Purim, Conscience and the Emptying Jewish Pride

mascettiPurim is a difficult day for me – the narrative of violence that enwraps the whole subject of the hidden agency of God’s hand, has made this specific holiday quite unpleasant in my eyes. Yes, I’ve had my share of self-aggrandizing slogans, usually due to a series of rather visceral reactions to the extremely violent context I live in. And yes, I have found great satisfaction in celebrating the slaughtering of those who wanted to slaughter us, in chanting and celebrating the victory of a mass of dispersed Jews in the midst of hostile populations. And yet, I do admit that those chants and those victorious and self-aggrandizing slogans are no longer compatible with who and what I am. So, while in my scholarship I aim to frame in my articles clear and compelling readings of literary texts of the past, avoiding, as much as I can, the tempting warmth of the hermeneutic circle, I admit that here I will allow myself to freely project onto the texts of my religious tradition a number of apriori values, which include human solidarity and the need for charity and understanding.

God is a present absence – in a religious dimension where all one has in order to hear the word of God and to thus feel some kind of connection to the Divine is the dispersive sphere of the exegetical understanding and conjecture on intention, this void is inevitably accompanied by the persistent tendency of man to fill it with meaning, with presence, with an (impoverished) cognition and univocal truths. Relating to this void is not easy – Jewish tradition is, in a nutshell, mostly about relating to that Divine truth while living in a dimension (post-lapsarian humanity) where truth is dispersed, displaced, and ultimately shredded into myriads of linguistic realities.

Consequently, the Jew is obliged to fashion himself, with a sisyphic work of daily acts and endless learning, into an image of that absence; into a token, so to speak, of the Divine message. In the weekly portion of Tetzaveh, God imparts the following:

(Ex. 27:20) “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.”

The Midrash Rabba (Shemot Rabba) presents the relationship between Israel and God, and that between Israel and the Peoples of the world, as one allegorically expressed in terms of illumination – just as the clear olive oil serves to give light, so the Temple of Jerusalem gives light to the world. The reference is taken from Isaiah 60:1-3 :

“For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”

The Midrash makes it extremely clear that God does not need Israel as a source of glorifying light, but rather wishes his people to become a representation of Divine illumination, a mirror of Divine light – “I have illumined Israel to uplift them in the eyes of the Peoples, such that the latter will say ‘The People of Israel illumine just as the One who illumines all’.” There is, in other words, no essential quality in the People of Israel that makes it better than others – the sole quality it possesses is the religious tradition it receives from God, through which it can, in this midrashic narrative, illumine the contexts it will find itself in.

The Sefat Emet, a Hassidic commentary on the Torah which I have referred to in this column in more than one occasion, uses this midrashic reading and collapses it, in a fascinating example of allegorical interpretation of the Torah portion of Tetzaveh, with the paradoxical commandment to obliterate Amalek and remember his obliteration:

“The Midrash states that Israel illumines… and this they can do with their good actions. And yet, they also need to keep in mind that the light they give out is not an inherent quality of theirs, but rather solely in virtue of God’s commandments… That is why God commands to kindle the lights regularly – to state clearly that the strength He gave to Israel is solely in virtue of his commandments… And this is also related to the concept of zakhor – that one should remain attached to the Divine message by virtue of his inner essence and in his heart, such that he does not forget. For only then is Amalek prevented from taking control – only when Israel weakens its understanding of the Torah and his faith, can Amalek succeed and take over.”

The Sefat Emet argues, in terms that are difficult to misinterpret, that the light given out by the Jews, an allegory of what I interpret as ethical behavior and virtuous social praxes, of xenophilia and ultimately of the capacity to embrace the uncompromising diversity of the “Other,” is solely rooted in the Divine commandment – upon relating to the Divine in performing acts that reflect His will, the Jew illumines the context he lives in and fashions himself or herself into a reflection of Divine light, a representation of an unrepresentable God. This state of affairs is manifested in a state of consciousness, which is endangered only by the destructive and weakening effects of Amalek. The latter is, in my eyes, not an allegorical embodiment of whoever wishes the destruction of Israel, but rather of an internal, psychological tendency found in each and every human being to let go, to relinquish the conscious control over actions and simply perform daily acts of whim and chaotic intention. Amalek is the blurring of that light, the darkening of the illuminating reflection in the people of Israel granted to it by God’s will.

But there is a further interpretation of Amalek, which I have recently learned from my friend and teacher Pinchas Leiser, provided by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in 1860:

(Deut. 25:19) “Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.”

Hirsch: “Thou shalt not forget: do not forget this concept, for if the day will come when you will want to imitate Amalek and just like him you will ignore your obligations and God, and will thus look for the opportunity, in small things or big actions, to exploit your supremacy and to damage the pact [with God.]. Do not forget this thing, for if the day will come when you will ask to remove from your heart the consciousness of your duties as Israel, which you took upon yourself amongst the Nations of the world. Do not go looking for the pride of laurel crowns which the stupidity of the world makes in honor of those who happily obliterated the pact – do not forget the land, drenched in tears of suffering, which brought those laurel leaves to the world. Do not forget, for the day will come when you will suffer from the vulgarity and the violence of Amalek – look after your virtue and dignity! Look after your humanity and the ideals of justice which you learned from your God. The future is in justice and dignity – and in the end they will succeed over vulgarity and violence. For you were sent to bring this message to the world – that one day, in the future, these ideals will win.”

The darkness of Amalek is not only, as the simpleminded conception of some would like to sell to the masses, the urge to crush the people of Israel – Amalek is an internal quality, inherent in Israelites as in others too, by virtue of which the individual elides his humanity and capacity to empathize with other human beings, and thus proceeds to crush the weak and enjoy the pleasures of supremacy. Amalek is the creeping lack of humanity which characterizes the individual who sets aside the unbearable yoke of the Divine present absence, forgetting Divine commandments, forgetting the humanity required from him or her. Amalek is the univocal need of the individual to interrupt the unbearable duty to act as an icon of Divine light, and to thus express an utter individuality which then deteriorates into social injustice, ethnic and military hegemony. Amalek is the undermining of conscience and the disruption of the yoke of Divine commandment as a ruling principle in the performance of daily actions.

George Steiner, in his “In Bluebeard’s Castle” refers to Hitler when reading the invention of monotheism as the invention of conscience and morality – the original quote from Hitler goes as follows:

“Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a false vision called conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and independence which only a very few can bear.”

And thus Steiner elaborates:

“We are not, I believe, dealing with some monstrous accident in modern social history. The holocaust was not the result of merely individual pathology or of the neuroses of one nation-state. Indeed, competent observers expected the cancer to spread first, and most virulently, in France. We are not-and this is often misunderstood-considering something truly analogous to other cases of massacre, to the murder of the Gypsies or, earlier, of the Armenians. There are parallels in technique and in the idiom of hatred. But not ontologically, not at the level of philosophic intent. That intent takes us to the heart of certain instabilities in the fabric of Western culture, in the relations between instinctual and religious life. Hitler’s jibe that ‘conscience is a Jewish invention’ provides a clue.”

The loss of “tzelem Elokim,” the elision of that conscience, is the direct consequence of the defacement of that very representation of Divine light in our behavior, both in the individual sphere and in the social one. Let us not forget – the worst enemy is not the external Amalek, but the internal one, the one that blurs the light of morality in the actions of the People of Israel. Let us not undo the yoke of conscience, and let us always keep in mind the obligations we have vis-à-vis the other, the weak, the subaltern. Purim is a day in which we do not forget the Amalekite menace that is within us, preventing it from blurring the tzelem or darkening the Divine light reflected in our actions.

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