No Yeshiva Deferments in the Purim Story

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Ultra-Orthodox protesters rally against the military draft bill, Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The funhouse sideshow of Haredi 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-Haredi affair - a group that refuses to confront the central teachings of the Purim megillah itself.

In truth, the Haredi 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 Haredi 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. Yes, while our people have gotten to “the highest level of government” (in the Diaspora as well), it’s still not enough. Jews need to defend themselves.

The Purim story 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 that “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 Mordechai.

None of those easy way outs 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 Haredi funhouse can render their own prayerful contributions as exceptionally large and that of the IDF 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 Haredi society regarding anyone else. Could you imagine the impact of a Haredi women’s auxillary 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 works, pays taxes, and tries to keep an increasingly impossible welfare burden of Haredim on their shaky feet, just so they can point to their own self-serving “free loan societies” as something else than the confession of a pathetic self-imposed poverty. Poverty with a lack of generosity towards 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 baalei hessed v’tzedek (doers of lovingkindness 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. This is the simple literacy test – if you can understand a core Jewish text’s meaning for moral action. Every Jewish high school child in a non-Haredi household in Israel receiving his/her tzav giyus [draft notice], knows that they must take up the burden and defend Jews, that they 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.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. The views expressed here are his own.  

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