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Jewish Journal

Purim story: No Yeshiva Deferments

by Rabbi Daniel Landes

March 19, 2014 | 3:50 pm

Orthodox Jews protest in the southern city of Ashdod on March 19. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Orthodox Jews protest in the southern city of Ashdod on March 19. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The funhouse sideshow of Charedi life in Israel and in the New York area bursts forth every Purim, as the ultra-Orthodox transform themselves into fez-wearing Turks, medieval noblemen and so on.

We enjoy the easing of cultural barriers in the humor and evincing of a shared humanity. But this year’s twin pre-Purim Sunday anti-draft demonstrations, one blocking Jerusalem’s main entry point and the other on Wall Street, illustrated that the divide within the Jewish people is in earnest. The Purim parody is an all-Charedi affair — a group that refuses to confront the central teachings of the Purim megillah itself.

In truth, the Charedi rallies have taken up the power of prayer, whose efficacy the megillah offers to an endangered population. At Esther’s command, Jews fast and wail to fight the evil decree against them. They use their spiritual powers as their first response, one that is necessary, albeit not sufficient.

However, the public prayers of the last few weeks are themselves problematic in their self-serving focus: This is the opposite of true prayer, which at some point is also for the other. The evidence is clear from the total Charedi rejection of prayer for Israel’s soldiers, or for the police ensuring their safety, that we simply are not within their prayer circle of concern. They care less than we think.

Beyond prayer, the Purim story instructs us that, to make salvation possible, Jews must defend themselves. It has no exemptions. There are no yeshiva deferments. There are no deferments for women, for anyone. God’s very name, the God who hovers over every word in this scroll, is not present so that no one can think “The Name [HaShem, or God] will take care of things.” Or that some secular or less religious group will bear the entire burden. No beit din (religious court) forms to forbid the fight; no prayer demonstrations condemn the “real culprits” to be those assimilationists, the intermarried Esther and the goy-posturing Mordecai.

None of those easy ways out are countenanced. The Jews need to engage the enemy everywhere in those 127 satraps, even boarding ships in the middle of the night to find ancient missiles meant to annihilate us. But all Jews in this biblical story were evidently thrilled to bear the burden.

The special mirrors in the Charedi funhouse can render their own prayerful contributions as exceptionally large and that of the Israel Defense Forces as tiny. It must be entertaining for a moment to entertain such unusual and exalted visions. But when you teach that as reality, you doom a complete section of society to delusional thinking, which guarantees apathy, anger and the social ills that ignorance and poverty bestow.

The Purim megillah further teaches us a practical teleology of all things Jewish at the end of the story. We send gifts of food in order to increase social solidarity, an unknown value in Charedi society regarding anyone else. Could you imagine the impact of a Charedi women’s auxiliary sending Shabbat cakes or kugels (one of those gigantic wheels) up to soldiers on the borders, or doing something or anything for someone else? In these two anti-draft demonstrations, the only baked goods were a Purim pie in the face to anyone not wearing the official black and white.

The megillah tells us to share matanot l’aniyim (monetary gifts for the poor), not to sign up and join the class of alms recipients. That position has been the rejected one in Jewish tradition.

Today, the greatest givers of tzedakah are the population who work, pay taxes and try to keep an increasingly impossible welfare burden of Charedim on their shaky feet, just so they can point to their own self-serving “free loan societies” as something other than the confession of a pathetic self-imposed poverty. Poverty with a lack of generosity toward even fellow Jews and the capacity to follow through on any meaningful parnasah, or income from work — how can they ever be within the category of ba’alei chesed v’tzedek (doers of loving-kindness and justice) to our wider (including non-Jewish) population, a condition of positive, life-enhancing kiddush HaShem? The energy expended now is in squelching reports of their own who are recognizing what really took place — a battle between rival rabbinic factions.

Finally, we are bidden to record and to read this Purim story. Every Jewish high-school child in a non-Charedi household in Israel receiving his or her tzav giyus (draft notice), knows that they must take up the burden and defend Jews,  must create a society that has concern and active care for others. Even the most immature, callow youth has a sense of this. But the “giants” of Torah teach the opposite. And they call what they teach Torah learning. Its proper name is Purim Torah.

This article is reprinted with permission from Haaretz.


Rabbi Daniel Landes is director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He was a founding faculty member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and of Jewish Law at Loyola Law School, and served in the renewal of B’nai David-Judea Congregation of Los Angeles. 

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