As some of you know, Purim is a very fun holiday involving colorful costumes and obnoxious noisemakers. Saturday night, I was a little busy playing a concert with Big Galut(e) and the Catskill Symphony, so I didn't get to dress up as anything but a fancier version of myself; and sadly, none of the no-doubt numerous obnoxious noises I made had anything to do with mocking the villain Haman, or celebrating Esther and Mordecai's deliverance of the Jews from his perfidy.
However, I did enjoy a great pre-Purim activity a few days earlier: I ate some truly exemplary poppyseed hamantaschen from Bell's Market, an amazing Russian grocery store in the Philly suburbs northeast Philadelphia. Bell's' hamantaschen were better than the ones pictured below, because the dough part was really thin and a little crunchy. I am ultra-Orthodox about hamantaschen thinness. Frankly, I don't understand why anyone would make that disgustingly thick and crumbly kind of hamantaschen that you see everywhere (that is, everywhere that you see hamantaschen.) Just because Haman was distasteful doesn't mean his namesakes need to be, too.
Also, I'd like to point out that people whose favorite filling is something other than poppyseed are quite simply wrong. I'm all for open-mindedness … but only on less important subjects than this one.
Anyway … that was my pre-Purim activity. Other people, in other places, saw fit to engage in other kinds of activities. An editorial by Rabbi Daniel Landes in Haaretz talks about this:
"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 …"
The background to this is that, in Israel, an end to military draft exemptions for the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, is in the pipeline. (These exemptions, which apply especially to yeshiva students, have existed one way or another as long as the state has.) The whole issue is highly controversial and touches on many sub-issues that I have neither the knowledge nor the space to get into here. But I'll mention two of them. There is a belief on the part of some Haredim that their prayers and study, which they believe will hasten the coming of the Messiah (among other benefits), are of far greater value to the community than the contributions of soldiers, or of any other assimilated Jews. And there is a belief on the part of some other Israelis that the Haredim are, more or less, parasitic sponges, who live on welfare paid for by other people's taxes while looking down on everyone else. As the editorial goes on to say:
"The Purim story has no exemptions. There are no yeshiva deferments. There are no deferments for women, for anyone. ... 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 … 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 … 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 …"
This isn't really a current events sort of a blog. But it strikes me that this is a very old argument, or at least, that it's related to old, nineteenth-century arguments over how Jews should interact with modernity, what role a life of study should play, and how a life of study should be supported, in financial terms. Since these are subjects I've already touched on a couple of times here, in a Part Two of this post, I'd like to get deeper into them. Maybe looking at the past will even shed some light on the present.