On Ambiguity: Purim

Too many people fear ambiguity. One reason why Megillat Esther, the Purim story, has remained so popular down the ages is because such clear lines are drawn. We know who are the good guys and who the bad–Esther and Mordechai, obviously, are the heroes, while Haman has, from that time forward, personified total evil.

Deeper study, however, rescues us from such oversimplification, albeit at the expense of emotional certainty. The Gemara, in various places (Sanhedrin 74b, Megilla various pages), struggles to explain and justify Esther’s marriage to Achashverosh, obviously a non-Jew, as well as the possibility of adultery if she was, as many traditions maintain, already married to Mordechai. Our sages (Megilla 13b) also reassure us that Esther, in spite of being part of Achashverosh’s harem, maintained the laws of niddah, family/sexual purity. It’s important to our tradition to highlight Esther’s heroic status in light of these issues (of course, we also go to great lengths to justify all of this on the basis of halachic principles, especially self-preservation and also her fore-knowledge of the ultimate purpose (rescuing the entire Jewish people) of her ordeal).

A little more digging and we also find that it’s just as hard to maintain Haman’s status as totally evil, without a single redeeming trait. The Gemara (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b) informs us that a descendent of Haman’s  learned Torah in Bnei Brak. Another argument can be made, based on Megilla 15a, that Haman, himself, was a Jew! Without minimizing Haman’s evil, we see that even in his case things are a little more complex than a comfortable black-and-white.

Although these teachings are interesting, I’m really not here to relate obscure facts about Purim with which you can amaze your friends in shul. Rather, I want to talk about the perils of expecting/demanding certainty and relying on literal readings of Torah, both Written and Oral.

Until fairly modern times, it was axiomatic for us that the Oral Tradition, Torah She’Ba’al Peh, was exactly equal to the Written Torah in terms of authority and authenticity, both given to Moshe at Sinai. While the main difference between Judaism and the nascent Christianity was their rejection of Oral Torah, i.e. the tradition of their hated foes, the  Pharisees (Parushim = those who explain), we have always fully relied on these explanations to inform us how to perform the mitzvot mentioned (often only in broad hints) in the Written Torah. Relying literally on “scripture”, how would have ever known how to make tefillin, mentioned only as “signs” on our hands and “reminders” or “totefot” between our eyes? Without the explanations of our Oral Tradition, we would have been mired in a primitive system of savage “justice”, amputating hands and putting out eyes. It was always obvious to us that without the enlightenment of Torah She’Ba’al Peh the Torah is an unlivable document.

Even the Torah She’Ba’al Peh, however, as a living and evolving tradition, was never meant to be frozen and understood literally on the basis of old printed words. It’s well-established, even admitted (Chulin 90b), that Chazal spoke in lashon havai or guzma, hyperbole, as does the Written Torah. Although not a free-for-all, both Talmud, and Halacha, were always taught/revealed/evolved as proposed solutions for specific times and places to the continuing challenge (and perhaps this is the only constant) of ever increasing our closeness (devekut) to The Creator, utilizing the path He gives us–fulfilling mitzvot. In other words, while the mitzvah itself doesn’t change, our method to fulfill it always needs to be effective throughout time. The last thing we want to do is to take every word of Torah She’Ba’al Peh literally. Just as real-life situations we find ourselves in are filled with ambiguity, so must be our instructions to successfully navigate them in line with halacha.

Over time, halacha has always evolved. If that weren’t the case, I’d probably own less than one-tenth of the books currently in my library–they would never have been written. We’d still be paralyzed, if we survived at all, with our inability to offer animal sacrifices in the ruins of the Bet HaMikdash. The Talmud, rather than the living tradition it has been for two millennia, would merely be of historical interest to a small number of academics rather than the dynamic core that both teaches and inspires to this day.

Of course, it’s vital to “get it right” as best each generation can. That produces a realistic hesitancy and deliberateness to precipitous change–we have too much to lose, entire paths towards The Creator, if we take the wrong steps. But it’s just as vital that we don’t lose our effective approaches because of inattentively ignoring today’s reality. Pretending that it’s still 1816 Krakow is no more conducive to reaching our goals than is seeing ourselves as merely one of many 21st century vendors of competing cultures or spiritual trips, with an eye only to our “sales numbers”. Both stultifying fundamentalist literalism as well as deconstructionist personal narrative theory have no value beyond, perhaps, presenting us parallel alternatives to reject.

We’re too wise, creative and, at the core, dedicated to an Infinite God, too close to fulfilling our goals to turn, at this late date, into ignorant literalists.

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7 Responses to On Ambiguity: Purim

  1. Rebecca Gmail says:

    Really nice, Harry,

    Thank you. >

  2. Nathan Lopes Cardozo says:

    Gut Purim!!!!, Nathan

  3. I’m in the midst of an ongoing debate with two “frum” friends on this issue of “literalism” in Torah She’Ba’al Peh. Your post has clarified a lot of my thinking–thanks! Chag Purim sameach..

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8:

    If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely-revealed, then he or she is a heretic [apikuris].

    In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law* (see NOTE below) [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].

    In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.

    Since Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Torah is Divinely-revealed, why should they accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?

    Since Orthodox Jews accept the authority of Judaism’s Oral Laws, why should anyone expect them to accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the authority of Judaism’s Oral Laws?

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Rambam was born in 1134 CE in Córdoba, Spain and died in 1204 CE in Egypt.

    * NOTE: The Oral Law can be found in:
    The Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, the Tosefta, and ancient midrashim like: Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Mechilta, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Midrash Tanchuma, etc, etc.
    ____________________________________________________
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    Thank you!

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    • Without a doubt, conversion is valid only when it includes complete belief in Hashem and a commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.
      As much as I can, I try to avoid denominations. I wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, chas v’shalom, saying that both Written and Oral Torah are not from Hashem! Nonetheless, Chazal themselves tell us how to read their words. Also, look at Malbim on Bereishit. We can’t make an avoda zara of a mythical past because that takes our eyes off the ultimate goal of Mashiach and Geula, bimheyra b’yameinu.
      Chag Purim Sameach, my friend.

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