A New Stage of Revelation
Purim, with its reluctant heroine and moral ambiguity, is the perfect holiday for the post-Holocaust world
The holiday of Purim represents a great step forward in the history of revelation and in the sophistication of Jewish religious understanding. Unlike the earlier traditions of Exodus, where the redemption from Egypt was accompanied by phenomena of a miraculous nature, and unlike the later victory of Hanukkah, which had at least one extraordinary sign attached to it (the oil that burned for eight days), Purim appears to be a purely natural, human-made phenomenon. It was achieved by court intrigue and bedroom machinations. In the plain sense of the text, its heroine is presented not as a God-intoxicated superhuman "saint" but as "the girl next door," frightened, lonely, using feminine wiles, an "ordinary" person.
Like all achievements in the real world, Purim was an admixture of moral ideal and moral compromise, which upsets perfectionists and religious purists. Fundamentalists objected that the holiday was not given in the Torah. It lacked the overtly supernatural; it was flawed by evil and human frailty and its victory was achieved by morally ambiguous methods. It would have been easy to dismiss Purim as secular, as not sanctioned by God, or to explain it away as an accident. This is expressed in the absence of God's name in the scroll.
However, by their acceptance of the Purim holiday, the people and ultimately the rabbis showed their grasp of the way to understand how god acts in history in the post-prophetic age. They realized that God operated not as the force crashing history from outside but in the center of life as the One who is present in the "natural" and in the redemptive process in which the human is co-partner.
In the tractate of Shabbat (88A) the Talmud tells a story that captures that transformation in the character of redemption and of covenant. The Talmud says that when the Israelites came out of Egypt to Sinai, God held the mountain over their heads and said: Accept my Torah or I will bury you right here. To which a scholar, Rabba, comments: Then we can pleas "Acceptance under duress" (as extenuating circumstances if we fail to live up to the covenant). Not so, responds the Talmud, in the Book of Esther, for it states that "The Jews accepted and upheld [the Purim holiday]," (Esther 9:27). This means that the Jews, by freely accepting Purim, upheld (re-instituted) the original covenant acceptance of Sinai.
In hindsight, the rabbis perceived the Exodus model of Revelation as "flawed" in that the humans were over-awed, "coerced" into accepting God's revelation and commandments. On Purim, however, the mature Jewish people, rejecting the need for audio-visual fireworks, discerned God's presence in their history. This understanding enabled them to encounter God in the reality of natural, or partially redeemed, history. They concluded that, after all, in Shushan, flawed human beings had been the carriers of divine redemption. The lesson may be generalized: moral ambiguity dilutes by does not negate the triumph of good.