(Image from http://www.holidays.net/purim/)
Purim is almost here. The one-day Jewish festival will be celebrated on Sunday this year. And while it is not high on the agenda of most Catholics, there are good reasons to sit up and take notice of Purim, writes Teresa Pirola.
Let me name three.
First, Purim can get us reading our bible.
On Purim Jewish communities listen to a reading of the Book of Esther. Hands up all those Catholics who have read the Book of Esther! But really, we should. Not only is it one of our own sacred texts, the Word of God... it's also a great yarn.
It is the story of how the beautiful Queen Esther, herself a Jew, saved her people in Persia from a massacre at the hands of a villain named Haman.
It is a melodramatic tale of "goodies" and "baddies", ending with the defeat of the villain's plans for the destruction of innocent people. While allowing for subtleties of interpretation, essentially Purim celebrates an event of deliverance-from-evil.
A second reason why Catholics should take note of Purim is for what it can teach us about having fun... religiously.
The rejoicing of Jewish communities on Purim has a carnival atmosphere: costumes, masquerades, plays, parodies and plenty of wine. Naturally there are a range of Jewish opinions about such practices, but essentially Purim encourages a healthy sense of merriment.
Food baskets given as gifts for friends and for the poor are also part of the activities.
However the primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the Scroll of Esther (the Megillah) in the synagogue. And here, too, Jewish customs allow for high spirits. It is customary to boo, hiss and make loud noises at the mention of the name of the villain.
If as Catholics we sometimes take ourselves too seriously, Purim reminds us to lighten up.
Especially in these times, with so much weighing us down as a Church (and in no way do I mean to trivialise the issues at hand), we need to remember that it’s okay to foster our lighter side and retain a sense of humour.
Finally, and to balance what I have just written, Purim confronts us with a sobering message.
The Book of Esther is a story of a thwarted plan for the mass murder of Jews. We read it today with the spectre of the Shoah (Holocaust) in living memory. We would like to think of the Shoah as part of humanity’s dark past, never to occur again. Yet today there are alarming signs of anti-Semitism on the rise.
To take one example: Last year in Hungary, an MP for the far-right Jobbik party, Hungary’s third largest political party, and vice-chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, called for authorities to compile a national list of Hungarian Jews in certain key positions of influence?all in the interests of "national security". (See The Economist 8/12/12; ICCJ 22/1/13)
Chillingly reminiscent of community lists which were used to round up Hungarian Jews during World War II (of which 500,000 perished), his speech has since attracted mass protests by Hungarians from diverse political camps.
However the response was not immediate and it reflects a wider problem: the re-emergence in Hungary of classical anti-Semitic ideology that looks for a Jewish conspiracy at the root of a nation's economic problems and political tensions. This is surely cause for alarm.
From another angle, I am deeply disturbed by the number of times I hear Christians denouncing Israel for the building of the security wall, while having absolutely nothing to say in response to repeated statements by political leaders on the international stage calling for the destruction of Israel and inciting hatred for Jews.
Obviously international politics, especially in the Middle East, are extraordinarily complex. As Catholics, our religious faith does not provide a simplistic recipe for the formation of political viewpoints.
However we are compelled by the teaching of the Church to speak out against anti-semitism and all forms of racial and religious prejudice.
So there you have it. The fascinations of Purim. A Jewish festival that can also enrich our Catholic experience.
It speaks to us through an ancient biblical story and the politics of today. It explores both the dark side and the joyous side of being human. It mourns tragedy and celebrates deliverance from evil.
Purim invites light-hearted festivity. At the same time it speaks of our solemn duty to confront evil in the face of human suffering, which is wider than?but definitely includes?Jewish suffering.
Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance faith-educator and founder/coordinator of the Light of Torah ministry.
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