Purim and Paul: The Torah Veiled and Unveiled

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 Yehuda Fogel

Unlike the beauties of your world,

In the veil I am seen,

But without it I stay hidden

-Abd al ­Rahmân Jâmî[2]

This upcoming Purim, Jews everywhere will celebrate the holiday of the unseen, and rejoice in radically redemptive concealment.[1] “The perfection of art is to conceal art,” the Roman rhetorician Quintillian was fond of saying, and on Purim we understand this truth. On Purim it is the concealed that is on display: God seems hidden, Esther’s Jewish identity is hidden, and we conceal ourselves in costumes. The concealment we celebrate is first reflected upon in a Talmudic passage (Hulin 139 2:12) that wonders about the biblical roots of the heroine of the Purim story, Esther. “Whence Esther in the Torah?”, the sages ask, in what is either a moment of Talmudic bible-fealty or a tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. The Talmud quotes a verse to answer the query: “I will hide My Face on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18). The Talmud is riffing off a phonetic similarity between the Hebrew term in the verse used to connote hiding, hasteir astir, and Esther. It’s worth noting that the word hiddenness is repeated for emphasis in the biblical verse, in what may constitute a form of double-concealment. This double-concealment is particularly relevant on Purim, a holiday in which the presence of God is doubly-concealed. This double-concealment reflects a double concealment of God that is also on display on Purim.

The first God-concealment: The Purim tale occured in a time in which God’s face was hidden, the divine countenance concealed. Exiled in a foreign land, far from their home, the Jews were facing the unseen face of God. The miracle itself occured not through a revelation of the might of God, but through a subtler God. Instead of the God of earlier revelations, a God seen clearly within the revelation, this revelation reveals a more quiet God, a God willing to hide in the divine partnership with humanity. This miracle happens in the hands of humans. Through Esther’s shrewd political manipulations, God’s subtle revelation courses through mundane tools, revealing the divinity at play even in the hands of humanity.

The second God-concealment: In the entirety of the Book of Esther, God’s name isn’t mentioned once. Not only was God’s role in the miracle hidden, but His role is hidden even from our accounting of the miracle, in the Book of Esther. God’s invisibility, or perhaps anonymity, accentuates the humanness of this book, the concealment of divinity occurring here. In a sense, it wasn’t only God’s role and name missing, but it was the sense of his concealment that was concealed: the concealment of concealment. One feels in the beginning of the Book of Esther that the Jews were comfortable in their exile, enjoying the fruits of divine concealment, drinking the wine of Ahashverosh. It wasn’t just God that was apparently absent, but it was awareness of His Name, or of His absent-ness, that was absent. The Jews of Shushan seem unaware of God’s absence, until this absence becomes painfully realized. Yet it was precisely during this time of doubly-enfolded concealment that the miracle occurred, as the fate of the Jews was turned around, and King Ahashverosh moved from the advice of Haman to that of Esther. This godlessness from our accounting is interesting; in a canon so often obsessed with appreciating God’s role in history, God’s seeming absence from plot and book may subtly illustrate a deeper mode of revelation.The miracle as well was a hidden miracle, a subtle revelation, enacted at the hands of men through the spirit of God.

Interestingly, this ‘godlessness’ itself, the absent-ness of God, is one of the reasons why the Book of Esther received strong reprobation at the hands of Christian scholars. Elliot Horowitz sketches the reaction to Esther among Christian scholars, and points to the telling comments of W.M.L. De Wette (1780-1849) of the University of Berlin, who wrote that the Book of Esther “refers nothing to the operation and direction of God, and contains no religious element.”[3] Horowitz notes as well the words of De Wette’s student, F. Bleek, who considered the absence of God’s name to be “characteristic of the untheocratic spirit” of Esther, which represents the “very narrow minded and Jewish spirit of revenge and persecution.”

The literary critic James Wood is fond of asking one seemingly-straightforward question when reading, that he picked up from his rebbe in reading, Dr. Stephen Heath: ‘What’s at stake in this passage?’[4] In thinking about this dual concealment and the so-called ‘godlessness’ of this book, the tropes surrounding this work point us to the stakes of the issue of concealment in the Book of Esther. Hinging upon this local theme of concealment rests a weightier conversation about the nature and quality of concealment in the Jewish-Christian discourse. As such, appreciating the dual concealment, the so-called ‘godlessness’ of this book, takes a far greater import.

This tradition of donning costumes on Purim is threaded with this idea of concealment. The origins of this tradition are murky: R. Yehudah of Mintz (1405-1508) is the first to mention it, and later commentators play with the possibilities and permissibility of this costumed custom.[5] Whatever its historical origins, perhaps we can think about the meaning and motivation of this tradition in a larger context – cementing Purim as the ode to Jewish concealment. Costume-wearing isn’t only another act of revelry on this day of joy and jest, but may in fact be a form of divine imitation, in which we too reveal ourselves through concealment, paralleling the revelatory concealment of God in the times of Mordecai, Esther, and Ahashverosh long ago. Perhaps we can think of this tradition as a sort of divine imitation, a grand act of intimate imitation of the revelatory concealment of God. We hide ourselves, dressing up like anything and everything but oneself, to mimic the hiddenness of God. This hiddenness that preempted a revelation within concealment, a miracle that occurred through the hands of humanity, beginning a mode of ongoing revelation throughout history.[6] The Baal Shem Tov connects this tradition to another Purim day tradition: the giving of alms to all that ask, without discretion. When all are hidden, all perception an illusion, and true identity a mystery, the truest acts of giving can occur: giving without hope of return, without the clarity of giving to a known asker-of-alms, a true act of anonymous beneficence. Alternatively, with Orwell in mind, we may go even further: Perhaps we “wear a mask,” and our faces “grow to fit” them, and adapt to the concealment by shape-shifting transformation, as Orwell might say.[7]

This grand embrace of revelatory concealment may just be reflected within a different popular Purim tradition: the sharing of ‘Purim Torah’. Purim Torah refers to playful, often satirical, absurdist Torah thoughts that are shared on Purim. Deliberate misreading of biblical texts is fair game, as are misspelled words, and overwrought expositions in the style of Talmudic discussion if the Talmudists were drunk. Purim Torah is parodical and often utilizes traditional methods of Talmudic logic to reach absurd conclusions or entertain far-fetched possibilities. As part of this day of revelry and jesting festivities, this tradition brings a smile to faces in the room, who smirk while refilling their cups.

This point becomes sharper when in tension with its foil; in Second Corinthians 3 (13-16), Paul has a somewhat different view on this Jewish appreciation for concealment:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away / But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away / Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts / But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

This critique sees the veiledness of Judaism, the embrace of concealment, as telling of a broader pathology. Instead of openness to the revelation of God, to the love present in His teachings, Jews are critiqued for needing a veil over their Torah, for requiring Moses to teach from behind a veil. This veil covers their hearts and numbs their minds. This passage has received more than its fair share of controversy over the centuries, with intense debate surrounding the nature and degree of this critique, as well as its implications for the broader understanding of Paul’s supersessionist beliefs, should they exist at all.[8] Richard Hays, in his book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, sees this critique as targeting Jewish literalism, the insistence on the literal over the allegorical, the body of the letter over the spirit of the letter.[9] In Hays’ understanding, the veil refers to the preference for literal interpretation, instead of the allegorical hermeneutic of the Torah preferred by Paul. In the Jewish tradition, the face of God so sought by His followers is often seen only from behind, through a veil. Hays understands Paul’s preferred mode of reading the scriptures to be symbolic, whereas the Jewish Midrash is typified by a devotion to the concrete details of the original language. In Daniel Boyarin’s words, “Midrash…is a hermeneutics of opacity, while Paul’s allegorical/typological reading is a hermeneutics of transparency.”[10] This critique conceptualizes the veil as the perceived reference of rabbinic thinking (through the Oral Law) towards the legal/literal/body of the letter, which is theorized to be taking the Torah at face value, instead of the metaphorizing/spiritualizing activity of the non-rabbinic thinkers. In what may be a counter-intuitive turn, it is thus the literal-legal that is taken by Paul to be concealing, and the allegorical-spiritual as revealing.

In light of this history of secrecy or noeticism, in a sort of Purim Torah of comparative religion of my own, we can understand some of the traditions of Purim as an introjected refraction of the veil-dependence Paul so disliked. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Perhaps God, like man, when speaking through a self-imposed mask, communicates with a level of revelation not inhibited through His concealment, but made ever the more poignant.

It is not for naught that Synagoga, the portrayal of the Jewish congregation popular in medieval churches, is so often portrayed with a blindfold or veil. Elisheva Carlebach notes that this inability of vision moves in two directions, as the Jew has been understood to be both unseeing as well as unseen.[11] Carlebach shows that the perception of Jews as bearing some sort of noetic quality, a secret not transmitted, as being a long-running quality of medieval Christian antisemitism. Carlebach frames the antisemitic fears of Jewish secrecy as relating to blood libel narratives, in which a common trope was the fears of the distinctive ‘private’ language used by Jews, who were feared to be conconting ‘secret’ plans not understood by their European neighbors. This relates to the ‘unseeing’ quality of the Jews, who are blind to the truths of Christ, as well as the ‘unseen’ quality of the Jews, referring to the supposed secrets born in their private language(s) and books. Fueled by confessions of Jewish apostates intent on revealing the ‘secrets of the Jews’, the image of the Jew was intricately bound to the image of the unseen. She notes that the Latin term caecus, which refers to Jews, “could be interpreted as the inability to see – in the narrowest sense of physical or mental blindness, or as the inability to be seen – hidden, secret, invisible, preventing mind or eye from seeing.”[12]

I am making two claims about Purim: The first is that the concealment of Purim and the Book of Esther can be conceptualized as a revelatory concealment, and that through putting this concealment in conversation with Christian texts we can better appreciate, and maybe even celebrate, concealment. Through the veil itself, in the shadows and murky hiddenness of life, we may find the light of revelation. This light does not negate the shadows, the revelation does not overwhelm or unfold the concealment, but rather makes the darkness of concealment shine. The second is that this concealment can be understood as being grounded in two very different traditions: costume wearing and Purim Torah sharing. On each plane we shroud the body in veils, concealing the apparent to reveal a deeper revelation. By hiding the literal pshat of our lives, we are able to express a deeper sod. In putting these traditions in contact with Paul and the troubling history of antisemitic theorizing about Jewish secrecy, perhaps we can better see our own misunderstood legacy of the concealed.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that we read of Moshe’s veil in Exodus 34, the weekly reading for the shabbat following Purim. We embrace the noeticism, the veil of concealment-mystery behind which our God, and our people, have dwelled for so long. In a similar vein, Purim and the Book of Esther were particularly prominent for crypto-Jews,[13] those who kept Jewish practices in secret in Iberia and the New World due to religious persecution.[14] Esther, the original crypto-Jew of sorts, and her ever-so-hidden Book, represent the holiday of kryptos: the hidden, the secret, the concealed.[15]     

On this holiday of revelatory concealment, perhaps it isn’t only the illusory nature of our own identities that we are playing with, but also that of God and His Wisdom. Maybe Purim Torah and costume-wearing can both be understood as an outgrowth of the same impulse, both attempts at veiling the bodily literalism, only to reveal the deeper relegation therein, the unveiling present in the veiling itself. By playing with the literalism of the text, Jews are asserting that it is in the veiledness, in the hiddenness of the Torah, revelation can occur. By toying in absurd ways with the boundaries of text and intellect, this play expresses a deep love affair with the veil, the concealing revelation through which Jews hear the voice of God. In response to Paul’s criticisms on the Jewish insistence on the literality of the Torah and her Law, on the concealment of God’s Love in favor of the Letter of the Torah, Jews choose on Purim to mask their bodies, and their Torah, and thus to believe in a revelation within concealment.

This paradigm of revelatory concealment is particularly important for in our era; in a world of hiddenness and concealment, of the suffering darkness of the lived reality of the human condition, embrace of revelatory concealment reflects an affirmation of the human experience of the Veil, and an insistence on the revelation of the Face within the Veil. May we be blessed with seeing ourselves, others, and God, within hiddenness and revelation.

[1] I would like to thank Mindy Schwartz Zolty for her critical editing of this piece, as well as Marc Eichenbaum, Y. Moshiach Schneider, Az Martin, and Shlomo Zuckier for their thoughtful comments and contributions. I am grateful as well to Professor Chaviva Levin for first drawing my attention to the implications of Synagoga, and to Joey Rosenfeld, whose Torah, for me, is one of deeply revelatory concealment.

[2] Abd al ­Rahmân Jâmî (d. 1492), Lawâ’ih: A Treatise on Sufism.

[3] F. Bleek also says that “no other book of the Old Testament…[is] so far removed from the spirit of the Gospel.” Horowitz notes that “for many nineteenth-century German Bible scholars (and some even in the twentieth) the words “Jewish,” “narrow-minded,” and “revenge” formed an unholy trinity that characterized the reified religion of narrow legalism and rough justice that Jesus came to rectify. And the text that was seen as most typifying this pre-redemptive state of Judaism was the book of Esther.” Archibald Henry Sayce is an important contrast to this negative censure; Sayce argues in favor of Esther that it is “a useful illustration of a fact which is oft forgotten…[that] God’s inspiration is not confined to a particular kind of literary work or a particular description of narrative.” The Book of Esther “has been made an instrument through which God has revealed His will to us, and prepared the way for the work of Christ.” See Elliott S Horowitz, Reckless Rites : Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press, 2006), 23-45.

[4] See James Wood, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019 (United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

[5] It is worth noting that some rabbinic commentaries are concerned for the debauchery that costumes could lead to, while R. Yosef Messas (1892-1974) was concerned for the possible influence of the similarly timed, but non-Jewish, costumed holiday of Carnival.

[6] Perhaps we can move even broader: Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, in thinking about this double-concealment, has noted that the concealment of a concealment may be a mode of revelation; the veiling of a veiling may constitute an unveiling of sorts.

[7] George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant, and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950).

[8] For more on this passage and the wide-reaching debates surrounding it,see Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (University of California Press, 1997), 86-106.

[9] Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989).

[10] Boyarin, ibid. This is to say that instead of turning concrete aspects of the text into metaphors, the Midrash reads into the details, and hermeneutizes textual nuances for meaning, instead of atomizing the text into allegory.

[11] Carlbeach points out that “Gavin Langmuir has located irrationality at the heart of medieval Christian anti-Judaism: ‘By the late Middle Ages, in order to dispel doubts about their religion and themselves, many Christians were suppressing their capacity for rational empirical thought and irrationally attributing to the realities they denoted as Jews’ unobservable characteristics.’” For more, see  Elisheva Carlebach, “Attribution of Secrecy and Perceptions of Jewry,” Jewish Social Studies, 2:3 (1996): 115–136.

[12] It is important to note that this accusation of blindness figures in larger dynamics than Purim, and the possibility for an introjected or originary differentiation in this ‘jewish blindness’ constitutes its own creative landscape. The imagery of the blindfolded bride has been portrayed in Jewish prayer books, possibly representative of either the Shekhinah or the Torah. The figure of the Shekhinah as a blind maiden originates in a puzzling parable of the Zohar (Pritzker ed. 5:2): “Who is a beautiful maiden without eyes, her body concealed and revealed, she emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, adorning herself with adornments that are not?” The blind Shekhinah also occupies space in Hasidic frameworks; Consider R. Nahman of Breslov, in his “The Small Person Leading the Blind Giant, and the Tree That is Beyond Space”, where he mentions that “the moon is called ‘blind,’ for she does not shine in-and-of herself, and she has nothing of her own whatsoever.” R. Nahman is invoking here the symbolic web of terms and imagery that enshroud the Shekhinah. This relates as well to R. Nahman’s blind beggar, from his “Story of the Seven Beggars,” the blind beggar that can see everything and therefore seems to see nothing. Contrast as well to the blind beggar of Mark 10:46-52, who sees something in Jesus unseen by others, but whose blindness is cured by Jesus. R. Nahman’s blind beggar doesn’t seek sight, as R. Nahman says about him: “You think that I am blind. I am not blind at all, except all the time of the whole world does not come across me as much as an eye blink (thus he appears blind, for he doesn’t peek into the world whatsoever, for all the entire world’s time doesn’t come across him whatsoever, even as an eyeblink, therefore no sight or any glimpse of the world at all is relevant to him…)”

[13] The popular term ‘Marrano’ is sometimes thought of as offensive, and I therefore use the terms ‘Anusim’ or ‘crypto-Jews’, both of which similarly refer to those that were forced to convert but practiced Judaism in covert ways.

[14] It has been posited that Esther’s popularity for crypto-Jews may have been related to Virgin Mary adoration in Catholic society. See Martin A. Cohen, The Martyr: Luis de Carvajal, A Secret Jew in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Philadelphia, 1973). The position of Esther in crypto-Jewish religious practice can be seen in the creation of “Esther’s Prayer”, as well as in the popularity of Taanit Esther for crypto-Jews. As fast days were subtle ways to express religiosity in often hostile environments, fast days, and particularly the Fast of Esther, held particular prominence. Their practice of the fast was three days long, mimicking Esther’s original decree. See Cecil Roth,  A History of the Marranos (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1932).

[15] As the salvation eventually occurred through Esther’s revelation of her Jewish identity, the revelatory concealment of Purim may constitute a revelation of secrecy, either in the telling of the secret, or perhaps in the telling of secrecy, in the revelation of the reality and possibility of concealment. (This may be related to an idea utilized by Heideger/Derrida of the sous rature, under erasure, in which the concealment is signified and revealed in its concealment. This is the revelation that the absence of presence signifies the presence of Absence.) On Purim, the concealed is on full display, our hiddenness dancing through the streets and on the rooftops of vans, as we sing songs to the concealment in our lives. Like the strike-through, we must be hidden, but our hiddennes must be revealed, as all the unexpressed hopes and words of our past year, born in concealment, are revealed in concealment. “As wine enters, Sod departs.”

Yehuda Fogel is a doctoral candidate at LIU Post, where he studies clinical psychology. Yehuda is an alumnus of Yeshivat Sha’alvim and Yeshiva University, has presented at the Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference, and is passionate about bringing ideas across oceans and denominational lines.