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Keeping Our Balance: Purim, Freud, & Copenhagen

The Hebrew month of Adar begins tomorrow, which in the Jewish calendar signals joy. The Hebrew phrase is “marbim b’simchah” – when Adar comes, joy increases.

This idea opens a fascinating window onto a tension between western tradition and Jewish tradition. In the heyday of therapy, from Freud to maybe the 1980s, the critical injunction in Western tradition was “go with the flow.” Don’t suppress your emotions. Let it out. Feel the feelings.

We’re in a slightly different phase nowadays – we’ve moved on to behavioral psychology backed by experiential data. So now we have evidence of some of the things that will make us happier. (The good news: turns out that the “O” in JOFEE – getting outdoors more – does make us happier. The bad news for those in the northeast: the optimum temperature for being outdoors is 57 degrees…)

I’m struck that Jewish tradition seems closer to the results of experiential psychology than to Freud. Jewish tradition believes that it can make a claim on us that would in some sense override our “natural” emotions. You are obligated to mourn on Tisha B’Av – even if you just did an IPO and made $50m the week before. You’re obligated to be joyous on Simchat Torah, or on Purim, regardless of what else is happening in the world.

I got a strong lesson in this nineteen years ago, from Rabbi Mickey Rosen, of very blessed memory. On 25th February Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem, murdering 26 people. On the 3rd of March they blew up another Jerusalem bus – same line; the 18, going from Emek Refaim, my neighborhood, into town – and murdered a further 19 people. Then the next day – which was Purim in Tel Aviv, and erev Shushan Purim in Jerusalem – they murdered another 20 people in an attack at the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv.

So I was walking to the megillah reading at Yakar that evening, and I was wondering what on earth would happen. How do you celebrate Purim in such circumstances? I didn’t imagine that we wouldn’t read the megillah. But perhaps Mickey would instruct us to restrain ourselves from expressions of joy – if, indeed, such were possible. No fancy dress, I assumed.

But I was wrong. To a Jewish Martian, familiar with Purim but not having read the news in the previous two weeks, I think there would have been a sense of something off, something slightly restrained. But to any 5 year old or 7 year old that day, there was no way to know that was not one of the happiest days of the year. Fancy dress, hats, costumes, groggers, a certain raucousness.

I do not think that this was merely a sense of life-continues-in-the-face-of-horror – though that was part of it. I think the deeper message was that the obligation to celebrate Purim – to be b’simchah, to be joyous – not merely overrode the present tragedy, but in doing so it expressed a certain core equilibrium at the heart of Jewishness, our own version of Buddhist serenity; the obligation that our will should override emotion, rather than vice versa.

If I may say so: this has never been more important than today.

Last Saturday night I learned of the attacks in Copenhagen earlier that day. I was at Limmud New York, and Amichai Lau Lavie and I were due to teach a session, at 10am the next morning, about shmita. Limmud New York this year was absolutely superb, an incredible testimony to the hard work of so many in planning and delivering it; but it was very striking to me that not one in more than 200 discrete sessions was about the recent attacks in Europe or, more generally, the threat both to the Jewish people and to the Western world from Islamic extremists. Shmita comes partly to teach us about longer cycles of time, so this present year is especially an opportunity to think about what has changed in the world, since the last shmita year in 2008 – and what our vision is, or might be, for 2022.

So Amichai and I announced that our session the next morning would be focused on “Reflections on Copenhagen and Paris.” There was a large-ish crowd, and it was an important session. The heart of what I think intuitively each of us felt in relation to what had happened – to what, in some sense, is happening – is that we must neither turn away, nor lose our balance. Not turning away involves reflecting on these attacks; registering them; mourning them; paying attention to changes in the world; and resolving that as Westerners in the 21st century our commitments to social justice – in relation to climate change, homophobia, inequality, racism – now encompasses the fight against Islamic extremism. We do not really know how to challenge the people who commit murder so casually and viciously, but to ignore these people and this ideology is no different than ignoring ante-bellum slavery, or German anti-semitism, or the terrors of Stalin. It is vital that we say this; especially those of us who think of ourselves as “liberal” or “progressive.”

Yet not losing our balance is no less vital. Terrorists want to provoke over-reaction. This is part of the larger tragedy of Bin Laden; that the 9/11 attacks not only murdered so many New Yorkers that day; they also, in a certain sense, made this country crazy. (Arnold Toynbee: “America is like a large dog in a small room; every time it wags its tail, it breaks something…”) More people have died in traffic accidents in Israel, since the founding of the State, than in all the wars and terrorism put together. We really are living in peace and freedom. Human life involves risk. We will all die. And although we hope for a long and healthy life, tragedy befalls us. We don’t not get in a car lest we be in an accident. (32,719 such deaths in the USA in 2013.) I am against Islamic terrorists, but I do not fear them. What I do fear, though, and what I have more control over, is how I react – not only I as an individual, but also the I that is part of various “we”s – we the Jewish people; we Brits; we Americans. I don’t want us to become paranoid. I don’t want us to fear the world, or the stranger. I don’t want us to be tempted to assume that all Muslims are potential terrorists – though I also don’t want us to ignore dangerous strains in the Muslim world lest we be thought anti-Muslim.

More than anything, I do not want us to internalize the idea that to be a Jew is to be a target, and I do not want us to pass this on to our kids. When I was a kid we came out of shul and played football in the car park. There was no security, no guards. By the time I led Hazon’s Cross-USA bike ride, in the summer of 2000, there was security in Jewish buildings in Europe, and it was striking to me, as an English Jew, that this was not the case here. Everywhere we went we literally rode into the parking lot of a Jewish building – a synagogue, a JCC – parked our bikes, wandered in, said hi to someone, introduced ourselves. Sometimes we called ahead – sometimes we didn’t. No-one minded. No-one asked for ID.

That was fifteen years ago; sadly it is now a world gone by. Being alive in this moment, and being sensitive both to Jewish tradition and to Jewish history, requires of us that we be quite conscious in keeping our balance.

So, despite the heaviness of this topic, I hope that this is indeed a month of marbim b’simchah – of increasing our joy. It’s a time to celebrate our tradition, and to learn about the traditions of others. It’s a time to deepen our friendships with Muslims, not run away from them. And it’s a time when we do not ignore those who have tried to kill us, and we defend ourselves when we must; but we respond to evil by sharing food with friends, by giving money to those in need, by being our best selves, and by celebrating our life and our freedom.

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