or, if redirected and properly channeled, leads to creativity and the realization of a better or more beautiful reality. Perhaps, I would suggest, it is that ‘thing’ that exists between languages, that aspect of the writing that the translator accesses and attempts to recreate in a different language, that place of meaning primary to the actual words finally used, according to Walter Benjamin.

We can now return to the Pri Haaretz. His concern is with the relationship of memory to the task of eradicating evil. To explain this he turns to a Talmudic midrash, from BT Rosh Hashana 21: which states that Moshe achieved 49 of the levels of Consciousness (the 49 shaarei binah), but not the 50th. Why not? Because by definition the 50th level of understanding is — the not understood, that which cannot be comprehended. This highest state, the non-comprehendable, the lacuna which lies beyond knowledge, is that which drives the will to understanding forward and thus paves the way for all future breakthroughs in consciousness.

This memory, if you will, this phantasm, this non-comprehendable which drives us to breakthroughs in consciousness, is also the response to evil in the world, because it is also the place where evil cannot penetrate, he explains, being a pure drive for positive transformation, for self-completion. Concepts at the level of understanding are notoriously subject to critique, parody, and ultimately subversion. Even the most profound mystical knowledge can be mocked (hear the one about the Zen monk who asked the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything?). However, the awe and wonder which drive the imagining of a better, more beautiful existence, remain unattainable.

In a sense, then, the spiritual journey is, ontologically speaking, greater and purer than that which is actually found. The continuing “memory,” the recognition that the world is imperfect, or the self-recognition that I have faults and can always be made better, or to bring it back to the subject of Purim, that there is always still “Amalek” in the world and in our selves, this drive motivates the process of personal and world transformation.

This message underlies the celebration of Purim, according to the Sefat Emet. He reads the adage that “one must drink on Purim until one reaches the state where one knows not between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman” as suggesting, not that we are confused, but rather beyond- we achieve a spiritual high, reach that state prior to and beyond the ‘tree of good and bad’, that place where there is no distinction between good and evil- because in that place there was no dualism, no evil, no lack, no corruption, no torture, no suffering. Reaching back for this state in a celebration of the rare victory of the persecuted by malevolent powers, by “redemptive memory” to use Walter Benjamin’s term, we can visualize, even for a drunken moment, world transformation where there is no longer hate or suffering.

With this in mind, we can return to a central theme of Purim, which teaches a few lessons about response to hate speech. Haman pitches his genocide to the king by stating that the Jews are dangerous because they are widely dispersed throughout the kingdom, and thus in some way threatening. Of course, the reason the Jewish community was spread out was because their homeland had been razed by the Assyrians in the recent past, but put in this light, the people’s suffering is made to appear sinister and threatening.

How then, to respond to this kind of hate speech? A model for response is presented by the Kedushat Levi. His message for Purim was built upon the Midrash cited earlier, regarding the re-accepting of the Torah at the time of the deliverance from Haman. Generally, that midrash is read as stating that God, so to speak, forced the Torah upon the people at Sinai, whereas the people re-accepted the Covenant out of love after the fall of Haman. (There is a lovely essay by Levinas in his Talmudic Discourses built upon this reading).

However, the Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev, offers an alternative reading. The phrase used there is kafa aleihem har k’gigit, which means that God lifted the mountain over their heads, threatening to turn Sinai into their burial ground if the people reject the Ten Commandments. However, it is a commonplace of midrashic metonymy that the word har, pluralized as harim, can be revocalized as horim, meaning parents or ancestors. In this reading, also found in the Ohev Yisrael, the Israelites recently redeemed from slavery, were reminded of, or lifted up to the level of, their illustrious ancestors, and in that state received the Torah. In other words, they weren’t threatened with violence at Sinai, as in the plain meaning, but instead, were raised up to that higher consciousness which transcends good and evil, and in that state were able to be transformed.

The challenge of history is that revolutionary consciousness is difficult to maintain over the generations, and certainly in difficult and challenging times people lose hope (in fact, the Kedushat Levi points out that immediately after Sinai the people fell from this state and rapidly sinned). Certainly not the victimized suddenly dehumanized population described in the Book of Esther, and yet, their Jewish Renewal was accepted on a par with the original giving of the Torah at Sinai. Because this time, the victory came from the people, not from above, as in Sinai, but from the people themselves, from their innate desire to become better, to transform the world, to transcend depression and melancholy. For this reason, the rabbis explain that this was the last book of the bible text, from this point on, the Oral Law, the set of interpretations that grow from humanity’s lived experience, becomes the guiding principle for life, superior in some ways to that which can be understood from the text without the human element of interpretation.

These then are our contemporary responses to Purim: to stick firmly to our active memory of the reality of the suffering of those against whom hate is directed, a “redemptive memory” of the possibility of a better world, a “phantasm” which guides our dreams to a world beyond hate and suffering, “until we don’t know” of further hate and sorrow. I’m certain we can all drink to that! Happy Purim!

 


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