Monday, February 18, 2013

The beautiful underbelly of liminal lunacy / Purim

Some years ago, in a Jewish museum, I saw a photograph of villagers in a small town in Eastern Europe dressed in Purim costumes. Not so strange if they were Jews, but they were not. The Jewish population of the town had been utterly decimated during the Holocaust. Not one survived. Yet every year on Purim, the Gentiles of this town don Purim costumes and dance in the streets in commemoration of their lost neighbors, whom they had not made any effort to save. What a bizarre reversal!

I dug through a lot of images to find this one. Striking, isn't it?

But perhaps this is no more bizarre than the holiday of Purim as Jews celebrate it: wearing costumes and masks (often grotesque) to shul, making a cacophonous racket during the reading of scripture, buffoonery and drunken revelry, children taking the places of rabbis and teachers… Does this sound Jewish?

Purim in Jerusalem
Purim reflects the experience of liminality. A liminal moment is one at a boundary or threshold, neither here not there, neither this nor that. Hermes, the Greek god, was liminal, shuttling between Zeus and mortals, mortals and the underworld, the underworld and Zeus; Hermes operated at the boundaries. I recall the summer between high school and college as a liminal period in my life: I was no longer a high school student, but not yet a college student. Moving to a new city throws one into a liminal state. Friends in California described to me their congregation’s search for a new rabbi and it is clear that the entire community is in a period of liminality, betwixt and between.

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner wrote that during liminal periods social hierarchies are temporarily dissolved or reversed, and the continuity of tradition is unstable and not assured. Normal social relationships, structured hierarchically by power, authority, and status, give way to a period during which social position is not a function of connections and power. This can go in one of two directions: (1) Communitas, which is equality and a leveling of social positions; and (2) Status Inversion, where the powerless become powerful, and those in authority come to have none. Purim is packed, through and through, with inversions and reversals[1]:

  • The Gentile queen is jettisoned and replaced by a Jewish woman.
  • Esther is a Jew, but pretends to be a Gentile, and saves herself not by concealing her identity, but by revealing it.
  • Mordecai saves King Ahasuerus from assassination, but Haman (not Mordecai) is promoted to vizier or prime minister.
  • Haman, the prime minister, must lead Mordecai, the “lowly Jew,” through the city dressed in the king’s robes and riding the royal steed.
  • Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.
  • Haman’s property (plundered from the Jews) is given over to Mordecai and his position in the palace is reassigned to Mordecai.
  • Haman is, in the end, vanquished by a woman (and a Jewish woman, at that).
  • The true hero — who displays the greatest ingenuity, cunning, and courage — is a woman. Not a man, and not God.

Our celebrations reflect these reversals:
  • Drinking in synagogue is not only allowed, but even encouraged.
  • Noisemaking with groggers — however intolerable — is a must. 
  • Children are permitted to run wild.
  • Male and females often cross-dress (despite the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22:5).
  • To the extent that there is a synagogue service at all, it is often a parody of Jewish prayer (I once rewrote ma’ariv in the style of Dr. Seuss).
  • Leading up to the holiday we share “Purim Torah” — humor that parodies everything and everybody, even Torah, Talmud, and revered scholars and leaders.

Historically, Jews have often been marginal, vulnerable, at the threshold of danger. Liminality has been a prominent feature of our experience in the world. The folk tale quality of The Book of Esther is highly appealing. The evil and powerful enemy is routed. The Jews rise up against their enemies, prevail over them, and even kill a good many. In the end, the Jews end up with Haman’s wealth and authority. What could be better? Raise a glass in celebration!

Purim shpiel

The role of God in Esther is yet another reversal. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, God has the power, calls the shots, and reserves the role of savior. But God is never mentioned in Esther. Human courage and ingenuity win the day, though not without great peril. In several midrashim, the Rabbis attempt to insert God into the story.

A midrash on Psalm 22 paints the scene for us of Esther’s visit to King Ahasuerus’ throne room. The king sits on his throne pining for Vashti, his queen whom he had executed. Note that Esther — at this dangerous and liminal moment — is saved by standing in a liminal location, the fourth of King Ahasuerus’ seven courts.

Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help (Psalm 22:12). When did Esther speak these words? At the time when Ahasuerus decreed to destroy, or slay, and to cause all the Jews to perish (Esther 3:13). At that time, Esther came into the king’s house without permission, as it is said, Esther… stood in the inner court of the king’s house (Esther 5:1). The king had seven courts: Esther went through the first court, the second, and the third. But as she came into the fourth court, Ahasuerus began gnashing his teeth and grinding them in rage, and said, “Oh for those who are gone and cannot be replaced! How I wished and implored the queen Vashti that she come into my presence! And because she would not come, as it is said, But the queen Vashti refused to come (Esther 1:12), I decreed death for her. But this one comes like a harlot without permission!” Since Esther was standing in the middle of the fourth court, however, the guards of the outer courts had no right to lay hands upon her because she had already gone beyond their authority, while the guards of the inner courts had no right to lay hands upon her because she had not yet come into their authority. R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama: It was on account of Esther that David composed a psalm containing prayers in which both creatures above and below praise the Holy One Blessed be God: the psalm beginning Hallelujah, praise You the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the heights (Psalm 148:1) At that moment Esther spoke the words, Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help (Psalm 22:12). (Midrash Tehillim Rabbah 22:24)

Esther’s physical liminality mirrors her existential liminality.  Purim is, in some senses, a colossally crazy celebration of liminality. But we also mark many liminal moments and places with far more sublime rituals. The mezuzot on our doorposts mark the threshold of our houses, the juncture between homes and the outside world: liminality in space. Havdalah marks the boundary between holy and mundane time: liminality in time. Shiva is liminal time between the burial of a loved one and returning to the world; mourners remain sequestered in their homes: liminality in religious status and inner emotions. Standing under the chupah: liminality in social status. And perhaps mikveh is the ultimate liminal ritual. One enters the water in one state and emerges in another — one can even enter a Gentile and emerge a Jew.

Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner and many others (in particular sociologist Arpad Szakolczai) have written about two sides to liminal periods: The ugly underbelly is their inherent danger. The door is open to insidious tricksters and charlatans, charismatic leaders who exploit the moment for their own gain. Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin jump to mind.

The beautiful side is the inherent potential for constructive change during liminal periods. When rigid hierarchies and social structures are dissolved, new possibilities emerge for political, cultural, and religious changes in the malleable, liminal moment. Modern Zionism among the early chalutzim is an example of an extended liminal period. The pioneers created communitas in the form of kibbutzim, and shaped new political and cultural norms.

Purim in Tel Aviv

The caterpillar must emerge from the cocoon — risking its life in its liminality — to become a butterfly. If liminality is unsettling, and often unavoidable, it is also exhilarating because it carries on its wings the possibility of change. We’ve all experienced it. If we can aim for constructive change, and not be overcome by fear, the beautiful underbelly of liminality can be a blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1]Jeffrey Rubenstein has pointed out many of these in his article: “Purim, Liminality, and Communitas,” AJS Review, Vol. 17, No. 2. Autumn, 1992, pp. 247-277.

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