Purim is the beloved holiday of all Israel’s (Jewish) children. One of the reasons for this is that the country institutionalizes the holiday’s observance. Two days before Purim (itself a school holiday) Israeli children beginning in pre-K come to school in costume, ranging from one of the characters in the Esther story, to a current cartoon favorite, to such standbys as wonder woman, policeman, or soldier. From the age of 3, therefore, children are socialized to celebrate Purim. Adults, at least this adult, have a more difficult time with the holiday.
Traditional Orthodox rabbis valiantly try to cram all sorts of lofty meanings onto Purim, even going so far as to link Yom Kippur with it through the wordplay of Ki-Purim (like Purim). Try as they might, it’s hard not to see the holiday for what it is: a light-hearted, revelous, topsy-turvy day before the onset of preparing for Passover (whose laws are supposed to be studied 30 days before the holiday—i.e., the day after Purim!). Think of it as a Jewish Mardi Gras. It is a fun-filled day that doesn’t seem all that holy, whose customs and rituals were obviously created by human beings.
A funny thing happens if you think about Purim for too long: The teaching about Ki-Purim reverses itself—not that Purim is as serious as Yom Kippur, but that even the Day of Atonement is play. Just as for many of us the laws and customs of Purim seem clearly to be human made, you start thinking this about all of our laws and customs. Sacrilegious? No. One of the things that characterizes our humanness is our ability to play; indeed, as Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga wrote in a 1938 book called: Homo Ludens : A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, “the concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness.” And a year before that book, in a work entitled The Spirit of the Liturgy, theologian Roman Guardini, says about liturgyf—though by extension about all religious ritual–that it “unites art and reality in a supernal childhood before G-d. . . It has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. [I think it is important to mention that both of these men were critical of and thus persecuted by the Nazis, Guardini being forced in 1939 to resign from the University of Berlin, and Huizinga being held in detention by the Nazis from 1942 until his death in 1945.]
It is up to each individual to think about the divine and human elements in their religion. And whatever one concludes about the proportion of divine and human elements in Judaism need not prevent a person from living a rich, observant life. The reason for this is not necessarily because one is absolutely committed to the Jewish people (such a commitment may be as irrational as a belief in supernaturalism), but because living according to the customs and traditions of Judaism makes for a good life.
Returning now to Purim we don’t have to feel that human elements of the holiday undermine it. Many peoples and religions have masquerade-type holidays, and Purim is ours. The rabbis were right after all—at heart there is something deeply holy about the playful merrymaking of Purim. The Day of Atonement and Purim each mark different phases of the year, but the impulse of play that gave rise to each day’s traditions and customs is a holy impulse. So go ahead: Leave your misgivings aside, and have a Happy Purim!
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religous studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.