Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Shemini / Purim 2014

Parashat Shemini / Purim
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
21 March 2014

We have just celebrated Purim. As many will certainly be aware, there had actually been an attempt in the early days of Liberal Judaism to abolish Purim. In his 1899 letter in response to Liliy Montagu’s ‘preliminary questions’ as to what a Liberal Judaism may look like in the future, Claude Montefiore advocated keeping all the Festivals except Purim. As Lawrence Rigal and Rosita Rosenberg note in “Liberal Judaism: The First Hundred Years,” the non-observance of Purim had widely been adopted by Liberal communities by 1926. However, the festival proved to be resilient and made a gradual comeback so that by the time the “Affirmations of Liberal Judaism” were published in 1992, Purim was mentioned alongside Chanukkah, Yom Ha-atzma’ut and Yom Ha-sho’ah as important dates for Liberal Jews to observe.

On the one hand, what was it about Purim that it was regarded as so objectionable by the early Liberal Jews to warrant exclusion from the festival calendar? And, on the other hand, why was Purim resilient enough for it to be reinstated in later years?

My history teacher, Rabbi Professor Mark Saperstein, always warned us that it is impossible to know what motivated people to take a certain decision unless we have concrete evidence. I must admit to not having done a complete historical study about Liberal Judaism’s attitudes toward Purim and thus must caution that the following are my thoughts on why Liberal Jewish attitudes towards Purim have changed. I leave it to a historian to contradict my observations with facts should they be available.

I would suggest that there were two main reasons why early Liberal Jews rejected Purim. Firstly, the nature of the celebration of Purim was quite contrary to what Liberal Jews considered to be appropriate behaviour in religious services. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between the noisy, raucous atmosphere of the megillah reading and the ideals of decorum that Liberal Judaism rated so highly. As a matter of fact, Liberal Jews were not the first to object to the behaviour of the congregation during Purim. In fact, the first documented ban on noisemaking during the Megillah reading was decreed by the leaders of the Portuguese-Jewish Community in Amsterdam as early as 1640, who considered the custom to be more appropriate to barbarians than to civilized individuals. However, as the historian Joseph Kaplan notes, the fact that the prohibition had to be repeated three decades later and the fine increased twenty-fold shows that the resistance to banning this popular custom was great. A similar ban in 1783 even led to the so-called “Purim riots” at London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, which was started by 14 members who refused to honour the “cold decree” of the Mahamad against noisemaking during the Megillah reading. The city marshal was informed and constables appeared in the synagogue and removed the offenders. The historian James Picciotto describes in his 1875 Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History the custom that “unruly boys and silly men” would “show their reprobation of Haman’s conduct by loudly knocking against the Synagogue benches during the celebration of the service,” stating that “this absurd and irreverent usage has ever been opposed by the congregational authorities.” If this was so, it is hardly surprising that the early Liberal Jews were not keen to embrace a festival that was connected to a style of observance running contrary to their values.

Secondly, I believe that in the late 19th century there was a great sense of optimism amongst Liberal Jews about the relationship between the Jews and the wider society. Jews felt like the time had come, when they could actually be active participants in the life of the normal society. So what would have been the point to mark a festival, which focuses on the survival of the Jews from threatened genocide, celebrating Jewish victory and the slaughter of thousands of the general population? What might the non-Jewish neighbours who were now friends and work colleagues think?

But things changed: the Shoah, the murder of 6 million European Jews, proved that genocide was not a thing of the past. Unlike in the Purim story, there was no Esther or Mordechai, who saved the Jews, neither were Jews able to defend themselves. Instead our ancestors were murdered or, at best, had to flee their home countries leaving everything behind - often not just possessions but also family members. In a post-Holocaust world, Purim regained its relevance.

The change in historical reality was also accompanied, although unlikely to be linked to, a change in attitude towards decorum. While it is still expected in Liberal synagogues that congregants arrive on time and refrain from chatting during the service, the focus on absolute decorum has waned. As we are trying our best to design our services to be interesting and relevant to our congregants, we have become open again to allow for a certain amount of informality and also hilarity.

Yet, as Liberal Jews today I think we should continue to examine why and if we wish to celebrate Purim. The observance of a festival reduced to pure carnival seems to run contrary to Liberal Jewish values; yet, each year we may find reasons why we should continue to recall the Purim story. This year, we were thinking in particular of the precarious situation of our twin community in the Crimea and the welfare of our colleague Rabbi Misha Kapustin and his family. As we read the megillah, we prayed that freedom and peace will soon return to the region. We all hope that shortly we will be able to look back at this time and forget ever having associated it with the story of Purim.