Tonight begins the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim commemorating a historical incident of little relevance to the present day, involving a plot to exterminate the Jewish people. It is one of those holidays, that like most Jewish holidays, is inconvenient for liberal clergy because it involves violence and nationalism.
Some accuse Jews of being obsessed with the Holocaust. It would be more
accurate to accuse of us being obsessed with Egyptian slavery, the
Amalekite raids, the Philistines persecutions, the Babylonian holocaust,
the Syrian-Greek repressions, the Roman holocausts and on and on for
more pages of history than most would care to hear until we reach the
The more liberal a Jew is, the less likely he is to celebrate the
substance of his people's holidays as they conflict with his worldview
and virtues. Moshe, the Maccabees and Mordechai don't seem like role
models, not even if you rebrand them as community organizers and claim
that they were fighting prejudice. There is something relentlessly
bloody-minded about them. They walk through the corpses
of their enemies with no regrets or apologetic winces. They don't seem to
want to make the world a better place, all they really do is stand up
for their own people in a regrettable show of tribalism that perpetuates
the cycle of violence.
Take Purim which began when a narrow-minded fanatic refused to bow to
the Grand Vizier of a multicultural empire. Jewish leaders hurriedly reassured him that this fanatic was in no way representative of their
values of tolerance and appeasement. Hadn't they attended the feast
where the sacred vessels of their own people were used to serve wine and
spirits to the mob? Rather than anticipating the return to their land
at the end of the prophesied 70 year period of exile, they had cheered
the brutish tyrant and made Sushan, his capital, into their new holy
A handful of fools may have gone back to their land, which the empire
had in the intervening period, repopulated with other peoples. Those
peoples had managed to convince the king to deny them permission to set
up any more settlements and rebuild the temple. One of those Zionist
leaders, a descendant of two families of kings, Mordechai, who could
trace his descent to King Saul and to the House of David, was still busy
working on behalf of the return from exile. And he refused to humble
himself before the ancient enemy of his people.
Perhaps in ancient times some deity had liberated them from Egypt, but
here in the modern present, it was the fall of the Babylonian Empire
which had raised them up out of slavery and given them a place among the
subject peoples of a new empire. In that exodus their people had been
massacred by the ancestors of the Grand Vizier and the ancestor king of
that Mordechai fellow had massacred the Vizier's people, for which they
were naturally very sorry, but it was all water under the bridge now.
This was a new era.
Except it wasn't a new era at all. It still isn't. The illusion of
history is that every age brings with it the end of history, a new age
whose awesome achievements break with the past and usher in a boundless
future. And then the walls come crashing down and the new era of history
ends up buried under the rubble of time.
And so the Jewish people, loosely break down into Jews and New Age Jews.
The Jews wandered on their meandering course through history using
ancient maps and concerning themselves with a past that modern people
dismissed as myth and legend, more ancient than that story about Troy,
and even more dubious.
The New Age Jews saw the coming of a new era of history, a bright and
shining plateau that made all those old moldy beliefs completely
irrelevant. History had ended and now a new age had begun. The age of
Alexandria, the age of Sushan, the age of Berlin. How, in such a new
age, could they be expected to take a few bygone fairy tales retold by
barbarians seriously? Such things weren't for enlightened people who
were witnessing the end of history.
History never ends. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, of Purim and of
countless other horrifying intrusions of the old into the new. The
shining new era that begins with grand public spectacles and displays of
the power and might of an empire, ends with corpses and men and women
fighting and running for their lives.
The old Jews know what the New Age Jews do not, that history has not
ended, that the past is still with us and that it has sharp teeth. They
know that Man has not changed, that his sophistication is still only a
shell and that sooner or later the shell cracks. If it does not crack
from within, then it is cracked from without. While the New Age Jews
sneer at the Holocaust obsession, Jews know that the past in all its
awful terrors is a map and that forgetting it carries a terrible price.
Those who feel time in their bones know the patterns of history, reading
ages like constellations, can never lose themselves in one age or fall
into the fallacy of a new era. They know that there is nothing new under
the sun. Machines may come and go, but the world is a broken place
because the hearts of men have not turned from their ways. And so they
remember that every age carries within it the seeds of its ruin. They
witness the ruin, climb out of the ashes and move on.
Liberal pieties embrace the new age, fixate on a final transformative
era of history at the hands of messiahs who promise hope and change, who
will uplift us and inspire us to make the world into a better place.
Clergy who preach the cant of Tikkun Olam, whose climactic religious
holiday of the year is Martin Luther King Day and who like Caliph Omar
on witnessing the Library of Alexandria proclaim that if the bible
contains liberal dogma then it is redundant and if it does not, it is
heretical, cannot meaningfully cope with that history. Their religion
has no room in it for all these chambers of history or for the
bloody-minded men who stride through it, without saving the whales.
Purim, a holiday preceded by a fast kept by the men going into battle
and their loved ones, is not about forgiving your enemies, progressive
taxation or coming out of the closet. It is about survival. Not mere
survival, but the skin of the teeth sense of how close we came, that
moment of revelation which pulls back the curtains of the material world
and reminds us of the impossibility of our survival under all the
ordinary rules of the world that new ages are found on. It reminds us
that behind the scenes of the brick and mortar, steel and steam world,
is something else entirely. A force that breaks apart the towers of
history, that saves us when we should have died, that has entrusted us
with a mission. It reminds us of what the world is and reminds us of
Itself and of what we are.
you stand on the edge of death, life is a revelation. It is not our
deaths under the Egyptian sun, the blades and bullets of a thousand
empires and kingdoms, or the ovens of Dachau that we are obsessed with.
It is that moment of survival. The revelation that even amid the horrors
of all that we have witnessed and the terrible things that we had to do
to survive, we have risen out of the ground, watched the flesh cover
our bones and stood alive again upon the earth. Every time we survive,
we are reminded of the fragility of the world and of our enemies who
wielding every power and trick, have failed to destroy us. Each time we
rise, we transcend the world, in confronting our dead, we confront our
It is not a purely joyous experience. The day of Purim is preceded by a
day of fasting. Before the celebration comes a day of battle as the
struggle to survive, the long decline into the abyss, the final
desperate hours, suddenly give way to the upheaval of an impossible
salvation. We remember the pain, the sense of the grave closing over us,
the bodies lying everywhere, the certainty that we will be next. We
accept the hopelessness of our situation and then we walk out of the
grave and praising G-d, sit down to the feast.
This is Jewish history. It is an alien one to the New Age Jew who clings
tightly to the new era and its rules, to its pieties and its mores, who
scowls at the old ones for refusing to come and join the imperial
festivities where the vessels of the temple are used to serve drinks and
the mob toasts that the 70 years have come and gone, and still there is
no chance of the Jews returning to their Jerusalem and reclaiming the
lost history. "The past is the past," says the New Age Jew. "The past is
the present is the future," says the Jew.
The feast of the New Age is the celebration of the end of history, a
golden time when there is an unlimited bounty for all, where the wine
and the free health care will never run out, where everyone will live
together under one government in perfect brotherhood for all time. Many
Jews are drawn to this feast, its golden vessels, its vast bounty and
its glorious ideals. But then enters the Grand Vizier and some of them
begin to frown for though he wears rich garments and speaks soothing
words, he is a monster. They don't always know how they know it, but it
is a nagging feeling that creeps into them that there is something
rotten at the heart of this new age.
Most of them still bow to him, touching their heads to the floor, some
even embrace him and celebrate his vision. They assure others that he is
our friend, the only man who can realize the promise of this age, a
wise and noble leader whose vision of change brings new hope. But one or
two stay away from the feast and refuse to bow to him. Instead they
look to Jerusalem, to where the battle between good and evil was once
fought, and where it will be fought again. They know him for what he is.
The Grand Vizier knows that he must destroy them, must destroy them all,
because they have seen through what he is, and they have seen through
the shallow trappings of the golden age of fools. They know that there
is more to the world than the might of men and the cornucopias of kings.
They know that he is not all-powerful and when he looks at them, a
scowl wrinkles his face, because he knows it too.
he casts a lot, random chance in a random world where chance is supreme
and the whim of every ruler outweighs the weight of history. The bills
are signed, the laws are passed, the decrees go out, the officers from
the vast imperial bureaucracy are assigned to inform every citizen that
their new age will be inaugurated with blood. A people who are not a
proper part of the multicultural empire of laws must be wiped out in a
properly democratic fashion. Crowd-sourced genocide.
And then the Grand Vizier ends up dangling from a rope, the tanks break
through to Berlin, the chariots fall into the sea, the mustachioed
dictator dies in a bedroom in Moscow his clothes soaked in his own
urine-- and everything has gone completely wrong.
It's an old story and a new story. We tell it over and over again
because it is always happening. It is our story and the story of the
world. It is the story we have accepted from our parents and it is the
story that we will pass on to our children. It is the story of the blood
sacrifice of the New Age that goes wrong. The sacrifice survives,
bloodied and scarred, the New Age goes down to ruin.
Once again we are the sacrifice to be slaughtered on the altar of the
Arab Spring, of peace with the Muslim world, of a global age of global
government for which only a few million people need to die. The knife is
sharpened, the Grand Vizier and his aides smile, and the time is almost
here. But it is not here yet. Now we sit down to hear the Megillah and
remember how the story always ends.