Applying Jewish Wisdom – Purim edition

Cirque Du Purim; photo courtesy TC Jewfolk
Cirque Du Purim; photo courtesy TC Jewfolk

By Jon Woocher

It has long been recognized that seasonal holidays often have similarities across multiple religious traditions. It’s not a surprise that holidays that fall around the time of the winter solstice tend to emphasize light and lights as central elements in their observance. Similarly, the spring, when we are witnessing nature’s rebirth, is notable for holidays that emphasize this theme on a national and cosmic level as well – think Pesach and Easter.

One of the more interesting examples of homologous celebrations comes even earlier in the spring (or in late winter): Purim and Mardi Gras. Using the language of the anthropologist Victor Turner, these are quintessentially festivals of “anti-structure.” Anti-structural events are characterized by an overturning of accustomed social roles, often accompanied by dramatic play, and the evoking of a sense of “communitas,” an undifferentiated feeling of solidarity that stands behind and beyond the lines of differentiation that characterize normal social structure. Both Purim and Mardi Gras fit this paradigm – people dress up in costumes, play roles they do not normally occupy, and participate in a general revelry that either collapses or reverses social distinctions. We may speculate on why these celebrations come when they do in the calendar – perhaps it is the sense of winter drawing to an end and a readiness to “let it all hang out” – but, according to Turner, these anti-structural festivals play an important role in cementing group bonds and establishing a moral universe in which hierarchies do not go unquestioned.

The anti-structural character of Purim is evident in the story itself, with its dramatic reversals of fortune.[1] Who would have thought that orphan Esther would become a queen and that the outsider Mordechai would best powerful Haman, allowing the Jews to turn a day that was to have been their demise into one of triumph over their enemies? Even more telling, perhaps, are the four mitzvot that are the centerpieces of Purim’s observance. First, there is the reading of the megillah itself. We need to hear the story each year, to be reminded that fate takes strange twists and turns and that we’re all in this together. Next there is mishloach manot, the exchange of gifts, both a symbol and an enactment of communitas, establishing a web of reciprocal generosity. Third is matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, the insistence that even those apparently at the bottom of the social structure not be left out of the collective celebration. And finally, the se’udah, the festive meal where, perhaps, we drink to the point where we literally cannot distinguish the “good” from the “evil.” To these mitzvoth, custom has added still other subversive elements – the Purim spiel, games and carnivals, men dressing up as women and vice versa, noisemakers and a general atmosphere of levity that threatens to undermine at every turn the seriousness of the holiday.

And what does any of this have to do with the business of Jewish philanthropy? At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we’ve not only thought about the wisdom found in Purim stories and practices, we’ve carefully considered how we might apply that wisdom to our work.

The first lesson, one that every foundation and funder needs to recall periodically, is not to take ourselves too seriously and our good fortune for granted. Working for social change, making grants and undertaking programs that aim to help people live better lives and shape a better world, is serious business. And funders certainly enjoy a privileged position in our community and society. But, it’s easy to translate these into an undue sense of self-importance. Perhaps Purim can serve as a useful antidote to that tendency, reminding us that what is could easily be otherwise and that differences in wealth and status are secondary to what we all share in common.

Second, periodic disruption of the status quo is good. It’s too easy to confuse the way things are with the way they ought to or must be. Taking a turn as king, or heroine, or villain may give us a different perspective on who we are and on the world. At Lippman Kanfer, we like those who challenge assumptions and the taken for granted order of things. We especially like them if they are motivated by a vision of a better order, one where reciprocity and generosity reign. We want to encourage and support these kinds of people and organizations, and connect them to one another.

Finally, the message of Purim (and of many other anti-structural celebrations) is that life is meant to be enjoyed. Joy is not constant, nor does it come without trials and tribulations, but simcha – joy – is not only pleasurable, it is generative. It inspires us to be expansive, to share, to create more joy. Joy is contagious. For us at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, ensuring that an individual’s Jewish experience includes a healthy measure of simcha is a goal that permeates our work. To be sure, simcha is not the only Jewish sensibility we wish to see cultivated. But, at a time when too many people’s experience of Jewishness is one of boredom or burden, making that experience more joyful can open the door to a richer engagement with Judaism’s many dimensions.

Mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha” – When Adar begins, joy increases. So, be a little anti-structural and subversive this year. Challenge hierarchies and frozen structures. Feel the power of communitas. And, above all, enjoy.

[1] Honesty compels me to note that the Purim story is not without its problematic elements from an anti-structural perspective, particularly in the glee with which it records the slaughter of the Jews’ enemies. Communitas does not extend to those descendants of Amalek. But, that’s for another discussion.

Jonathan Woocher is President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, which works to help Jews and others engage with apply Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to live better lives and shape a better world.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah newsletter. Click HERE to subscribe to that monthly email publication.