Purim, Alcohol and the Fluidity of Thought

mascettiBy Yaacov Mascetti*

A few years ago, roundabout this time of the year, I stumbled across a booklet on Purim entitled “Pur, namely Destiny – Thoughts and Lectures on Purim, by Rav ShaGaR.” Rabbi Rosenberg was the rosh yeshiva in a small but extremely unique rabbinical seminar called “Siach Yitzchak” in Gush Etzion, and was relatively unknown to Israeli readers until, after his untimely death from cancer in 2007, his students undertook the editing and publishing of his works, his teaching notes and recorded lectures. I’m not much of a disciple, let alone admirer of rabbinical figures, but Rav ShaGaR has always managed to address some of the key questions that buzz relentlessly around my mind, without the need to hide behind ideological models or apologetic explanations, but rather with the mind-boggling capacity to use Talmudic and post-Talmudic tradition as a hermeneutic tool for post-modern thinkers to use in order to address questions relevant to their world. Rav ShaGaR, that is, is (was?) never afraid of question, never avoids to shatter the texts he studies, tearing them apart, and putting them back together – his thought is never frozen in positions of dogmatic respect of the past, but is characterized by that very artistic creativity which a Jewish religious life should always be infused with. With his mingling of Hassidic thought, post-modern philosophy and literature, Rav ShaGaR is a voice that speaks to me, and I want to share this feeling of mine here. I would like to dedicate a few articles here on Pagine Ebraiche International to his unique perspective on some of the key aspects of Jewish life. This is the first one.
There is a curious point of contact between the Purim and the shattering of cognitive consensus in the name of a freer perspective on religious thought and praxis: one of the central objectives of the day is to lose consciousness by inebriation, and to blur or undermine the distinction between “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Damned be Hamman.” Knowledge, in its modern conception as the path to objective truth, is based, as Francis Bacon would have put it, on the intellectual capacity to distinguish, separate different pieces of data, and to understand them individually:

The greatest, and, perhaps, radical distinction between different men’s dispositions for philosophy and the sciences is this; that some are more vigorous and active in observing the differences of things, others in observing their resemblances. For a steady and acute disposition can fix its thoughts, and dwell upon, and adhere to a point, through all the refinements of differences; but those that are sublime and discursive recognise and compare even the most delicate and general resemblances. Each of them readily falls into excess, by catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance. (Novum Organum, Book 1; Aphorism 55)

Modern cognition is dichotomized, in these terms, into two categories: there are those people whose understanding aims to form conglomerates of knowledge (humanities), and there are those whose understanding aims to distinguish, anatomize, and attain empirical certainty through the details. In a poem entitled “On Humane Knowledge” written by Sir John Davies in England in 1595, the acquisition of this capacity to recognize “even the most delicate and general resemblances” was part and parcel of the dire consequences of the Fall:

Why did my parents send me to the Schooles
That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?
Since the desire to know first made men fools,
And did corrupt the root of all mankind:

For when God’s hand had written in the hearts
Of the first Parents, all the rules of good,
So that their skill infusde did passe all arts
That euer were, before, or since the Flood ;

And when their reason’s eye was sharpe and cleere,
And (as an eagle can behold the sunne)
Could haue approcht th’ Eternall Light as neere,
As the intellectuall angels could haue done :

Even then to them the Spirit of Lyes suggests
That they were blind, because they saw not ill ;
And breathes into their incorrupted brests
A curious wish, which did corrupt their will.

For that same ill they straight desir’d to know;
Which ill, being nought but a defect of good,
In all God’s works the diuell could not show
While Man their lord in his perfection stood.

So that themselues were first to doe the ill,
Ere they thereof the knowledge could attaine ;
Like him that knew not poison’s power to kill,
Vntill (by tasting it) himselfe was slaine.

Sir Davies sees post-lapsarian knowledge as a temptation of the human mind into the meanders of a “curious wish,” a corruption of the will to serve God into the folly of enriched minds. Augustine of Hippo also addressed this itch to know in his Confessions, when he defined human knowledge as a fallen cognition, crushed under the yoke of what he referred to as “curiositas.” The English poet John Donne, with that semantic and philosophical precision which characterizes a large part of his works, defined this as the “concupiscence of wit.” Knowledge, in sum, was before the Fall a form of union with the Divine – knowledge after the Fall became a result of a detachment of the human mind from the “rules of good” written by God into the heart of man.
A similar story is told by Rav ShaGaR in relation to Megillat Ester. The story is one of strife between two opposed types of knowledge: the Amalekite cognition of Hamman, and Israelite cognition of Mordechai and Ester. Basing himself on a set of Hassidic readings of the Megilla, Rav ShaGaR argues that Amalek is traditionally considered as the antagonist of Divine unity, the enemy of those who witness in the world the unity of existence, namely the People of Israel. Amalek is a cognitive lens through which the world appears in its extreme materiality, utter thingness, objective reality in and of itself dichotomized from the subjective (and thus imperfect) understanding of man. Amalekite cognition is the root of the duality which invites the researcher to inquire into the secrets of nature and to believe that he (the knower) is in no way related to the object of his understanding (the known, nature, objects) – knowledge as doubt, as the individual’s self-conscious understanding of objective truth. In this way the Amalekite cognition finds its highest form in the modern consciousness, the Cartesian dichotomization of soul and body, the separation of the internal and the external, and the divorce between subject and object. It is this abyssal distinction, concludes Rav ShaGaR, that imprisons the modern human understanding within the inescapable limits of the subjective, chains it to a stable and fixed skepticism, and prevents it from attaining an accomplished and fulfilling belief. The “damned” Hamman, a descendent of Amalek, is a manifestation of this – his ambition is not merely political, but exemplifies this post-Lapsarian need of the subjective to rule the objective, to control and to manipulate the surrounding reality as only a creator can. Ester and the “blessed” Mordechai, on the other hand, represent those who aim, within the conscious acknowledgment of this post-Lapsarian dichotomy, to lead the human mind back to a unity with Divine presence: by, through and beyond the understanding of the hidden presence of God, the individual brings himself and the surrounding reality to their perfection.
Purim is about the inebriated undermining of the distinction between Hamman and Mordechai, between these two opposite types of cognition – the true freedom of the individual lies not in the univocal acknowledgment of hidden Divine presence, nor in its negation. Upon losing the post-Lapsarian urge to distinguish, we “realize” that the question of meaning, the need for significance and the negation thereof are all rooted within the fallen self-conscious subjectivity. Shattering the itch for understanding and the yearning to be significant, the individual does not suspend himself within a nihilistic negation of meaning, but rather finds himself within a state of mind in which he no longer feels the need for meaning or to be meaningful. It is in this moment that the duality may be brought to crumble, as the subject realizes that he is no different from the object, and that there is, ultimately, only unity.
From Rav ShaGaR’s perspective, then, the path to a moment of cognitive revelation necessarily passes through distinction, as unity depends on duality, and the Israelite understanding is based on an eternal strife with the Amalekite rigidity of the self. Upon entering the month of Adar, let us not forget that the sclerotic rigidity of a non-playful mind can in no way yearn for that freedom – the individual must and can interiorize the strife between Amalek and Israel, between skepticism and belief in the hidden, and with the help of a bit of alcohol on Purim, actually see how that strife is senseless when one realizes the underlying unity of things.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.