Purim Approaches With Complexity…And Humor

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

(based on Sefaria’s source sheets)

Image credit: https://motwebmediastg01.blob.core.windows.net/nop-thumbs-images/0008502_purim_493.jpeg

As a rabbi, I have been making good use of the online Jewish resource, Sefaria, since its website was established not so long ago. Its content virtually (no pun intended!) spans an immense compilation of Judaic resources formerly available only in Hebrew or Hebrew-Aramaic texts  — like the Talmud. Now this vast treasure is translated into English and available with the click of a mouse. The vast amount of sheer vision, work, intelligence, and technological skill that went into producing this site is indeed remarkable.

Recently Sefaria sent me a complex source sheet for a “Pro-Mordechai Purim Shpiel” (supporting Mordechai as the hero of this story – that’s the way the story is traditionally told — about a failed anti-Semitic attempt to kill all the Jews in Persia).  In this version, the villain is Haman, and in the retelling of the story, we greet his name with hisses and noisemakers (graggers). In case Haman’s virulent antisemitism sounds alarmingly familiar  — and even current — it’s helpful to know that the Purim/Esther/Mordechai/Haman story happened a long time ago. It is recorded in the Megillah, a scroll dated to the fourth century B.C., which Jews refer to as a very long story indeed! Fortunately, there’s lots of humor in it (biblical scholar Adele Berlin refers to it as a comedy, even a burlesque, with its never-ending banquets), as well as tragedy fortunately prevented. So through the centuries, Purim has continued to be a happy, if somewhat bittersweet, tale of survival. For many Jews, the Purim celebration has served as a needed break from tsouris, a safety valve from tension.

Believed to have been redacted by the Sages of the Great Assembly from an original text by Mordechai, Megillat Esther was the last of the 24 books of the Tenakh to be canonized. The rabbis of that time were concerned about whether 14-year old Esther, chosen for her beauty to be Persian King Ahasuerus’ queen, was eating kosher food when she attended the Persian banquets. They decided that, as a good Jewish (her religion hidden) girl, she either ate vegetarian foods only or she ate before the banquets. The rabbis also excused/whitewashed her acceptance of sexual intercourse with the king, albeit to save the Jewish people from harm, on the grounds that she remained passive; she didn’t allow herself to enjoy it. Hmmm?

At any rate, it’s a great story, a very teachable one. Now  teaching through storytelling is a well-established educational and favored Judaic method. In fact, approximately one-third of the Babylonian Talmud (one of the earliest and most honored commentaries on the Torah) consists of stories. Some are legalistic, and some are not. Talmudic aggadic (moral and ethical but not legalistic) stories are not fussy about time and place. So the fact that the central rabbis involved in this Purim shpiel – Rava and Zeira – lived mainly in different centuries (3rd C.E. for Rava and 4th C.E. for Zeira) and different countries (Babylonia and Israel) doesn’t matter. They might have crossed paths here and there. After all, they were both Amoraim — rabbinic scholars whose commentary on the Mishna, the first part of the Talmud (in Hebrew), created the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud (largely in Aramaic). And they both lived after the destruction of the Second Temple when it became increasingly difficult to call your address Israel, which Zeira chose to do.

But as this Purim story begins, Rabbis Rava (who lives in Babylon) and Zeira (who lives in Israel) are planning to go to the big Purim feast in Persian Shushan together. Got it? So what does the Megillah say?

In Megillah 7b:7-8, Rava explains that we should always get so intoxicated on Purim that we can’t tell the difference between our friends (Mordechai) and our enemies (the wicked courtier, Haman). Unfortunately, following his own dictum, Rava got so drunk that he killed his friend, Rabbi Zeira. The next day, a horrified Rava prayed with such remorse that a merciful God allowed a miracle to take place, and Rava was able to revive Rabbi Zeira.  However, when Purim came around the next year, and Rava actually suggested that he and Zeira prepare the Purim feast together, small wonder that Rabbi Zeira declined. “Miracles don’t happen each and every hour,” he said firmly.

Up to this point, if you take this story literally, it raises several questions, as Sefaria suggests: 1) Why did Rava kill his friend? 2) How was Rava able to bring him back from the dead? 3) Since Rava taught that being intoxicated on Purim was a good thing — because a drunken state erased the differences between people — why would the story portray him as being so out-of-control he killed his friend? Why would the Talmud’s editors include this anonymous story anyway?

Keep in mind that Talmudic stories usually have many levels of meaning to unravel: First of all, Rava had conflicting views about alcohol. He quoted the Bible (Proverbs 23:31) as teaching can that even looking at wine [red like blood] can lead to bloodshed, and, in Rava’s case, it certainly did. On the other hand, “wine and good scents make me wise,” he said. He thought alcohol helped people be more intuitive in their judgements.

However, Rava had a Machiavellian goal in promoting alcohol consumption at Purim. He wanted to use alcohol as a political tool in persuading people to understand that Mordechai the Jew was not the hero he is usually considered: When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman (a man of noble lineage placed in a high position by King Ahasuerus, who favored him), Mordechai actually did the wrong thing, Rava insisted. He  endangered all the Jews in Persia.

But Zeira countered that it was idolatry to bow down to Haman, and “the merciful Torah does not hold someone liable for worshipping idolatry under coercion.” According to Sefaria, “Rabbi Zeira, like Rava, held a minority position that it is permissible to [i.e., pretend to] worship idolatry under coercion.” While they both held the same “ideological framework for suggesting that Mordechai made the wrong choice in refusing to bow to Haman,” Rava went too far by using alcohol to persuade people to their point of view.

And Rava also made a big thing out of the fact that Zeira did not have faith in a second miracle happening (many Jews at that time believed that only miracles could save them). And he turned on Rabbi Zeira. Did Rabbi Zeira lack faith? Why didn’t the current generation believe in miracles when previous generations did?

Against this background of uncertainty, two other rabbis enter the picture – most of the actors in aggadic dramas are rabbis! Now Rav Pappa asks Abaye, a rabbi constantly in ideological conflict with Rava in Talmudic disputes, what is different about the current generation, why they don’t believe in miracles. And Abaye replies: “The previous generations would martyr themselves for the sanctification of God’s name, while we do not martyr ourselves for the sanctification of God’s name….[In other words], “Jews [of the new generation] are not willing to die to sanctify God’s name. This is precisely what those who view Mordechai as a hero think that Mordechai did.” Mordechai was willing to risk the penalties that would come from refusing to bow to Haman. For me, that’s a hero.

It is speculated that Abaye (often in opposition to Rava’s thinking in the Talmud) was actually the anonymous rabbi who wrote this story. Worshipping Haman through fear, he asserted, was not an argument that scripture supported. On the other hand, he also believed that Mordechai should probably not have antagonized him.

Esther (Esther, Megillah 9:26), the heroine of the story, pops up at this point to support her Uncle Mordechai’s position. “What did Mordechai see that made him incite Haman?” she cried. “Because of this,” she says, referring to the fact that Haman had made himself a human idol to be worshipped, “the miracle occurred.” It happened because Mordechai refused to bow down to him. Miracles occur because of rightful actions like this.

There was also another deep-seated reason for the antagonism between Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai came from good stock, from powerful people. On his father’s side, he was a Benjaminite, descended through the generations from Kish. And who was Kish but the father of Saul, the first Jewish king? On Mordechai’s mother’s side, he was descended from generations of Judeans, and King David was the king of Judah who went on to unite all of Israel.

Now Haman also came from powerful people, the Amalekites. He was descended from the King of Agag, who, you will remember, Saul was ordered by God to kill when he conquered the Amalekites. But Saul spared him in return for keeping some of the spoils. As a result, the prophet Samuel made sure that Saul lost his throne to David.

Jews are supposed to remember to forget Amalek, the warrior who attacked the weak, the sick, the helpless – and never to have anything to do with the Amalekites. So you can see that Mordechai and Haman might still have retained considerable residual anger from their ancestors. And that is why, at Purim, we Jews shake our noise-makers and stamp our feet whenever we hear Haman’s name mentioned in the Purim shpiels. By the way, a Purim shpiel is a satiric play, yes, even a burlesque. Despite recounting a history that teetered on the edge of tragedy, it’s a lot of fun.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved

When the Rain Stopped

When the Rain Stopped [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Artist: Issa Ibrahim

Ah, today the rain stopped! In Los Angeles, where it rarely rains, it has been pouring vast quantities of liquid from the grey sky all week. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” That’s what I sang as a child while I jumped rope. As an adult, I know how important rain is to our survival. We need it for our crops, our food supply, our water, our sustenance. For centuries, during the religious service, Jews – and adherents to other religions — have prayed for rain. Now, with the California sun barely peeping out from the clouds, birds are already chirping in the early morning. It’s time to get up and face the world, time to leave my warm and cozy nest, my new bed with the head and foot rests that can rise at the touch of a button.  As I emerge, I feel a bit like the biblical Noah. Is it really dry out there?

Like the birds that inhabit the skies, most people are nesters. For most of us, there is no place like home. The sentimental slogan “Home Sweet Home” has long adorned wall plaques in America. In another era, children were taught to embroider these words as samplers. Still, other people have other ideas; they don’t want to be tied to place: nomads, gypsies, hippies in the 60s and 70s, young people with wanderlust today. Millennials unsure of where their next job might be. Their instincts impel them toward the freedom to move. For them, “home is where you hang your hat.”

So too, with ravens, who are among the cleverest of birds. For them, home is where you find a food supply. They are scavengers who will eat anything, even carrion. Doves, on the other hand, have the nesting urge. No matter how far away they are from home, they will find their way back. They have long been used by the military to deliver messages and bring back a response. Remarkable birds.

But these two birds, the raven and the dove, were not counted among the pairs that peopled the biblical Noah’s Ark . Rather, Noah kept them as domestic pets. This is not so unusual in the Middle East, where even today well-to-do Arabs — in Saudi Arabia, for example — keep falcons as pets. Historically, ravens and doves have been domesticated pets for centuries.

These two birds are important characters in the biblical Noah story. And the dove, which has come to symbolize peace, is the connector to the Jonah story [2]. The Hebrew name, yonah, means dove. Creatures who inhabit the waters, in the form of two whales, male and female, are also central to the Jonah story.

Let’s take a look at Noah first. Noah did not want to leave his home. He built the Ark that was to house his family and samples of every existing creature, kosher and unkosher, only at the command of God. This unlikely human and animal cargo all floated atop the waters in that Ark until it appeared that the flood God had sent to wipe out a sinful mankind might be receding. Perhaps Noah would soon find land. But what Noah dreaded, according to Sheila Tuller Keiter, who wrote an article called “The Integral Connection between Noah and Jonah,” was that he might find corpses — not floating in the sea, but piled up on the land.

That is why he first sent out his pet raven to check whether land could be sighted. Noah knew that dry land was close by. The Torah tells us so. He sent out the raven to check for piled up death. If the scavenging raven sighted a new food source — corpses or carrion, — he would undoubtedly take off from the Ark to feast. But the raven did not see dead things, nothing to scavenge, nothing to eat. So he merely circled the Ark a few times and returned home, to the Ark. He knew that Noah would feed him. Then, after an interval, Noah sent out his pet dove, who, sure enough, returned after a time with an olive branch in its beak, perfect to start a nest in the Ark. But Noah realized that a green olive branch signified that dry land was close by, and he was able to land the Ark on Mount Ararat, where some biblical scholars believe it can still be found. In subsequent years, holding out an olive branch also came to signify peace.

In the living room of our home, a beautiful, abstract etching by the famous Italian artist, Emilio Greco, looks back at us. Created for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, it symbolizes universal peace. In our particular home, our little nest, it is the symbol for shalom bayit, a peaceful home.

As for the prophet Jonah, he was a nester too, and  like the dove, a Home Sweet Home man. When God told him to go to a foreign city, Ninevah, he fled the command to what he thought would be safety aboard a ship. Even though the ship was caught in a horrific storm, he fell asleep in its belly. He nested. When he is thrown overboard, at his suggestion, by the superstitious sailors, he finds a new home in the belly of a big fish who swallows him. But poor Jonah goes from belly to belly.

According to a midrash Tuller Keiter cites, God considers Jonah to be too comfortable in the spacious male fish’s belly. So Jonah is ejected and immediately swallowed by a female fish, where he is crowded by embryos. Now he definitely feels so much pressure and discomfort that he finally prays to God. In a way, his experience in the belly of the fish is a kind of re-birthing. Finally, he finds his courage to leave home. He delivers the message of destruction to Ninevah, leaves the city for what we would call the suburbs today, and immediately builds himself a nest there, in the form of a sukkah. The story of Jonah, with its dramatic details, is often read on Yom Kippur afternoon. The idea is that when we have the courage to leave our areas of comfort, we are forced to grow and to develop empathy for others. Fortunately, the citizens of Ninevah listen to Jonah’s warnings and repent. God does not destroy them. And Jonah is safe too. Peace prevails in his snug new home.

Facing the brave new world is not for everyone. As we have seen, Noah was also afraid to embark in a new land. He left the Ark only when God commanded him. However, his first act, after making offerings to God, was to plant a vineyard so that he could eventually make wine and mask his insecurity with drink. Racked with survivor guilt, and regretting his previous lack of empathy for others, he lives out the rest of his life stoned (on alcohol, not marijuana).

As for the dove and the raven, they each found what they needed, a secure shelter and sufficient food. I would like to believe that they lived happily ever after – and that they provided some familiar consolation for Noah.

[1] Originally I wrote this essay as a sermon based on an article by Sheila Tuller Keiter, “Noah and the Dove: The Integral Connection Between Noah and Jonah,” The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 40:4, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

Use It or Lose It!

Image credit: https://mycroft.ai/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/languages-edited.png

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

During the years (1948-52) when I was a high school student in Canada, we were required to learn Latin (good basis for many languages) for all four years if you were, like me, in an Arts programme (Canadian spelling).  Actually I was in an experimental combined Arts and Science stream, so I had to study Chemistry or Biology too on the way to university.

At that time, occasional doctoral theses were still being written in Latin in some of the more esoteric academic realms, especially in Europe, but at McGill University (where I earned two degrees) most Masters and Doctoral theses were required to be written in English (now they can be written in French too).

In order to get a doctoral degree at the esteemed McGill University when I began my arts college studies there in 1952 at the advanced age of 16 – and where from being called by my first name as Corinne, I was now being addressed formally as Miss Copnick – you had to have command of four languages, including one Romance (e.g.., French or Italian) and one Classical (e.g., Latin or Greek) language. As a Freshman undergraduate, I already knew Latin, French, and English, so I studied Spanish. I was even awarded a sought-after, summer scholarship to study in Spain, but my mother wouldn’t let me go. Women alone could not go out safely at night in Spain at that time; there had been reports of kidnappings and worse; and my mother worried that something dire might happen to her darling daughter. So, no Spain.

I cried because I could already read Spanish poetry, which has beautiful imagery. My professor was aghast. “You will lose your Spanish if you don’t use it,” he cried, dramatically shooting himself in the head with an imaginary pistol. “A language is a living thing.” Professors were still wearing black robes both at the podium and in the classroom, and you were supposed to listen to them lecture and save your questions for the Teaching Assistant. Nevertheless, since I was not yet an adult, I had to listen to my mother too, and she said “No.” The Spanish I speak today, some 65 plus years later, has indeed grown rusty and halting from disuse, but I can still read it fluently (with the help of a dictionary when needed).

I keep telling myself that it’s time to take a refresher Spanish course or two, especially necessary since I live in Los Angeles. But instead I just signed up for a 9-month virtual course in Modern Hebrew. Where? At Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Online. Yes, yes, I’m a rabbi now, and I’m well versed in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, and I’ve studied Aramaic (in which the Talmud is partly written). But in Modern Israel, my Hebrew would sound, well, shall we say a little Shakespearean? I need to acquire the modern vocabulary (Sababa, today’s Hebrew for “So Long!” or “Yallah” for “Let’s Go!” are actually Arabic!) because I plan to visit Israel again in the next year or too, and I’d like to be able to speak the vernacular beyond Cama zeh oleh? (“how much does it cost?”) or slicha (“excuse me,” elbows pointed outward as you make your way through the crowd). I’d also like to see a modern Israeli movie without needing the subtitles.

Why Israel next year? First of all, I want to go there once again while I’m still alive, and I’m getting on. Secondly, two of my grandchildren are now contemplating taking their Birthright opportunity to visit Israel next year, and two of my four daughters have not been there as yet either. So the idea is that we’d all go, and that my grandkids would hook up with us (at the end of their Birthright trip) for an extra week or two in the Holy Land. Use it or lose it!

And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us believe it will come, peace will at last prevail.


©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved

Linking to the Ancestors

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/220balinese_arts_and_dance.htm

The balmy weather and the vivid greenness of surrounding nature in Los Angeles in the last few days (after all, we did have a week of rain about a week or so ago) reminded me of the paradisal gentleness of nature in Bali (if you put aside the heaps of plastic that have accumulated on their once pristine beaches). Surrounded by Muslim neighbors in other Indonesian countries that do not include Judaism among the allowed official religions, Bali is a Hindu country and welcomes people of all religions.

Their own religion places great stress on connection to ancestors. For the Balinese, this beautiful island will always be the land of their ancestors. “Our young people always come back,” an ageing Balinese man told me. “They go away to get educated – doctors, lawyers, teachers – but they always come back to Bali. Because this is where their ancestors are.”

The roads to the main cities and marketplaces may be overcrowded with tourists now, but in at least one remote village, tradition is honored. Once a year the villagers unearth the buried bones of their ancestors and wash them. Then, satisfied they have honored their ancestors’ memory, they rebury the clean bones. In the ancient Balinese way, they are paying respect to those who have come before them.

In rural houses of worship, the large statues that represent the many gods of their Hindu mythology, are draped by the local people with cloaks and hats made of gold cloth or other fine materials. Food and drink are set before them as if they were still present in this world. Of course, the local people “know” that statues are not really gods; they are symbols, representations of their belief system, and they are paying homage to these beliefs.

I bought two shadow puppets made in the traditional way from leather (not plastic, though these were available as well) and hand-painted to represent these mythological gods. They have exotic names and stories that the Balinese people well know and treasure. For the moment, they sit in a tall vase in my home, souvenirs of a country blessed by nature but already caught in the throes of environmental change. Yet the casual tourist, like myself in a brief visit over two days, is likely to feel that Bali will be all right. Because the children will always come back.

During my brief visit, I kept thinking of the opening verses – “Patriarchs” — of the central prayer of the Jewish religion: “The Amidah.” We Jews, too, know where the ancestors are: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah, a purchase in silver coins recorded in the Torah. Joseph carried his father’s bones back to the Holy Land. And the children will always come back to honor and protect their memory.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.

Hitler in Los Angeles?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Just the other day, I attended a compelling but disturbing slide-lecture by acclaimed historian Steven J. Ross, and now I’m in the process of reading his recent book on the same subject, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews foiled Nazi Plots  Against Hollywood and America. Small wonder it has already been picked up for production as a film. Every American, let alone every Jew, should read this book because it is sorely needed to shed some light on the period of societal turmoil in which we are living in currently.

The very first paragraph, a quote from Adolf Hitler in 1933, soon after his election as Chancellor of the Reichstag, is in itself instructive. The Nazi intent was to “undermine the morale of the people of America….Once there is confusion and after we have succeeded in undermining the faith of the American people in their own government, a new group will take over…and we will help them assume power” [1].

As I read these words, the 2017 neo-Nazi, torchlit march in Charlottesville, South Carolina took on a new dimension.  Especially chilling is Ross’ claim that the U.S. government of the 1930s and even into the early 1940s was so preoccupied with outing Communist subversion in America that they totally missed the clandestine Nazi actions that were undermining the U.S. with intent to eventually take over the government.

Antisemitism was the rallying call of this Nazi group, made up largely of German-Americans, with prominent and powerful people in the Hollywood motion picture industry as their  target. The plots were aimed at Jewish people in the film industry – the killing of top movie moguls and film stars with world-wide recognition like Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson. These Nazis were plotting to hang 20 prominent Hollywood Jews as a signal of permission for other acts of terror against the Jews to follow throughout the U.S.

Why Hollywood? Why Los Angeles? Hollywood was seen as a perfect propaganda platform for worldwide attention. The selection of Los Angeles had a geographical motive. According to Ross, Hitler’s government was planning to unite with Japan to control the world. (It is not surprising, therefore, that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor, and America had no choice but to enter World War II.) Los Angeles is located halfway between Berlin and Japan so that, in the view of these foreign powers, it was a perfect place  — no, not Florida! — for an American Nazi “White House.” There was even a site chosen (Murphy’s Ranch, near L.A.) where militant Nazi drills of recruited young people took place.

The telling of these events is not a fantasy; what happened is real, supported by very considerable evidence.

It sounds almost impossible that all this clandestine activity could have taken place under the nose of the American government without at least some officials at various levels being aware of it. Sadly, some were not only aware, they were complicit.  So at this point, what Ross’ book details takes on the dimensions of a spy story, replete with double agents.

The spy story gets even more complicated. A small cadre of Jews, however, led by attorney Leon Lewis and aided by some dedicated Christians as well, don’t take these subversive goings-on lying down, however, and  they establish their own counter spy network to foil the plots against the U.S., and specifically Jewish Americans. When I have read the book from cover to cover at least once, I’ll probably write more about what took place. But I don’t want to spoil the action for you, so, in the meantime, it’s a really good idea for you to read it yourself.

[1] Steven J. Ross, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p.1.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.