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Have you ever noticed that we eat bland Matzah at the Seder table?
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Home » Life Is Beautiful, Purim

Purim: Jewish Identity

Submitted by on March 16, 2019 – 10:41 pmNo Comment | 136 views

Can we deny our Jewish identity? This question was a subject of debate among Jews since the advent of the Jewish enlightenment. Reeling under the burden of antisemitism, many Jews concluded that if they were to conform in dress and behavior to the wider population, they would blend in and be accepted.

Thus, began a campaign to teach Jews to hide their Judaism. “Be a Jew at home, and a man on the street,” wrote Judah Leib Gordon, a leading figure of the enlightenment movement. If you want to observe Passover and Shabbat, do it at home. On the street, went the argument, remove your kippah, present yourself as a non-Jew, and blend in. In other words, compromise on Judaism for the sake of Jews.

The counter argument was that without Judaism, there can be no Jews. It would take a generation or two for our children to grow up either ignorant of Judaism or objecting to a religion that is obviously not important to their parents. If it is observed at home and jettisoned on the street, it is inauthentic, and children don’t take to inauthenticity. Indeed, history has shown that those who began with a split Judaism, progressed over time to total secularism and their children abandoned Judaism altogether.

Purim

Haman seemed to have a similar problem with the Jews. He complained to Ahasuerus, king of Persia, that “Jews were scattered among the nations, yet their rules were different from all other nations.”[1] Haman claimed to dislike the Jews because they were different. If they were to live in their own country, Haman would have no objection to their unique rules. But since they were living among Persians, Haman argued that they should assimilate and become Persian, rather than cling to their culture and etiquette.

When Haman made the claim that Jews deserve to be annihilated on account of their differences, Jews responded by digging in. They didn’t try to blend in with Persian culture nor did they try to hide their identity. Mordechai gathered twenty-two-thousand Jewish children and taught them Torah in the squares of Shushan. When Haman passed by and everyone prostrated themselves, Mordechai stood tall and refused to bow down.

Were they right?

The answer is that Jews could have twisted themselves into a pretzel and Haman would still have hated them. He would just have concocted a new argument to justify his hatred. History has shown that attempts to appease antisemites, never succeed. Antisemites simply find another reason to hate us. In nineteenth century Europe, Jews were hated for being communists, fascists, capitalists, and Zionists. You can’t be all those at once, but that didn’t stop antisemites from making such claims.

The Debate

The Torah is not a history book, it is an instructional book. The Torah doesn’t tell us about Haman’s complaint and the Jewish response to teach us history, but so that we could learn from history. The Talmud tells us that Esther sent word to the sages asking that the story of Purim be recorded for posterity. The sages hesitated because they didn’t want to provoke the ire of the nations. Esther responded that the nations already recorded the story in their history books.[2]

Esther wanted the story of Purim to be recorded for posterity so we could learn how to respond to antisemitism. Don’t cower and submit. Stand up for who you are. The sages worried that recording this story and making a holiday out of it might provoke the antisemites. This is the argument that perhaps it is best to slide under the radar and not draw undue attention to ourselves. To which Esther replied, we can’t slide under this radar. The antisemites have us in their crosshairs. They have already recorded this story. The only question is how to respond?[3]

Learning from Purim

In the modern day, when Jews mingle with non-Jews, we, as a minority, naturally hesitate to stand out. There is a natural inclination to conceal our differences and blend in. If friends speak up against Israel, there is a tendency to keep quiet and avoid making a scene. If everyone is making plans to go to a ballgame on Yom Kippur, there is an inclination to contrive a lame excuse rather than openly declare that we are Jewish and don’t attend ballgames on Yom Kippur.

But this is the wrong approach. If Jews risked their lives in Shushan to proclaim their Judaism with, we can do the same when all we need to stand up to is social pressure. Moreover, in the long run, the social pressure only increases if we conceal our identity. People only respect those who respect themselves. If we don’t respect our Judaism enough to stand up for it, we can’t expect others to respect us.

Furthermore, when our non-Jewish friends discover that we lied to them and didn’t reveal our identity, they will learn not to trust us. How can they trust us to be honest, if we had lied to them all along? It gets even worse, they quickly realize that we didn’t only lie to them, we also lied to ourselves. How can they trust us not to lie to them if we lied to ourselves?

My Jewish Identity

For these reasons alone, it is important to stand up for our identity and not lie to ourselves and others. But beyond all these external reasons, there is a crucial internal reason.

Behaving like a Jew at home and a non-Jew on the street leads to an internal schism. Herman Wouk wrote a novel called Inside Outside in which he described the experience of a Jewish high-school boy who led a double life. At home he led a fully Jewish life and at school he passed himself off as more gentile than the gentiles. The result was a terrible internal conflict that left him no peace.

Judaism is not a garment that we can pull on and off at will. Judaism is our identity. We can cover up our Jewish soul and pretend it doesn’t exist, but we can’t erase it. If we conceal our Judaism, we are constantly pulled in opposite directions. Our souls pull us toward Judaism and make us feel guilty for denying our truth, while our minds drive us to deny our Judaism with the argument that it is for the best.

Being pulled in opposite directions erodes the spirit and results in confusion. It burdens every area of life with stress and pressure because it robs us of integrity and internal consistency. Human beings are happiest when they are internally and externally consistent. When there is a schism between our identity and our behavior, we live a tortured existence.

On the other hand, if we stand up as Mordechai did and openly proclaim the truth of our identity, if we are not ashamed to walk in the street with our Kippah and Talit,[4] others will respect us for it. There might be occasional barbs from uncouth degenerates, but they are society’s lowest denominator. We don’t take our cues from society’s lowest denominator.

The vast majority of society will accept us the moment we decide to accept ourselves.[5]

[1] Book of Esther, chapter three.

[2]Megilah 7a.

[3] Toras Menachem 5725:3, pp. 43-46.

[4] Not to provoke others G-d forbid, but to be true to ourselves.

[5] Toras Menachem 5752:2, pp. 948-958.

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