March 30, 2017

The Mortara Affair

The story of Edgardo Mortara is a scandalous example of Christian theological cruelty and arrogance towards Jews. In the mid-nineteenth century, six-year-old Edgardo Mortara was seized by the Church from a Jewish family in Bologna, Italy. Bologna's inquisitor, Father Pier Feletti, had heard that Edgardo had been secretly baptized as a baby, by a Catholic woman working in his family’s home when she thought he was about to die from an illness. As a result, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition declared Edgardo to be irrevocably a Catholic, and ordered that he be taken from his family and brought up by the Church, since the Papal States forbade members of other faiths to raise Christian children.

An appeal was made to Pope Pius IX to reject the decision and return Edgar to his distraught parents and siblings. But despite a public outcry in Europe and the USA and a desperate campaign by his family, the pope refused to relent. On the contrary, he kept the boy firmly in his care and out of the public eye and refused access to him. It became a matter of principal, a desperate attempt of the papacy to assert its declining power as secularism began to erode its authority. It was the equivalent in its time of the sexual scandals that have undermined the moral authority of Catholicism in our day. In all such cases the Church’s priority was protecting its own interests at the expense of human suffering.

Father Feletti was prosecuted for his role in Edgardo's seizure after pontifical rule in Bologna ended in 1859. But he was acquitted, when the court determined he was simply following superior orders (shades of Nazism). The Pope continued to act as father to Edgardo, who trained for the priesthood in Rome until 1870, when the city was captured by the Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States were brought to an end. Edgardo then left Italy for France, where he was ordained three years later at the age of 21. He stayed outside of Italy most of his life and died at the age of 88 in Belgium.

Many felt that the Vatican's actions in this case epitomized all that was wrong with the Papal States and showed pontifical rule to be anachronistic. Some historians consider the event to be one of the most significant of Pius IX's papacy and . Some say it accelerated the end of papal rule over parts of Italy and sped up the Italy’s reunification. But it also shows how entrenched antisemitism was in the Vatican, how the Church’s theology taught contempt for Judaism and Jews, and indeed would continue in this way until Pope John XXIII began to change Catholic teaching. It illustrates the profoundly embedded disdain for Jews that prevailed then. It remains a disease that metastasizes in many European and Christian societies to this day despite the valiant efforts of recent Popes to change such prejudiced attitudes.

Two things brought this sad affair back to my mind. The first was hearing that Steven Spielberg is working on a film about the Mortara affair. The other was receiving a copy of Writing for Justice: Victor Sejour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipation by a descendant of Edgardo Mortara, Elena Mortara. Until reading the book I confess I had no idea who Sejour was.

At the same time as the Mortara affair, the USA was in the throes of the vicious retreat from its founding egalitarian ideals. The hopes for the emancipation and equality of blacks and were cruelly being denied. The implications of the Declaration of Independence were being ignored. And after the Civil War, gains were reversed. In France many of the intellectuals who fought against anti-Semitism also fought for the emancipation of blacks in the USA.

These two issues were combined in the work of a remarkable man, now largely forgotten. Victor Sejour was an American-born black poet and writer who moved to France and became a celebrity. Amongst the many plays he wrote was a fictional adaptation of the Mortara affair, in which the abduction was of a young girl. Thus, themes of anti-Semitism, racial discrimination, and the inferior position of females were all combined into one play, which was so successful in its day that it was translated into five European languages. It was called La Tireuse de Cartes ("The Fortune Teller") after the mother of the abducted child who disguised herself as a fortune teller to find and stay close to her lost daughter.

This theme of the inhumanity of the Church has also been brought to the fore by the television series The Young Pope, masterfully directed by Paolo Sorrentino. I really loved it, although my brother, who really knows what goes on in the Vatican, was not impressed. It is beautifully shot and directed. It centers on what happens when the conclave of cardinals appoints a compromise candidate as pope, a young American idealist, acted impressively by Jude Law. The series deals courageously with the conflicting demands of spirituality, honesty, and the politics of the largest religious centralized institution in the world, where corruption lurks under every cassock.

"The young pope” is a man struggling with the position and his conscience. He tries to be honest with himself and others and struggles for a purity and honesty that conflicts with the interests of the cardinals and the establishment of the Church. The series shows exactly how and why a less sensitive pope could allow himself to become so inhuman. It illustrates why the Vatican failed in its Christian mission and rallied around the pope over the Mortara affair. Even today we witness how the good intentions of Pope Francis are often thwarted by a more traditional curia. And it saddens me that chief rabbinates exhibit exactly the same pathologies of political intrigue, vested interests and power plays.

I have always resented religious authority, precisely because it invariably subordinates individuality, sensitivity, and the ordinary man or woman to the demands of order. To preserve its power and mystique, it allows itself to be manipulated by vested interests and a fear that if it makes concessions or allows for exceptions the whole structure will collapse.

Leaders, regardless of what other talents they may have, are invariably involved in trying to root out dissent, and they resent challenge. They often betray their integrity for the sake of the position, while convincing themselves they are doing the best to preserve the dignity of the position. The best of leaders is rarely willing to be honest and admit to doubts. Of all the major rabbis I am aware of, the great Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik was the only one to confess publicly to such personal, human limitations.

In the end, all governments and powers, religious, secular, left or right (even governing bodies of sports) are or become corrupt. Failure of moral authority, a dearth of courageous leaders is a disease that has infected the majority of human institutions. Anything that can be done to mitigate this, and ameliorate hatred and prejudice must be encouraged and supported. Elena Mortara’s fascinating, well documented, and scholarly study is a very welcome and eloquent description of the issues and a plea for change.

March 23, 2017

Elliot Meadow

Glasgow born Elliot Meadow, who died recently, was very well known in jazz circles. He was a record producer, agent, journalist, broadcaster, impresario, manager, and expert who was obsessed with the world of jazz from an early age. He knew almost every major jazz musician during his lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an irascible loner. Some thought he bordered on the autistic. He did not suffer fools gladly and offended or rejected almost everyone who came into contact with him. Not many people knew that he was proudly Jewish. Here’s my personal recollection to put the record straight.

In 1968 I took up my first full-time rabbinic position in Glasgow, Scotland. In those days the city was home to some 15,000 Jews, Lithuanian in origin with a strongly cerebral and rational approach to Judaism. Its Jewish communities were islands of warmth and incredible creativity but also social separation, caught in between different sections of Glaswegian society. There were those whose life revolved around work, alcohol, football, and Saturday night brawls. Catholics and Protestants fought each other at soccer matches and afterwards in the pubs. While on the other side, the wealthy and aristocratic old Scottish society that was, in those days, more positively inclined towards Jews than England was, because the Scots themselves felt discriminated against by the “auld enemie”. The Jewish community was upwardly mobile. Jewish boys and girls topped the honors in most schools. They rose up the social and commercial ranks. But often, in the process, the ties that bound them to their forebears began to fray.

When I became rabbi of Giffnock and Newlands, it was the largest Orthodox community in Scotland—even if, as was typical in those days, those who belonged to Orthodox synagogues were rarely actually Orthodox in practice. But that was the great challenge that excited me. Traditional Orthodoxy, led mainly by Eastern European rabbis or those with a fundamentalist mindset, was regarded as outdated, boring, and irrelevant, other than as a sort of club one rarely attended but couldn’t be bothered to cease one’s membership in. It was an exciting challenge for a young, wet-behind-the-ears rabbi, and I threw myself into it with abandon and delight.

One of the things I enjoyed most, and which was regarded as almost unheard of in those days, was to go out to engage my congregation, since they were not coming to me. Whether it was the Bonnyton Golf Club, the Jewish school Calderwood Lodge, concerts, or parties, I appeared, so that I could to meet my constituency and present a new and different type of rabbi. In those days, it was controversial and no small source of gossip. Soon I was the go-to address for rebellious teenagers and others who had drifted away. My home was open, and much of my time was devoted what we now call outreach.

That was how I came to meet Elliot Meadow. His family lived in the elegant suburb of Whitecraigs, with the rest of Glasgow’s Jewish crème de la crème (though Jews were still banned from Whitecraigs Golf Club). He absolutely adored his mother. But when she died, and his father remarried, he did not get on too well with his father’s new family. To make matters worse, although he loved fashion, he had no intention of joining his father’s clothing company. The one thing he was passionate about was jazz. Thus began a process of detachment both from his family and Glasgow Jewish society altogether.

At 18, Elliot the jazz fanatic headed to America on his own to be near the music. He managed to sweet talk his way in to being a “band boy” for the great Count Basie Orchestra, which enabled him to tour all over America learning firsthand from the masters. When his mother became seriously ill he returned to Glasgow and suffered her final illness. That was around the time that I arrived in town.

He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was rude to some, avoided others, and withdrew into his shell. Friends and family approached me to see if he might respond to someone new. I relished the challenge and was told that I could always find Elliot at Morrison’s, the local deli, around lunchtime. That's where I first met him. He was several years younger than me. He had blond, almost white, hair, thick glasses, and an intelligent but angry look, as if the world had offended him.

Hunched over a pastrami sandwich, he positively exuded alienation and indifference. I sat down at his table. A quick look was all I got. Then he picked up his food and walked over to another table. I followed him. I started speaking about jazz. He ignored me. Then I did what I have often done since—said something provocative to grab his attention. I rubbished Sinatra, said he was just a smooth crooner like Bing Crosby. Elliot adored Sinatra. He came alive, excoriating me as an ignorant fool with no sense of music, no ability to understand Sinatra’s timing, improvisation, and unique capacity to take a tune and inject it with soul and angst as well as love.

I started laughing. He laughed back, and so began a friendship that lasted until he passed away. We adopted each other. He taught me how to dress more elegantly. He inducted me into the secrets of Glasgow Jewish life. Despite his seeming detachment, he knew everyone—those in and those out. Most importantly, he put me in touch with some families that had completely withdrawn from Jewish life.

He often accompanied me on my lecture tours and tried to manage me. He even helped me through some of my problems. Above all, he taught me about jazz—who was good, who was great, and who was in a league of his or her own. We went to jazz clubs and I even ended up writing jazz reviews for the Glasgow Echo under his tutelage. He never came to Giffnock synagogue. And I never tried pushing religion on him. But we spent a lot of time together.

I left Glasgow, and Elliot started commuting between Glasgow and the USA. Every now and again, he would appear wherever it was that I was living at the time. We would spend time together, go for walks, and then he would disappear for years. In his final sickness, he did indeed for the first time talk about his Jewish soul. He told me he had finally been able to go into Giffnock shul.

Elliot Meadow never married. But he had some very close male and female friends. Not everyone could cope with him. But if you could, his humor, warmth, and charm were enriching. In the right mood, he was a great conversationalist, full of anecdotes and stories of musicians and characters he had met and admired. He died aged 71, after a two-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving his mark on the jazz scene in Scotland, in America, and on me.

March 16, 2017

Mazal

We have just celebrated Purim, a festival named after the lottery, the pur, that nearly decided the fate of the Jewish people. But the randomness of the lottery was defeated by God’s laws. You might have thought that this would have knocked luck or astrology on its head once for all. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

We wish each other mazal tov all the time, and many of us are very concerned about whether other people can have a good or bad impact on our mazal—whether an evil eye might strike us down or a curse ruin us.

But isn’t this total superstition? And isn’t the Torah unmistakably clear that we must not be superstitious? “There is no divination in Jacob and no magic in Israel,” says Balaam in Numbers 23, and the law in Deuteronomy (18) is specific: “You must not practice divination, astrology, reading omens, charms or sorcery, dealing with spirits or calling up the dead.”

Until relatively recently, everyone related to the natural universe through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. Spells and incantations carried out by experts could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism saw us as the playthings of the gods, and our fates were decided by the planets. In contrast, monotheism, I always believed, posited that the world functioned according to its own rules, which might overrule our human requirements (Avodah Zara 54b), and only our relationship with God could affect us spiritually. Our task was to accept what happens to us and see the positive. “Whatever God does (allows to happen) is for the best.”

The earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia nearly four thousand years ago. The great Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) produced a framework of linking the astronomical solar system to astrology that is still used in this day, although scientifically it no longer holds true. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that the stars influenced human behavior, though they did not determine it. Only in the 19th century did medicine succeed in severing the connection between the moon and lunacy. Yet even such moderns as Carl Jung tried to modify astrology in such a way as to have it remain relevant.

Given the importance of astrology in medieval Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is hardly surprising that it persisted. In Judaism astrology’s interconnection with mysticism gave it continued relevance and influence. Today there are many “rabbis” who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and the disturbed try to cope with the pressures of life. Usually for a healthy fee or “charitable donation.”

The idea persists in some Orthodox circles that astrology in Judaism is still a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world. But then so does the idea that that past rabbis could never have got their science wrong, and if some claimed the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth every day then we must be wrong not they.

The term mazal is used only once in the Bible, in Kings II: “The pagans worship the sun the moon and the planets [mazalot].” Clearly it does not approve. Yet it all depends on what you understand mazal to mean. Is mazal fortune, something beyond our control? In which case, how does it differ from God? No one of any significance in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said mazal is the same as God or divine intervention.

The Talmud in Shabbath 156a discusses the issue:
“R. Hanina said: The planetary influence gives wisdom and wealth and affects Israel. R. Johanan, on the other hand, said that Israel is immune from planetary influence [mazal used here as planetary influence]. Rab too holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence, and so does R. Akiba.”
There is a great deal more throughout the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. It is clear that rabbinic opinion is divided. Today it is difficult to find any major rabbinic figure who will publicly decry the popular preoccupation with mazal, ayin harah (the evil eye), and their offshoots and variations. Once upon a time (Brachot 10b), our leaders had the guts to act against superstition. “King Chizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze serpent (of Moses’s) days, and the authorities of the day approved it.” Nowadays, sadly, they would make money out of it.

When mazal means random luck and superstition, it is clearly against Judaism (even if I know that most Jews relate to the religion superstitiously). But the idea that there are forces beyond our control—wars, epidemics or financial collapses—that affect us badly is obvious. Even so, many people have stories of miraculous events, cures, salvations, and successes that they put down to some external force, when the reality can easily be explained by examining events and causes and unusual capacities.

Those aspects of our life over which we have no control do indeed render us impotent, in the lap of the gods. Nevertheless, one does pray or hope that what unfolds through natural and unnatural causes will not have a negative effect on us. Just as we pray that our children will have an easy life free from danger, disease, and hardship. Hope for something is not the same as thinking that individuals can change the will of God or the nature of the universe. Recovering from cancer may be because certain types of cancer are more able to be fought and being given a placebo or a blessing might encourage a sick person to battle the ailment.

Some humans understand aspects of the universe we inhabit and the motives of other humans better than the ordinary person can. Some people can train themselves to read faces and gestures that tell them more about humans than the average person can see. Some people call that mind-reading and some mind-readers use this knowledge to get rich. A doctor can usually read the physical signs better than others because of his training, and a psychiatrist can read the psychological signs because of hers. But it is equally true that both may also miss something that a more holistic mind can appreciate. We must distinguish between skills learned and claims of supernatural powers.

I do believe we can “make our own luck.” By being positive, looking out for possibilities, and thinking several steps ahead one can take better advantage of what life has to offer. This is one of the ideas behind the statement of the Talmud to avoid bad company. One’s mood, attitude, company, and friends can all impact the quality of one’s life. Avoiding bad vibes and negativity is great advice.

Random luck, on the other hand, has no place in an intelligent or a genuinely spiritual mind. To wish someone luck is simply a popular way of expressing one’s hopes and aspirations. To think that mazal has a power of its own that can be harnessed to control the uncontrollable is pure superstition. To treat it as code for the things we have no control over is less destructive, morally deficient, and intellectually primitive. The notion that there are irrational spells, or mystical incantations that can guarantee protection is as delusionary as fool’s gold. And most of us are indeed fools.

Maimonides, the great rationalist, in his Laws of Idolatry said:
“Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning—such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15).
Maimonides said that all references in the Talmud to spirits and metaphysical control over human affairs was simply a reflection of popular delusion. The masses believed in it, so the rabbis spoke in a language they were familiar with.

I realize there are many people who need the “security” of magic, fortune, astrology, and luck. Often life is so awful to us that we cannot cope. We need comfort. It is false comfort, lies, that I deplore. I accept human frailty, because I am frail. But I am offended when I hear people say that it is a requirement of religion or even an essential part of it.

March 09, 2017

Drunk on Purim

One of the most distasteful aspects of Purim are the hordes of drunken acolytes throwing up on the streets of religious ghettos around the world. To make it worse, they claim to be doing this in the name of religion. From the Bible onwards, the wise have excoriated drunkenness. It is an impediment to priests performing, to people praying, and an affront to human dignity. It reduces us to a complete lack of self-control and is a desecration of everything genuine spirituality reveres. If “wine gladdens the heart of man”, drunkenness destroys it. Pleasure is good. But it is a feature of the physical world in general that any pleasure taken to extremes cloys, and drunkenness is the mot obvious.

Yet the Talmud says that a person should drink so much wine on the day that he can no longer distinguish between “Let Haman be cursed,” and “Let Mordecai be blessed.” There is some debate about the Aramaic word used. Normally in the Bible and later, the Hebrew word for a drunk is Shikur. Here the Talmud uses the Aramaic Besumeh, which is used for such things as being merry, perfumed wine, or spices. But these are unlikely to befuddle the mind to the point of irrationality. And the Talmud itself describes an occasion when one drunk rabbi killed another on Purim, which led, unsurprisingly, to a reaction!

Nevertheless, the command to drink on Purim found its way into medieval Jewish law—even though the glossaries add that it is better not to get drunk. The rational Maimonides is clear about priorities:
“Rather a person should increase the amount he gives to the poor than the amount he spends on food and drink, and presents to friends. Because there is no greater nor more glorious joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and strangers [perhaps read refugees], for assisting the desperate and the run-down is the equivalent of greeting God personally.”
On my first Purim in Israel in yeshiva as a teenager away from home, I got drunk twice. The novelty of Shushan Purim was something we didn’t have in the Diaspora!. The first day I was at the home of a very correct and dignified religious man. I sneaked extra shots of cherry brandy until I found myself lying on the floor underneath the table. His stern rebuke soon brought me to my senses. On the second day I was invited into the home of the head of the yeshiva, and once again I disgraced myself. Staggering out of his home, I fell down the steps and ended in the gutter. He sent his son to tell me that this was not the way a real yeshivah student should behave on Purim. Suitably chastened and embarrassed, I have never got drunk since. I have often felt merry, even a little high on an expensive malt. But never to the point of losing control. And if I fainted after a glass of wine on one hot Israeli day, it was only because I drank on an empty stomach and after a long hike. No significant rabbi I have ever encountered has got drunk (at least not in my presence).

Let me see if I can find anything to say in favor. Chasidism has indeed argued that alcohol loosens one’s inhibitions in matters of the spirit. We are uptight and reserved by nature. In order to overcome this inhibition, a shot or two or three of vodka might encourage us to relax and dance and thus find ourselves closer God. But if drink were the way to encounter the Divine, then the bigger the drunk, the greater the saint! I don't think so. Otherwise we might as well all take drugs and kid ourselves it helps us reach heaven. No doubt Timothy Leary would agree. I suppose being a drunk and an addict, then, should qualify one as pious. Drinking on Purim is a mitzvah, but only in so far as it can lead one to confusion, spiritual uncertainty perhaps. Not malfunction or throwing up.

There is, I agree, a stage in between sobriety and drunkenness, and that is a sense of wellbeing in which one feels grateful for one’s blessings, at ease in the world, generous and warm to one’s friends and those less fortunate. When one might forget one’s troubles and anxieties and relax in the sense that there is a God in heaven. Order in the world might be possible after all. In other words to “always look on the bright side of life.” I think that is precisely what the rabbis meant about drinking to the point where one wasn’t sure who would best for the world in its present condition. Sometimes (very rarely), a rigid, unsympathetic hand can be better for discipline.

There is a lot of bad stuff out there. People who want to kill, to swindle and defraud, and to grab as much as they can for themselves. There are others who so believe they are right that they wish to impose their beliefs and systems on others, regardless of the means they use to do so.

Now Donald Trump might remind some of you of Achashverosh. Except of course he is a teetotaler. He is certainly not a Haman, though some idiots claim he is worse. And Ivanka might turn into Esther, though she doesn’t really fit the part. But his fumbling, braggart personality reminds me of an oriental potentate who believes he is God’s gift to mankind. And although he cannot himself be blamed for the revolting racists and anti-Semites who have come out of the woodwork, no one seemed to bother when similarly mentally challenged lefties worked their dogmas under a different regime. Nevertheless, there is as sense at the moment of a loss of order and direction.

Purim reminds us of regime change. Of the possibility of a different order. Things are not always what they seem to be. Only time will tell. No, I do not wish to compare the two situations. But I do believe that every now and again one needs change, even revolution. One needs to have the old certainties challenged. Purim is a festival of over-turnings. I have been conscious for a long time of the arrogance of the dogmatic left and its bias against Jewish rights of self-determination. But I cannot identify with much of the right-wing mindset. I dislike excessive social control and dependency. And I despise right-wing selfishness and greed without concern for the poor and the weak. I am caught in the middle. I do not like politics or dogmatic politicians of any sort.

I don’t think either side is completely right or wrong. There is good and bad in both. In the absence of perfection, let there be cycles of change. Usually the system that does better wins out. Chaos can be good. I do not despair. There are enough checks and balances to ensure that the extremes will be modified. The reality of power is sobering and limiting. One simply cannot ride roughshod over everyone forever.

I will drink (in moderation) on Purim, knowing that if we fight for what we believe in, for tolerance (which goes both ways), for our values, it is preferable to have hope and happiness to despair. You never know when a Haman will arise, but equally you never know when he will fall. There are few certainties in life. But having Purim helps!However, if there are some who think that being drunk is how they are supposed to celebrate, I think they have the wrong end of the stick…and the sick.

March 02, 2017

Joy

“When the month of Adar begins, we increase the amount of joy (simcha),” says the Talmud. What does that word joy mean? If I spend every day in bed or at the gym, or in front of a screen, does that count? The Hebrew word simcha (usually translated as “joy”) needs clarification. It contrasts with pleasure, which usually refers to physical sensations. The Hebrew word that best represents that is hanaah. So what is joy? Should it be more spiritual, cerebral or ethereal? What is meant here?

Adar is the month in which we celebrate Purim. Purim is the one celebration of the Jewish calendar that takes place outside the Land of Israel. It records the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman, the Persian chancellor who wanted to kill all the Jews in the empire some two and a half millennia ago. Some think this is the first example of pure anti-Semitism, because Haman’s main reason for getting rid of the all the Jews was pure visceral hatred. The Jews were just different. “Not like us.”

We read the biblical the story of Esther, dress in disguises, give charity, gifts to friends, and have a really whopper meal with songs, rhymes, jokes and charades. All practical things. Does the phrase above mean that we should start doing this right from the beginning of the month and not just on the day itself? But we don’t. So what does it mean?

On the face of it, the word simcha is used in the Torah to describe the pleasure of worshipping God, spiritual, as well as the physical pleasure on festivals. But the Talmud says that you can only have such pleasure from wine and food. Though it adds fancy clothes and jewels for women. The Talmud also says that the real simcha, is when one gets married. Shabbat and festivals do have a long association with marital delights. So does simcha just mean physical delights?

One is bound to wonder why it took the mystical tradition to bring such spiritual experiences to the fore in the language of Jewish religious practice. The Talmud does talk about the ecstasies of prayer, of Rabbi Akivah lost in profound prayer to the point where he loses any sense of time. Prayer can be (sadly, too often it isn’t) a really uplifting and joyful experience. So too can meditation, devekut, feeling close to God, the universe—the goal of all mystics. Shouldn’t this be the primary aim of joy on a festival? Why doesn’t the Megillah mention that?

My theory is that the Torah is concerned, as a constitution, primarily with practical behavior. The festivals were opportunities for pilgrim Jews to come together, to gather in Jerusalem and observe, passively, the ceremonies in the Temple. But they were also expected to bring produce or monetary equivalent to eat and spend together, to share and enjoy. And food to be shared with God, priests, family, and friends was the social adhesive that enhanced a sense of community and people.

When Chapter 24 of Exodus discusses the Sinai Revelation, it mentions those who had a vision of God. They experienced something phenomenal, and promptly sat down to eat and drink. Linking spirituality to materiality makes a lot of sense. One does not negate the other. It values a combination. It is holistic. Even so, it strikes as strange our western binary minds that distinguish spirit from matter.

That is why I suggest that joy, rather than pleasure, is an appropriate word for simcha—because it is much broader. In the month of Adar, we celebrate our survival by giving to the poor, presents to friends, and having a festive meal. These are all positive actions that reinforce a sense of well-being, community, and peoplehood. The goal of religion is to synthesize the relationship between humans and God. Eating together can do this. Of course, one can eat alone and pray alone. But doing it as part of a community stimulates other emotions and relationships.

Celebration can be personal but it has a wider impact if it is communal. Actions are what count. To invite the poor and the stranger. We increase simcha through good deeds. I have always been impressed by the response of the Jews to Haman’s failed decree. Having removed the threat, the Jews share their good fortune with others.

We know the constant threat of annihilation. As Jews, we experience hatred and alienation all the time. It is toxic. If it makes us toxic too, it will have succeeded. But if instead it makes us become grateful for life, sensitive and supportive of others, then goodness overcomes evil instead of submitting to it. The reward for good is more good, and the punishment for hatred is more hatred.

When we feel depressed, inadequate, or inferior, instead of wallowing in it and feeling negative, destructive, and envious, we should get up and do good things, visit the sick, help the poor, increase friendship and love. That is the way to go forward in life. The way to live, rather than narcissism and egoism. That is why, in the lead-up to Purim, when Adar begins, we should be doing good things that will give others and us joy, and make us happy, better people. Simcha is usually linked to the word mitzvah, a command—simcha shel mitzvah. That means action. Doing good things.

But there’s another aspect to this build up towards Purim. We prepare in advance for the somber days of Tishrei and Days of Awe. But just as important is the need to build up towards days of joy. In practice this is usually confined to mystics. But just as we ordinary people experience the physical , so too, we should try to experience the spiritual. Just as we prepare for the serious, so too there is a benefit in preparing and getting into the spiritual mood, in advance, for the joy of Purim.