Purim reflects the paradox of Judaism

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Imagine a Jewish woman who has intermarried becoming a Jewish heroine. Her uncle even tells her at the beginning of the adventure not to reveal her identity.

Then imagine naming a book in the Bible after her. The name of God is not mentioned in the Book (Scroll) of Esther, not even in connection with the salvation of Jews. Then why was that book included in the Hebrew canon?

The story tells of Purim, an episode when Jews were saved from genocide by a risky stratagem, which is celebrated with raucous noise in the synagogue, masquerades, plays, hamantaschen and carnivals.

Yet would anyone seriously consider naming a piece of pastry "Hitlertasch"?

Purim is a paradox. On second thought, perhaps it contains a series of deeper meaning and metaphors for Judaism in particular and life in general.

The issue of assimilation takes on greater impact when we realize that the present rate of intermarriage in the United States is approximately 52 percent. While sociologists, rabbis, and statisticians are having a field day and Jewish families are having a heartache, Purim may provide us with a sense of perspective. Our age is hardly the first to deal with the issue. Moses and each of Jacob's children intermarried. All through history the challenge has been present.

No one, however, seems to be considering the positive side. While not condoning the practice, one may find that it is part of life when cultures coexist in relative acceptance, if not harmony. The Jewish gene pool and talents are enriched. Judaism is challenged to a greater vision and a more active program to retain adherents. Who knows when the process will save Jews? After all, Raoul Wallenberg's brother-in-law was Jewish.

Though the name of God is found elsewhere throughout the Tanakh (Bible), it does not appear in the Megillah, Book of Esther. This issue has puzzled theologians and scholars over the centuries.

Some argue it was not the custom to mention God at the time the Megillah was written. Others contend that since Purim was celebrated with such boisterousness in the synagogue, it would be unseemly to use the Divine name. There are also those who feel the Book of Esther is historical fiction.

In contemporary thinking about God, there is the problem of referring to a transcendent being taking the construct of a monarch. How can the finite mind understand the infinite? How can one conceive the inconceivable? All reference to God must be metaphor. But which one?

The Book of Esther provides us with a possible solution: Don't even try to use metaphor. Maimonides even hints at this possibility when he refuses to name the attributes of God in a positive manner.

Is it not time to turn to the Book of Esther and simply refer to God without a name? While traditional terms might be employed for many reasons, why not refer to God as "The Nameless One"? Surely, this would help us in thoughts and feelings to "express" the ineffable.

Another paradox is the Hebrew title of the Book of Esther, Megillat Estheyr. Esther was her Persian name — her Hebrew name was Hadassah. One would think the latter would be the proper term for a book in the Hebrew Bible. The great Jewish women's organization, Hadassah, which has done so much for Israel and Judaism everywhere, chose the appropriate Hebrew name, perhaps because the organization was founded on Purim by Henrietta Szold, a great Jewish scholar.

To be sure, a neglected heroine of the book is Vashti. Vashti prefigures feminism. What enormous courage it took to refuse King Ahasuerus' royal command to appear (some would say nude) before a drunken brawl. According to rabbinic tradition, she pays for her conviction by being executed. Move over Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin — Vashti is the heroine of the feminist movement, its true martyr.

On Purim, one is permitted by tradition to drink to the point of not knowing the difference between baruch Mordechai (blessed be Mordechai) and arur Haman (cursed be Haman). The rabbis were hardly advocating alcoholism. Instead, they were metaphorically saying that hatred should dissolve into humor, defamation into deference, cruelty into compassion, and fury into forgiveness.

Purim is a holy day infused with Jewish values. There are the customs of shalach manot (gift sending), taking at least two portions of ready-to-eat foods to friends, and matanot la'evyonim (gifts to the needy), for contributing at least two gifts to the homeless and hungry. There is a Purim seudah (feast), at which family and friends gather to eat a festive meal and remember Jewish survival.

Purim is a time to celebrate Jewish survival and creativity. There are Purim Torah, in which learning and scholarship are burlesqued, and Purimspielen, the plays and masquerades to challenge the creative. There are carnivals where children cavort and enjoy their Jewishness.

One can attend the synagogue and hear the whole Megillah chanted. One can worship and recite al hanissim ("for the miracles") and seriously consider how Jews have survived anti-Semitism. One can also listen to the Megillah and jeer, rattling groggers, to make noise when Haman's name is mentioned.

Purim is a paradox, but so is life. Purim is a holiday that includes all of the values and all of the Jewish people. Perhaps that is why the Midrash tells us that all the holidays will vanish in Messianic times, but Purim alone will endure. After all, it is fun and filled with Jewish values.