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Masking and Unmasking: On Jewish Identity (Purim/Makor Or)

Feb 21.10
an audio recording of this talk is on-line here.

Our theme for today is Purim, Masking and Unmasking, and the more I thought about this theme the deeper and more complicated it got.  As I was preparing for this talk I was also reading a biography of Baruch Spinoza, maybe the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, and his story became mixed up in my mind with the story of Mordechai and Esther and Haman.  So today I want to try to put all of this together as I contemplate this theme of masking and unmasking, and of the essential point of the Purim story.

As we all know, the custom for Purim, a joyous festival of Jewish triumph  (which, as is often the case, involves the killing of the bad guys at the end) is to wear costumes and to crack graggors whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the megillah reading.  It is also customary for Purim revelers to drink alcohol as the reading goes on, getting just drunk enough not to be able to tell the different between the names of Mordechai and Haman.   Children also dress up for the Purim pageants that most synagogues put on.  I grew up with such pageants, and dressed up and acted in them I guess, though it so long ago now I can only dimly remember.  Behind all of this fun there is a deep truth – as is usually the case with religious observance.  In the Purim story there is a lot of masking and unmasking.  Esther becomes Ahashveros’ queen in a masked condition – her identity as a Jew is hidden. The king grants the evil Haman’s request to kill all the Jews, and Esther, at the risk of her life, unmasks herself – and in doing do saves the Jews.  Also, as Rabbi Lew always pointed out this time of year, God is also masked in the Purim story.  God’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah, and there are no miracles in the story- God never intervenes.  So it would appear that the Purim story is a lot like contemporary life – in which God never dramatically or directly appears, and is seldom mentioned, and instead is masked within the human terms of the story.

For me all of this raises the question of  Jewish identity.  The story of Purim takes place about fifty years after the first destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem– around the 4th century BCE.  The Jews are living under Persian rule.  Nowhere in the story do you get a feeling for the communal Jewish life (though there are fast days declared to pray for Esther’s success with the king); it is as if one way of being Jewish had been destroyed and the new way is not yet in evidence.  The main thing you have is the sense that Jews are definitely Jews –  Jewish identity exists, and it is imperiled and dangerous – as it has been throughout history.  It is possibly the case that Jewish identity in 2010 here in San Francisco is less imperiled and less dangerous than it has ever been in 5,000 years of Jewish history – or however many years you think Jewish history has lasted.  The Purim story turns simply on the fact of Jewish identity – that because Jews accept and affirm this identity – which in the Purim story takes the form of Mordechai refusing to bow down to Haman, which is why Haman becomes obsessed with killing all the Jews – they are subject to annihilation, to massacre.  Yet the central Jew in the story – Esther –  does not appear to be identified as a Jew, she is masked.  And when she unmasks and reveals herself in her true identity she is able to save the Jews.

What is Jewish identity and why is it so problematic?  Judaism is a strange phenomenon.  Is it a religion?  Yes, of course, but also not.  There are plenty of Jews who have no Jewish religion at all, or are even hostile to Jewish religion, as Rabbi Lew and I often found in our early workshops.  Yet they are still Jews somehow.  There are some Jews who don’t consider themselves to be Jews, or feel uncomfortable about being Jews, who can’t shake it and aren’t sure whether or not they want to shake it.   And there are other Jews who have successfully – if that is the word we want to use – shaken their Jewishness and disappeared into the world as normal neutral people: assimilation, which for generations was a bad word in Judaism, but now I am not so sure anymore what it means, or if it carries the same degree of concern that it once did.  There are of course many good reasons for wanting to shake off the yoke of Jewish identity, religion or no.  It seems to some extent easier not to be a Jew.  Even if anti-semitism seems to be of another time and place – well, you can’t be entirely sure.  And simply being seen as different is uncomfortable.  So you can’t blame anyone who wants to forget about Jewishness, at least I can’t.  When I was growing up conventional wisdom was that a Jewish person could never escape being Jewish no matter how hard he or she tried – that even if you felt as if you had it would never really be so; non-Jews would always see you as a Jew anyway, so it was pitiful to try, not to say cowardly and disloyal.  Better to be a proud Jew.  But now, a generation later, I am not so sure this is still so- or whether it ever was so.  I think there have always been people who have managed to escape cleanly.  But maybe not.  Here are a few brief sketches on this point:

I remember years ago when I was at Green Gulch I had a friend who practiced Zen with me, a wonderful man, a doctor, who appeared to be a nice and upstanding Wasp kind of  guy.  One day he was in my house for some reason, in my tiny little study room, and he said to me with tears in his eyes that he was ashamed of himself, and had been ashamed of himself his whole life, because he had never had the courage to admit to anyone that he was Jewish.  It was very sad, him telling me this, because it did not feel to me as if it was a soul-bearing confession that would leave him feeling better afterward.  I don’t think he felt any better at all telling me this, he probably felt worse, and he never mentioned it again, and in fact soon after this disappeared from practice at Green Gulch.

There’s a woman in our Jewish meditation community in Vancouver, who found out later in life that she was Jewish.  Her family had escaped Europe, come to Canada, and had successfully masqueraded as non Jewish secular people, until as a middle aged adult the woman discovered the truth and began to study and practice Judaism.  When he heard of this, her aged father became furious with her, disowned her completely, and would not speak with her for the rest of his life.

And there is of course the story of Rabbi Lew, a secular Jew who practiced Buddhism, but somehow his deep meditation practice put him in touch – quite unexpectedly – with a kernal of Jewish identity in his heart that he could never seem to shake, and that led him eventually to become a Jewish leader, our rabbi and blessed spiritual friend.

So Judaism is an ethnicity, a deep, inherited sense of self that goes back generations, all the way to Moses?  No, because people convert to Judaism.  People who are not born Jews, have inherited no Jewish soul, find somehow that they are Jews or want to be Jews, and become Jews.  So- Judaism is not a religion, or not entirely a religion, and it is not an ethnicity, or not entirely an ethnicity.  I have two Zen friends, one born a Protestant, one a Catholic in Latin America, both of whom converted to Judaism through a deep sense of connection to the Torah and Judaism’s powerful message – whatever that is! – and as Jews who were formed in their Judaism by Christianity, both became Zen priests.   So – Jewish identity is a profound and problematic and rather confusing phenomenon.   It seems to be something very strong and powerful within our interiority, whether we are born with it or not, and yet is it nearly impossible to say what it is.  Of course Halachically we do have precise definitions of who is a Jew and who not, but it seems to me that in actual practice Jewish identity is something more and less than this.  I am not sure what it is at all, and yet it is something I have felt very strongly all my life, as I am sure many of you have felt as well.

Among all the many things difficult things associated with Jewish identity – ambivalence, suffering, a sense of mission and obligation, a taste for certain foods maybe, a certain kind of humor maybe, a sense of being different maybe better maybe worse than others – one of the most mysterious is hiddenness.   Just as Esther is masked and hidden in her Jewishness, and just as God is masked and hidden in the Megillah, so is God hidden in the world, in life, in us, and so are Jews in turn hidden in the world.  According to Judaism, Jews are at the center of the world, at the center of God’s project in the world, but they are marginalized in the world, exiled and hidden.

Jewish hiddenness isn’t as commonly thought about as other aspects of Jewish identity because it comes not from Talmud or Torah but from Kaballah, and from history.

Here is a partial chronology:

1095 – Pope Urban II calls for the first Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.  This unleashes violence against Jews throughout Europe as the Crusaders are everywhere on the march to purify the world of all nonbelievers.

1144 – first blood libel takes place in Norwich England.

1190 – mass suicide of Jews of York during the Third Crusade.

1268 – King Louis IX of France decrees that all Jews in France be arrested and their property confiscated in preparation for their expulsion.

1288 – the first mass burning of Jews at the stake in Troyes, France, following a blood libel.

1290 – Edward I banishes the Jews from England.

1306 – Jews expelled from France, permitted to return in 1315, but expelled again in 1394, and do not return until the seventeenth century.

1391 – Jews massacred throughout Spain and there is a mass conversion of Jews in Spain.

1478 – the Inquisition is invited into Spain to root our heretics among the Jews who have converted to Christianity.

1492 – all Jews are ordered either to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.  Many go to Portugal.

1497 – King Manuel of Portugal decrees that all the Jews of Portugal must convert.

1569 – Rabbi Isaac Luria moves to Sfat.

I am sorry to recite all this, and I do not mean to depress you or make you paranoid.  But these are a few of the things that happened.  Most of us know about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, which was at the time the largest and most impressive Jewish community in the world, but it is less well known that Jews were expelled elsewhere in Europe.  In terms of Jewish identity, what I want to point out is this: that many Jews in this five hundred year period converted to Christianity.  It is even possible that more Jews converted than remained Jewish.  After all, think of it: to lose all your property, your wealth, your community, your home, your language, to go to another country that may nor may not accept you, that may or may not in one or two or ten years expel you again – to do that or to convert, either sincerely, or perhaps insincerely- to remain secretly Jewish but outwardly to seem to be like everyone else… What choice would you make?  It would be no wonder if the average person decided that it was on the whole better to stay as a true or a false Christian than to leave.  And many did make this choice.  This was in fact the reason for the Inquisition: there were many Christians who had been Jews, or whose families had been Jewish in the past.  Just as today Catholic doctrine teaches that there is an essential soul produced at conception, a person, a sacred being, so in those days the Church felt that the soul was an essential entity produced at conception – and if the parents were Jewish, the soul was essentially Jewish.  So it was impossible to trust a Jewish convert.  It was too likely that former Jews would be either intentionally or unintentionally heretics – and might influence other innocent Christians (venality being the essence of the Jewish soul), and so there had be an effort to root out these intractable people.  Consider the horror of this: that you must leave or convert on pain of death, and that when you do convert you are forever subject – even a generation or two or three later – to questioning and persecution for the suspected insincerity of your conversion.  This disastrous trauma made the sense of Jewish identity a deeply hidden and dangerous wound that must have been felt by millions of people.  Conversos were Jews who had converted.  Marannos were Jews who outwardly converted but inwardly remained Jews.  And what made them Jews, because most of the time any practice was impossible, not to mention even any social identity?  What made them Jews was simply that they felt themselves to be Jews and affirmed that identity.  And for this and this alone they could be murdered if discovered.  But of course there was no strict division between Marannos and Conversos and as time went on the sense of who was a Jew, and what that might mean, became more and more fuzzy – even as it remained secret and dangerous and deeply internal.  There are many instances of Spanish or Mexican families, even today, who report that there has been for generations in their family a dark secret that they have never understood – why did their parents close all the doors and blinds on Friday evening to light candles?  Why were they taught to say certain incomprehensible words before eating or washing the hands?  They did not know why – only that they were to do these things, and that they were to tell no one about them.  History like this will give you a powerful and confusing sense of personal identity.  You will feel, deep in the recesses of your heart, that there is something there of unspeakable depth and strangeness, something that is both fascinating and dangerous.  You will feel pulled perhaps to a deep interiority, a profound sense of aloneness, too shameful and perhaps too difficult to be shared with anyone, yet also glorious and profound – a sense that there is something within much bigger than your personal self: you will sense, in other words, the hiddenness of God within you.  It is a strange and marvelous fact that some of the most powerfully interior Catholic mystics – from Theresa of Avila, to St John of the Cross, to the 20th Century mystic Simone Weil – were born into Jewish families.  And although we are not Conversos or Marranos, our contemporary sense of the depth of personal identity, and of fractured identity, multiple identity, brings us to a similar position.  In the depth of our meditation practice we also come to a strange and marvelous sense of the ineffability of our sense of self – we find God in the silence between thought and sensation, in the very strangeness of the experience of subjectivity, much as those mystics did.

You might have noticed that the last item in my chronology was Isaac Luria’s move to Sfat from Jerusalem where he was born, the son of a German father and a Sephardic mother.  He only lived for thirty eight years, yet is considered the most important of all Kabbalists.  He is the inventor of some of Kaballah’s most profound concepts – like tsimsum, God’s absence, or withdrawal, into God’s own self, which allowed the world to rush into the breach and be created.  Kellipot, the vessels into which divine light was poured at Creation, and from which it escaped, as the vessels, and the world, broke, creating the need for Tikkun Olom, mystical repair of the world, the supreme task of each Jew, whose daily acts of prayer and kindness would drop by drop return the divine light to the vessels, so that the world’s brokenness would be healed.   It is remarked by many scholars that Luria’s kabbalah is essentially a kaballah of exile, and that his teaching was an effort to make sense of the history of Judaism during the medieval period of torment and exile – especially the culminating moment of that period, the 1492 exile of the Jews from Spain.  Luria’s kaballah is essentially a teaching about God’s hiddenness and exile.  The world is not so much the expression of God’s grandeur as it is the expression of God’s hiddenness – God literally hides God’s self, contracts God’s self into an absence, and from this absence the world is made – in brokenness, in exile.  And Jewish life appears to be one thing outwardly, but inwardly, in ways that no one but God can understand, it is somehow the repair of the world, the restoring and healing of the world, which is left by God entirely up to an obscure and exiled people whose true purpose is completely hidden from view – even to themselves.  This is essentially the teaching of the Ari, and it has become a normative teaching in Judaism today.  The patron saint so to speak of the Marranos and Conversos was Esther, Saint Esther as they called her.  Like her, their true identities were hidden, and they had to keep them hidden, on pain of death.  But also, they hoped, like her, their true identities would one day be revealed, and when they were the Jewish people would be redeemed, making their very hiddenness not an act of shame or cowardice, but God’s own secret plan for the universal salvation.

You also may have noticed in my chronology that many of the Jews expelled from Spain went to neighboring Portugal where they could live legally as Jews for only five years, before they too were forced to convert – without any option to leave.  Many of them bided their time and as soon as they could emigrated illegally.  A large community of Portuguese Jews immigrated to the Netherlands, a Protestant country where they could live openly as Jews.  It was into this community that Baruch Spinoza was born.  It was a very odd situation: the chief Rabbi of Amsterdam had been a Christian in Portugal and so knew very little of Jewish law and had to consult with Italian Rabbis to figure out how to construct and manage a Jewish community.  Imagine the spirit of this community, for whom Judaism had been more or less a dream that could now for the first time become a reality.  The Dutch government was among the most liberal in Europe but even it had to pause and consider the effect of this mass immigration of Jews into its midst.  It declared that it would be ok for Jews to practice their religion under one condition – that they actually and faithfully did so, and did not mix with and therefore perhaps confuse their Christian countrymen.  So in Amsterdam in the 17th century Jews were not only permitted to practice their religion, they were required by law to do so.  That, and the fact that observant Judaism was new to them, gave them a particular zealousness, which is why they had so little tolerance for someone like young Baruch Spinoza, who at an early age began to ask some difficult and embarrassing questions – questions that most of us in this room, probably including Rabbi Richman, would have also asked.   (The Jews of the Netherlands, by the way, saw themselves as Esther – as having been hidden in Portugal, and now, in the new country, revealed at last.  Because of this they nurtured a powerful sense that the salvation of the Jews and therefore of the world must be at hand, and rational business people though they were, many of them sold all their worldly goods and awaited the end of days in the mid-17th century when Shabatai Tzvi declared himself the Messiah and marched on Constantinople.  Spinoza was a young man at the time and this spectacle must have corroborated his sense of the basic lunacy of Judaism and religion in general).  Spinoza was a brilliant thinker and a confident rationalist who believed that religion, if it were true, could not violate reason.  Though he was excommunicated, and as such could have no contact whatsoever with any Jew, including his own family members, and became perhaps the first secular person in history – that is, the first person to profess no affiliation to any religion – Spinoza was not an atheist.  He believed in God.  But in his own way.  He was the first person to apply modern historical scholarship to the scriptures  – that is,  to recognize that however divinely inspired scripture may be, it was written down by human beings over a period of time and not divinely dictated to Moses in the desert.  As essentially a human product, scripture was subject to reason and questioning.  Quoting scripture, in and of itself, could not be considered proof of anything.  For Spinoza, God perhaps shone through the scriptures, but was not limited by them.  God was the essential and supremely reasonable basis for the world, the ultimate a priori assumption from which all else flowed.  Though he eventually came to feel that Jewish law was not necessary or reasonable, and that prayer was not prayer to anyone in particular, Spinoza believed firmly in love and kindness and ethical concern and a wide sense of human identity that flows naturally from what we are and what the world is – and what God is.  Most religion, he felt, was mere superstition that came from narrow personal identity and the unconscious fear of death.  There was no heaven or hell.  But goodness was necessary because God was good and the world was good, and it was only because we humans had become so irrational and selfish and twisted, and, unthinking, had lost our divine reason, that there was evil in the world.  In her wonderful book Betraying Spinoza Rebecca Goldstein remarks in an aside that Spinoza was the first Jubu.  Maybe so!  Though it is nearly impossible to actually read his writings today because they are so archaically technical, and though we may not share his scathing critique of superstitious religion, or his enormous faith in reason, I think most of us would find a good deal of what he says to be consistent with our own views.  In fact, it seems to me that the average educated person of today, whether he or she is religious or not, is at least in part a Spinozist.  Einstein was.  So is Antonio Damasio, the contemporary cognitive scientist, who sees in Spinoza’s Ethics most of what cognitive scientists are now discovering about human emotions.

Identity is a major focus of Spinoza’s thought.  For him wisdom is ultimately a matter of a widening of identity.  As your contemplation of God – which is also a contemplation of the world and of humanity through reason – deepened over time your sense of identity grew.  You went beyond being a Dutch Portuguese Jew and went beyond being a Jew and went beyond being a person separate from others and the world to identification with all of life, so that even your own death was not so much a concern for you.  Spinoza writes in The Ethics Part IV (Goldstein 2434) “A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”

Spinoza did not make a point of rejecting Judaism, and I am sure that if he were alive today he would certainly be a member of a Jewish community of some sort, if not a synagogue goer.  In fact he did attend religious school into his adult life, was a brilliant Hebraist and Talmud scholar, and was a member in good standing of the community until the death of his father (his mother had died when he was a child).  At that point the rabbis could no longer avoid his views and decided to excommunicate him.  Though it was not something he welcomed, he received it philosophically, saying something like, well, if this is the way they want it, I will embrace it as my own.  And so he moved away to a nearby town, dissolved the business he had had with one of his brothers, and took up grinding precise lenses for telescopes, a solitary profession that gave him plenty of time to think and write.  Having long ago reasonably decided that romantic attachment would lead to much more sorrow than joy, because you can never possess another person, and trying to do so could only bring pain, he remained single his whole life.  Oddly, 1492, the year Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain was also the year that Christopher Columbus, under their patronage, stumbled into the New World.  It is equally odd that as Spinoza’s fame as a philosopher grew the British political thinker John Locke became interested in him and came to Amsterdam to study with him.  Locke’s thought, and Spinoza’s, became foundational for the Anglo-American patriots who were responsible for the American revolution about a century after Spinoza’s death, and it is possible that the American idea of a secular society, in which religion can have its place, but need not and should not dominate public space, traces its origin to Spinoza.

Though he was technically finally not Jewish and his philosophy is not considered a particularly Jewish philosophy, Goldstein writes that “… Spinoza is something of a Jewish thinker after all.  He is paradoxically, Jewish to the core, a core that necessitated, for him, the denial of such a thing as a Jewish core.  For what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?” 2297.

My friend the poet Charles Bernstein makes a similar point when he says, “I am no more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness means.”  (Radical Poetics page 3.).  Charles defines himself – if we can say that he defines himself – as a secular Jew, a non-meditating non praying Jew.  For him secular Judaism is not merely Judaism that has lost its way religiously and is one step away from assimilation but a distinct and noble enterprise which is essentially cultural, involving especially the arts, but also other aspects of culture practiced in distinctly Jewish ways, although as he indicates, it is not so easy to say what ways.  Secular Judaism for him includes Jews who practice Buddhism and Jews who practice meditation as two of its many branches.   I find this very interesting.  If as time goes on we are willing to admit that there really does seem to be something to Jewish identity, although there will probably never be a way to figure out what it is, we may also be willing to admit that there is something to Jewish religion – something more perhaps than we had noticed – and that we will probably never be able to figure out what that is, either.   This however doesn’t mean that we can’t think about it, talk about it, debate it.  Probably we can’t help ourselves from doing so – because that’s the Jewish thing to do.