March 1, 2007
The Heart of Jewish Joy
Megillat Esther (Esther 8:16)
Not that there's anything really wrong with our current High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are compelling days of personal introspection, reflection and evaluation. But after withstanding a century of pogroms, mass dislocation and Holocaust, claiming a tiny sliver of a homeland only to attract the rage of a billion Muslims and the resentment of the rest of the world, we've earned a holy day of unconditional joy.
If Jews the world over, including the most alienated and unidentified, are going to find their way to synagogue just once a year, let it be a day we hand them a mask and a grogger and share the jubilant story of a courageous Jewish princess and her triumph over evil. Let it be a holiday celebrating the victory of life over death. Let it be a day of unmitigated Jewish joy. We've earned it.
And we need it. The long career of Jewish suffering has twisted the Jewish soul.
I taught Hebrew school years ago, and one Sunday morning I overheard a conversation between a father and his child.
"Dad, I hate Hebrew school," the kid said. "It's boring, it's stupid, the teachers are mean, the kids aren't nice. I hate it and I don't want to go any more."
The father pushed his child up against the wall and said to him: "Look, kid, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren't nice, but they made me go. And now you're going to go to Hebrew school just like I did."
What a tragedy, what a catastrophe to raise generations who know only a twisted Judaism, a Judaism of coercion, boredom and emptiness. My grandfather would read the Yiddish papers and mutter, "Shver tzu zeiner Yid" (It's hard to be a Jew). For my grandfather, being a Jew was an unquestioned destiny, but the world made it so difficult, so painful.
In our time, we've twisted this around. It's no longer a description.
It's become prescriptive: "Shver Tzu Zeiner Yid."
We've come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.
A friend -- a truly beautiful soul -- converted to Judaism. She came back to see me in deep sadness. Her Christian friends and co-workers congratulated her on her new faith. They bought her gifts to celebrate. Her Jewish friends were openly derisive: Why on earth would you want to be Jewish? What's wrong with you?
The greatest book on American Judaism is Mordecai Menahem Kaplan's classic, "Judaism as a Civilization." The first line of that book reads: "Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden."
To heal the twisted soul of the Jewish people we need unequivocal expression of Jewish joy. So let's make Purim our High Holiday. Purim is a deceptively simple holiday. Its merriment masks a complex set of issues: the power politics of Diaspora, the multiple identities engendered by assimilation, the single-mindedness of evil, the conflicted conscience of the righteous. It is a story of secrets, hidden truths and concealed realities. And somehow we sense the Presence of God in the story's shadows. But it ends in a flash of light, of truth and of celebration. It is thus a remarkable treatise on the nature of Jewish joy.
Jewish joy is not escapist or delusional. Who knows the world's darkness and brokenness better than we do? But standing before light and darkness, blessing and curse, life and death, we choose life. It may be the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to fulfill. But we choose life. That is the heart of Jewish joy.
"The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor" (Esther 8:16). And so may it be for us.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.