Purim and the Uprooting of Foundational Conceptions of Good and Evil

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

Purim is a rather complex ideological construction, founded on a number of canonical themes such as good and evil and the blurring thereof, the hiding of God’s face in history, Divine will versus destiny (“pur”), et al. Within the framework of the orderly narrative chaos of the Book of Esther, good and evil are presented as intermingled and as part of the book’s confrontation with change, destiny and with the absence of a directing authorial hand. Of course, readers and commentators of the past and in the present, who have looked for “the voice of my Beloved,” and have tried to hear his knocking at the story’s “door,” have been able to find it clear and distinct. And yet the gargantuan effort invested by readers to find an orderly narrative and conceptual presentation in the story of Purim points to the fact, I think, that it was actually meant to convey the banality of both good and evil.

The Gemara in the Treatise of Megilla 7b refers to Rava’s statement:

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.

This passage from the Babylonian Talmud provides the basis for one of the halachic foundations of Purim, which is the obligation to get drunk. As the passage argues rather clearly, the intoxication by alcoholic beverages is not in and of itself an objective, but is, rather, the means to another matter, which is the loss of cognitive control upon the two ideas of good and evil and their relation to the two key male figures in the Book of Esther. Of course the Gemara is not trying to deconstruct the concepts of good and evil, but rather provide the conditions that will allow the individual to lose his grasp on the essentialist and foundationalist conceptions of what is good and what is evil, who is Haman and who is Mordechai, what is a blessing and what is a curse. The drunken reader is encouraged to let go and draw closer to the text, and to perceive the otherwise imperceptible lack of differences.

The Purim-based intoxication is thus an instrument which the individual is required to use in order to see how insignificant the apparently significant signs of an authorial presence are in history – the drunken perspective on Divine semiosis in history, or Godly semantics in the text, is one which gladly loses its control of things.

On the matter of Divine signs and the interpretation thereof, Yishai Mevorach has argued, in his recently published “Theology of Absence,” that the Purim-based Jew is:

“…a signifier that does not convey a signified; a name without a meaning or that does not point to any content […] a sign which points back at itself, a Jew that is a Jew. Rebbe Tzadok sees the essence of the Jew in his being a signifier alone – upon accomplishing his duty and realizing his essence, the Jew thus comes to reveal the Name… In many of his stories and commentaries, the Jew-who-is-not-a-Jew fully realizes this idea of Jewishness… as he discards from himself all the signs pointing to a meaning and an essence, to cultural values, to tradition and context, and thus uncovers his Jewish ‘essence’, which is being a name and nothing more – for this reason the revelation [of the Divine] in Purim is greater than that of Mount Sinai. The Jewish Jew of Sinai conveys his Jewishness, and will never be able to expose himself to the essence of Judaism, for the very simple fact that the name ‘Jew’ conveys for him a signified, namely a meaning and a life content, a well-wrought culture based on commandments and regulations. In stark opposition to this Jew is the individual who discards all the defining characteristics and elides from himself all conveyances of meaning and essence, and thus fashions himself into an exemplification of Jewishness intended as the Name of Israel – this is the essence of Purim.

The Purim Jew in the writings of Rebbe Tzadok and of Rebbe Nachman is the individual who divests himself of all apparels, behaviors and socially acceptable behaviors, and severs the name “Jew” from the well-constructed essence or meaning, turning himself into a signifier without a signified, a sign pointing to an absolute (though momentary) absence of meaning. Intended within its quasi-Saturnalian Purim context, signification is thus to be understood not as the signifier’s containment or conferring of an inherent meaning, but rather a matter of social definition – the masks, the drunkenness, the confusion between the blessing and the curse, may all be seen to point to this non-foundationalist idea of truth and meaning. To quote the philosopher Richard Rorty, Purim brings the Jew to realize that “truth is made rather than found.”

This non-essentialist and non-foundationalist conception, which reveals in my case an unabashed influence of postmodern thought on my interpretational perspective, can be found in certain passages of the Babylonian Talmud. In the treatise of Sanhedrin 96b we find the following passage:

The Sages taught in a baraita: Naaman the Aramean (see II Kings, chapter 5) was a ger toshav, meaning that he accepted upon himself to refrain from idol worship but did not convert to Judaism. Nebuzaradan was a completely righteous convert. Among the descendants of Sisera (see Judges, chapter 4) were those who studied Torah in Jerusalem. Among the descendants of Sennacherib were those who taught Torah in public. The Gemara asks: And who are they? The Gemara answers: They were Shemaya and Avtalyon. The baraita continues: Among the descendants of Haman were those who studied Torah in Bnei Brak. And even among the descendants of that wicked person, Nebuchadnezzar, were those whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to bring beneath the wings of the Divine Presence and have them convert.

In the treatise of Gittin 57b, we find a similar version. The Gemara invites us in this way to reflect on the fact that the descendants of people who were enemies of the People of Israel throughout history were as eligible as any other human being to convert to Judaism and thus to teach Torah in the Bet Midrash. With regard to Purim, we are called to see and accept the fact that the descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak. Is this just pointing to the fact that history is essentially ironic? Or can we learn something deeper from it?

Jacques Lacan taught in his lectures that human beings are born as signifiers inherently bound to their mothers by a semantic and physical umbilical cord, experiencing the signified as inherently present.

“The signifier is nothing if not inadequate: this is the meaning of the materiality of the signifier. This is what psychoanalysis, first and foremost, teaches us. And it is precisely around the question of this inadequacy (as materiality) that psychoanalysis seems always to be misunderstood and even criticized. Much of this misunderstanding, it seems, circles around the question of where this inadequacy finds itself. Is this inadequacy characterized by a certain content that is prohibited–beyond the scope of language and discourse as a social bond–or is this inadequacy itself nothing other than the most significant dimension of the signifier? This latter suggestion, at least, would support the notion of a correlation between the inadequacy and the materiality of the signifier. This inadequacy has everything to do with the way the signifier comes into “being” as creatio ex nihilo (Lacan, Book VII 115-27). Because of this “creation out of nothing,” the inadequacy that marks the signifier–what, in a sense, is excluded in it or “beyond” the signifier–does not precede its loss. The signifier comes into being only insofar as it marks the subject with a certain lack; something of an originary or primal plenitude is lost. This, according to psychoanalysis, is always imagined as the symbiotic relationship between the child and the mother. The traumatic loss of this primal experience of satisfaction, this original homeostasis, is the price the subject must pay for entry into the symbolic and the differential relations of desire. The signifier is thus characterized by an inadequacy which is registered through the subject in two ways: First, the signifier cuts the subject, leaving a gap or lack. This lack splits the subject. The subject also registers the signifier’s inadequacy insofar as it is the signifier that is inadequate to fill in or make a complete restitution for the traumatic loss the subject suffers as its split. The signifier, that is, cannot make good the loss the subject suffers, a loss inaugurated by the advent of the signifier and the entry into the symbolic.[2] This is the constitutive failure that Freud named castration. What is lost in castration is a certain guarantee that satisfaction can be attained through the signifier. One always has a failed relation to a primary experience of satisfaction. And this failure, this cut on the body, marks the birth of knowledge and its counterpart, desire. It marks the birth of the human as desiring subject. […] Like Adam and Eve, exiled from the Garden of Eden as the price paid for the realization of knowledge, we must pay the price for our entry into language. Thus, we can never return to our lost ‘presymbolic’ origin. Not because this return is prohibited, however, as it appears to be for Adam and Eve, but because it is impossible.” (Linda Belau – http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.101/11.2belau.txt)

It is following this loss of the signified as the necessary, though traumatic, acquisition of the signifier’s individuality and self-awareness, that the individual loses all claim to an inherent and essential qualification. Men and women are thus not inherently good or inherently bad, but perform in specific ways in order to fashion meaning in a meaningless space. Purim provides the contextual conditions for the individual to re-acquire the capacity to divest himself or herself of socially defined roles and expectations, and to reveal the fundamental Divine nothingness and meaninglessness of creation. This is what we are called to learn, I think, from Purim: human beings are required to choose between good actions and bad ones, and to face the good and the evil in their lives as part of the same God-made framework. To quote the Mishna in Berakhot 9:5, “A person is obligated to bless upon the bad just as he blesses upon the good. As it says, “And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and with all that you have.” (Deut. 6:5)” God is the source of good and the source of evil at once, and the blessing a person is required to say both on the good things in his life as on the evil things that happen, contributes to bring the individual to a cognitive state in which he or she will both distinguish between them and not. The sons of the sons of Haman may thus be seen to teach the people of Israel that good and evil are just two possible garments which people wear, at times with staunch conviction and dangerous foundational beliefs, in order to feel blessed with meaning and objectives. To quote Roberto Calasso in “The Repulsive Cult of Bonheur” (Common Knowledge 10:2, 2004):

“I imagine that one day, long ago, Piaget made an observation fundamental for him: the action to which adults devote themselves with deadly seriousness is for the most part a pathetic and sclerotic repertory of gestures, practiced for years. A hundred times they make coffee, go to bed with someone, mistreat someone else. With little variation and, ultimately, with little pleasure. It even happens that, in order to maintain the illusion of acting, people kill themselves. The pettiness of those who long to convince themselves of the importance of what they do stops at nothing. And fundamentally, killing is often no more difficult than lighting a match.”

Evil is banal, and good is banal – Purim thus projects the individual back into what the poet John Donne called the “mixture of things,” or the chaotic mishmash of history, and to engage it with the semantic / semiotic simplicity of the senseless sign, the meaningless name.

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