kosher bookworm

Joyous Purim also a serious holiday


Purim is indeed a serious holiday. Joyous, yes, but serious too. With that in mind, I bring to your attention the gifted author and lecturer, Rabbi Evan Hoffman, and his wonderful and learned essay, “Purim and the Struggle Between Nationalists and Moderates.”

In an interview with Rabbi Hoffman, I inquired as to his intellectual interests.

“Over the past few years my focus has been on the late Second Temple period and the early rabbinic period (200 BCE to 250 CE). I really enjoy examining and researching rabbinic literature as prime source material in the study of Jewish history. It is a very sensitive subject inasmuch as not all passages can be taken at face value or even presumed to be accurate depictions of the past. The key is to understand why the sages, or an individual sage, said what they did in the proper historical and chronological context.”

We discussed the nature and content of Rabbi Hoffman’s writings and his weekly divrei Torah.

“I began writing a weekly essay five years ago titled, ‘Thoughts on the Parashah,’ as a means of staying connected with my friends who share the same intellectual interest in Torah learning. Over time, my email distribution list has expanded to over 1,500 people both here and in Israel. These essays are not your typical divrei Torah.

“Most weeks, the essay will address a serious intellectual issue in the study of serious Jewish theology or Jewish history with a tangential connection to the relevant parsha or Jewish holiday. My research takes me beyond the traditional sources, utilizing the writings and biographies of such personages as Josephus, Philo, the Septuagint, the Apocrypha, and other relevant sources. Each week is a new adventure shared with my readers.

“I begin researching on Monday, and aim to publish by Thursday night.”

I then inquired as to the nature of his Purim essay. What was the nature of that struggle and how does it affect the way we observe Purim today?

“Purim postdates the Torah. Considering the commandment not to add or to subtract from the Torah, it was a serious question in antiquity whether or not a new holiday could be added to the Jewish calendar. Furthermore, some of the characters in the Purim story do not conduct themselves as religious Jews should. The heroine is involved in intermarriage. The story is very secular, with the total absence of the name of G-d in the Book of Esther, the Megillah. There are those who questioned the historicity of the whole story.

“All of these ‘obstacles’ had to be overcome before the holiday could be firmly established as a religious feast on the Jewish calendar with the Book of Esther included in its rightful place in the canon of the Bible.”

Rabbi Hoffman continues with more telling observations:

“However, the most serious obstacle facing Purim was the fact that it glorifies anti-gentile violence and advocates a robust military response by Jews to the threat of anti-Semitism. Some of the politically moderate rabbis of the Mishnaic era were a bit squeamish about promoting such lessons. The nationalistic rabbis doubled down on their support of Purim and increased the number of observances associated with the holiday. Ultimately, the nationalists won.

“Purim as we know it incorporates the erasure of Haman and the cursing of enemies. Throughout our history there have been moments when Purim revelry got out of hand and brought danger to the Jewish community. In certain times and places the gentile authorities set limits on the kind of celebrations we could conduct. This episode, too, deserves closer study in the years ahead.”

Rabbi Hoffman is spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle. A graduate of Yeshiva College, summa cum laude, he received his semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, earned his MA in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and did advanced graduate research in American Jewish history.

He has taught very popular adult education classes in the metropolitan area including, for the past five years, at the Young Israel of Woodmere, on subjects including the history of anti-Zionism, the Second Temple era, and Jewish holidays in the historical perspective.

If your schedule permits, Rabbi Hoffman’s Tuesday night Jewish History class at the Young Israel of Woodmere at 8:15 pm is a serious and challenging experience.