Purim Themes and Theology

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Within this tension between a hidden God and a story seemingly driven by arbitrary fate, a number of other fascinating themes emerge. A comparison with the Exodus from Egypt--commemorated just a few weeks later at Passover--produces striking parallels and very different conclusions. In both stories, a hateful tyrant threatens to destroy the Jews. While the stateless Israelite slaves flee Egypt to find freedom under God's protecting care, the established Jews of Persia use their political connections and skill to reassert themselves within their host community. If the triumph of the Israelites in Egypt is explicitly determined by the exercise of divine authority, the story of Purim is characterized by human deception, sexual manipulation, and bloodshed.

purim costumeIn simple terms, the theology of Passover celebrates God's determination to lead the Jews from exile to their own land, while Purim reflects the situation of a people in the Diaspora surviving by their own wiles within a world of moral uncertainty.

Fluidity of Jewish identity is another key aspect of Purim as. Esther--apparently unobservant of Jewish custom within the court--is more "assimilated" the further she moves up the Persian hierarchy. Her Uncle Mordecai's supposed piousness notwithstanding, when she is finally called upon to serve her people, it is her very assimilation that allows her access to the king and serves all Jews so well.

Purim and its customs of drinking, dressing-up, and mockery provide the natural opportunity for challenging the standard religious system. People are invited to relinquish normal modes of behavior for one day, embracing behavior otherwise viewed with suspicion. Controlled and institutionalized chaos affirms the greater structure of Jewish custom and law by forming an outlet for a healthy questioning and challenge from within. At the same time, consequences of losing control are further balanced by traditions of giving extra tzedakah (charity) and special gifts to friends and neighbors (mishloach manot) on Purim. Even in its antinomianism (breaking the rules), the tradition has one eye focused on communal balance.

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