A Purim Study: On Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness

When people find out that I am a Rabbi I often find myself in deep religious conversations with people, especially non-Jews. While being religious is part of being, it is far from the totality of my Jewish identity.

There is an important idea attributed to Dr. Michael Rosenak, Israeli philosopher of Jewish education, who makes an important distinction between Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness. Judaism is our religion. This one comes in many flavors and sizes. A Jew a member of the Jewish people. We too come in all flavors and sizes. And finally there is Jewishness. This is the culture of belonging to this global people. Our Jewishness gives voice to our sensibilities, interpretive lenses, and our languages. Clearly we are all of these, but when I get sucked into this vortex of religious discourse I often have to explain to other religious people how my being a Jew and my Jewishness is no less a part of my/ our being.

I was thinking about it today on Purim as we say Al HaNissim which quotes the Megilah:

Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces לְהַשְׁמִ֡יד לַהֲרֹ֣ג וּלְאַבֵּ֣ד to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.

Esther 3:13

We get it Haman wanted to kill the Jews. Why do we need these three different words?

L’hashmid– to destroy often refers to religious persecutions. On the surface this would seem to be an attack on Judaism. In our history these efforts of forced apostasy were heroically resisted, brought the people to die “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of the Name. These religious Jews would rather die then give up their religion. This is best known from the time of Chanukah.

L’harog– to massacre. This is classic genicide. There is nothing that Jews can do to stop being Jews. We have seen this far too often in Jewish History. Juxtaposed Chanukah, this is what we see in Purim, Passover, and the Holocaust.

L’abad-to exterminate or to be lost. This seems to be an interesting one. What do we learn from this that we did not already from the previous two acts of violence against our people?

This language seems to be foreshadowing the role of Esther in the saga. When Mordechai hears of this plot to kill the Jews he reaches out to Esther as the queen to help. There we read:

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther 4: 14

While Mordechai and the Jews need Esther’s help, Mordechai is confident that they will be saved with or without her help. In many ways he frames the request of her as a favor to her. If she opts out of helping she will be lost to the Jewish people. She will lose her Jewishness. This is accented by use of the same work “lost” in her response:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

Esther 4: 16

Esther was the Queen and risks her safety be revealing her hidden identity as a Jew. If she is lost, she will be lost. She is not depicted as a religious Jew and she is not just saying that she might be killed as a Jew. In this statement she is saying that she does not want to lose her Jewishness.

In many ways our coming together to fast in support of Esther is our people coming together as Jews despite our differences of Judaism or Jewishness. So too in celebrating this holiday today we are expressing our unity without a mandate for conformity.

Purim Sameakh-


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