Skip to main content

Purim/Masking and Unmasking

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/21/2010
Location: Makor Or
In Topics: Judaism / Jewish Meditation

Norman talks about Purim, Spinoza, and the theme of masking and unmasking.

Purim/Masking and

theme for today is Purim, Masking and Unmasking, and the more I thought about
this theme the deeper and more complicated it got. As I was preparing for this talk I was also reading a
biography of Baruch Spinoza, maybe the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, and
his story became mixed up in my mind with the story of Mordechai and Esther and
Haman. So today I want to try to
put all of this together as I contemplate this theme of masking and unmasking,
and of the essential point of the Purim story.

we all know, the custom for Purim, a joyous festival of Jewish triumph (which, as is often the case, involves
the killing of the bad guys at the end) is to wear costumes and to crack
graggors whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the megillah reading. It is also customary for Purim revelers
to drink alcohol as the reading goes on, getting just drunk enough not to be
able to tell the different between the names of Mordechai and Haman. Children also dress up for the
Purim pageants that most synagogues put on. I grew up with such pageants, and dressed up and acted in
them I guess, though it so long ago now I can only dimly remember. Behind all of this fun there is a deep
truth – as is usually the case with religious observance. In the Purim story there is a lot of
masking and unmasking. Esther
becomes Ahashveros' queen in a masked condition – her identity as a Jew is
hidden. The king grants the evil Haman's request to kill all the Jews, and
Esther, at the risk of her life, unmasks herself – and in doing do saves the
Jews. Also, as Rabbi Lew always
pointed out this time of year, God is also masked in the Purim story. God's name is never mentioned in the
Megillah, and there are no miracles in the story- God never intervenes. So it would appear that the Purim story
is a lot like contemporary life – in which God never dramatically or directly
appears, and is seldom mentioned, and instead is masked within the human terms
of the story.

me all of this raises the question of
Jewish identity. The story
of Purim takes place about fifty years after the first destruction of the Great
Temple in Jerusalem- around the 4th century BCE. The Jews are living under Persian
rule. Nowhere in the story do you
get a feeling for the communal Jewish life (though there are fast days declared
to pray for Esther's success with the king); it is as if one way of being
Jewish had been destroyed and the new way is not yet in evidence. The main thing you have is the sense that
Jews are definitely Jews – Jewish
identity exists, and it is imperiled and dangerous – as it has been throughout
history. It is possibly the case
that Jewish identity in 2010 here in San Francisco is less imperiled and less
dangerous than it has ever been in 5,000 years of Jewish history – or however
many years you think Jewish history has lasted. The Purim story turns simply on the fact of Jewish identity
– that because Jews accept and affirm this identity – which in the Purim story
takes the form of Mordechai refusing to bow down to Haman, which is why Haman
becomes obsessed with killing all the Jews – they are subject to annihilation,
to massacre. Yet the central Jew
in the story – Esther – does not
appear to be identified as a Jew, she is masked. And when she unmasks and reveals herself in her true
identity she is able to save the Jews.

is Jewish identity and why is it so problematic? Judaism is a strange phenomenon. Is it a religion?
Yes, of course, but also not.
There are plenty of Jews who have no Jewish religion at all, or are even
hostile to Jewish religion, as Rabbi Lew and I often found in our early
workshops. Yet they are still Jews
somehow. There are some Jews who
don't consider themselves to be Jews, or feel uncomfortable about being Jews,
who can't shake it and aren't sure whether or not they want to shake it. And there are other Jews who have
successfully – if that is the word we want to use – shaken their Jewishness and
disappeared into the world as normal neutral people: assimilation, which for
generations was a bad word in Judaism, but now I am not so sure anymore what it
means, or if it carries the same degree of concern that it once did. There are of course many good reasons
for wanting to shake off the yoke of Jewish identity, religion or no. It seems to some extent easier not to
be a Jew. Even if anti-semitism
seems to be of another time and place – well, you can't be entirely sure. And simply being seen as different is
uncomfortable. So you can't blame
anyone who wants to forget about Jewishness, at least I can't. When I was growing up conventional
wisdom was that a Jewish person could never escape being Jewish no matter how
hard he or she tried – that even if you felt as if you had it would never
really be so; non-Jews would always see you as a Jew anyway, so it was pitiful
to try, not to say cowardly and disloyal.
Better to be a proud Jew.
But now, a generation later, I am not so sure this is still so- or
whether it ever was so. I think
there have always been people who have managed to escape cleanly. But maybe not. Here are a few brief sketches on this

remember years ago when I was at Green Gulch I had a friend who practiced Zen
with me, a wonderful man, a doctor, who appeared to be a nice and upstanding
Wasp kind of guy. One day he was in my house for some
reason, in my tiny little study room, and he said to me with tears in his eyes
that he was ashamed of himself, and had been ashamed of himself his whole life,
because he had never had the courage to admit to anyone that he was
Jewish. It was very sad, him
telling me this, because it did not feel to me as if it was a soul-bearing
confession that would leave him feeling better afterward. I don't think he felt any better at all
telling me this, he probably felt worse, and he never mentioned it again, and
in fact soon after this disappeared from practice at Green Gulch.

a woman in our Jewish meditation community in Vancouver, who found out later in
life that she was Jewish. Her family
had escaped Europe, come to Canada, and had successfully masqueraded as non
Jewish secular people, until as a middle aged adult the woman discovered the
truth and began to study and practice Judaism. When he heard of this, her aged father became furious with
her, disowned her completely, and would not speak with her for the rest of his

there is of course the story of Rabbi Lew, a secular Jew who practiced
Buddhism, but somehow his deep meditation practice put him in touch – quite
unexpectedly – with a kernal of Jewish identity in his heart that he could
never seem to shake, and that led him eventually to become a Jewish leader, our
rabbi and blessed spiritual friend.

Judaism is an ethnicity, a deep, inherited sense of self that goes back generations,
all the way to Moses? No, because
people convert to Judaism. People
who are not born Jews, have inherited no Jewish soul, find somehow that they
are Jews or want to be Jews, and become Jews. So- Judaism is not a religion, or not entirely a religion,
and it is not an ethnicity, or not entirely an ethnicity. I have two Zen friends, one born a
Protestant, one a Catholic in Latin America, both of whom converted to Judaism
through a deep sense of connection to the Torah and Judaism's powerful message
– whatever that is! – and as Jews who were formed in their Judaism by
Christianity, both became Zen priests. So – Jewish identity is a profound and problematic and
rather confusing phenomenon.
It seems to be something very strong and powerful within our
interiority, whether we are born with it or not, and yet is it nearly
impossible to say what it is. Of
course Halachically we do have precise definitions of who is a Jew and who not,
but it seems to me that in actual practice Jewish identity is something more
and less than this. I am not sure
what it is at all, and yet it is something I have felt very strongly all my
life, as I am sure many of you have felt as well.

all the many things difficult things associated with Jewish identity – ambivalence,
suffering, a sense of mission and obligation, a taste for certain foods maybe,
a certain kind of humor maybe, a sense of being different maybe better maybe
worse than others – one of the most mysterious is hiddenness. Just as Esther is masked and
hidden in her Jewishness, and just as God is masked and hidden in the Megillah,
so is God hidden in the world, in life, in us, and so are Jews in turn hidden
in the world. According to
Judaism, Jews are at the center of the world, at the center of God's project in
the world, but they are marginalized in the world, exiled and hidden.

hiddenness isn't as commonly thought about as other aspects of Jewish identity
because it comes not from Talmud or Torah but from Kaballah, and from history.

is a partial chronology:

Pope Urban II calls for the first Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the
Muslims. This unleashes violence
against Jews throughout Europe as the Crusaders are everywhere on the march to
purify the world of all nonbelievers.

-first blood libel takes place in Norwich England.

mass suicide of Jews of York during the Third Crusade.

– King Louis IX of France decrees that all Jews in France be arrested and their
property confiscated in preparation for their expulsion.

– the first mass burning of Jews at the stake in Troyes, France, following a
blood libel.

– Edward I banishes the Jews from England.

Jews expelled from France, permitted to return in 1315, but expelled again in
1394, and do not return until the seventeenth century.

Jews massacred throughout Spain and there is a mass conversion of Jews in

the Inquisition is invited into Spain to root our heretics among the Jews who
have converted to Christianity.

– all Jews are ordered either to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Many go to Portugal.

King Manuel of Portugal decrees that all the Jews of Portugal must

Rabbi Isaac Luria moves to Sfat.


am sorry to recite all this, and I do not mean to depress you or make you
paranoid. But these are a few of
the things that happened. Most of
us know about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, which was at the time the
largest and most impressive Jewish community in the world, but it is less well
known that Jews were expelled elsewhere in Europe. In terms of Jewish identity, what I want to point out is
this: that many Jews in this five hundred year period converted to
Christianity. It is even possible
that more Jews converted than remained Jewish. After all, think of it: to lose all your property, your
wealth, your community, your home, your language, to go to another country that
may nor may not accept you, that may or may not in one or two or ten years
expel you again – to do that or to convert, either sincerely, or perhaps
insincerely- to remain secretly Jewish but outwardly to seem to be like
everyone else… What choice would you
make? It would be no wonder if the
average person decided that it was on the whole better to stay as a true or a
false Christian than to leave. And
many did make this choice. This
was in fact the reason for the Inquisition: there were many Christians who had
been Jews, or whose families had been Jewish in the past. Just as today Catholic doctrine teaches
that there is an essential soul produced at conception, a person, a sacred
being, so in those days the Church felt that the soul was an essential entity
produced at conception – and if the parents were Jewish, the soul was essentially Jewish. So it was impossible to trust a Jewish
convert. It was too likely that
former Jews would be either intentionally or unintentionally heretics – and
might influence other innocent Christians (venality being the essence of the Jewish
soul), and so there had be an effort to root out these intractable people. Consider the horror of this: that you
must leave or convert on pain of death, and that when you do convert you are
forever subject – even a generation or two or three later – to questioning and
persecution for the suspected insincerity of your conversion. This disastrous trauma made the sense
of Jewish identity a deeply hidden and dangerous wound that must have been felt
by millions of people. Conversos
were Jews who had converted.
Marannos were Jews who outwardly converted but inwardly remained
Jews. And what made them Jews,
because most of the time any practice was impossible, not to mention even any
social identity? What made them
Jews was simply that they felt themselves to be Jews and affirmed that
identity. And for this and this
alone they could be murdered if discovered. But of course there was no strict division between Marannos
and Conversos and as time went on the sense of who was a Jew, and what that
might mean, became more and more fuzzy – even as it remained secret and
dangerous and deeply internal.
There are many instances of Spanish or Mexican families, even today, who
report that there has been for generations in their family a dark secret that
they have never understood – why did their parents close all the doors and
blinds on Friday evening to light candles? Why were they taught to say certain incomprehensible words
before eating or washing the hands?
They did not know why – only that they were to do these things, and that
they were to tell no one about them.
History like this will give you a powerful and confusing sense of
personal identity. You will feel,
deep in the recesses of your heart, that there is something there of
unspeakable depth and strangeness, something that is both fascinating and dangerous. You will feel pulled perhaps to a deep
interiority, a profound sense of aloneness, too shameful and perhaps too
difficult to be shared with anyone, yet also glorious and profound – a sense
that there is something within much bigger than your personal self: you will
sense, in other words, the hiddenness of God within you. It is a strange and marvelous fact that
some of the most powerfully interior Catholic mystics – from Theresa of Avila,
to St John of the Cross, to the 20th Century mystic Simone Weil –
were born into Jewish families.
And although we are not Conversos or Marranos, our contemporary sense of
the depth of personal identity, and of fractured identity, multiple identity,
brings us to a similar position.
In the depth of our meditation practice we also come to a strange and
marvelous sense of the ineffability of our sense of self – we find God in the
silence between thought and sensation, in the very strangeness of the
experience of subjectivity, much as those mystics did.

might have noticed that the last item in my chronology was Isaac Luria's move
to Sfat from Jerusalem where he was born, the son of a German father and a
Sephardic mother. He only lived
for thirty eight years, yet is considered the most important of all Kabbalists. He is the inventor of some of
Kaballah's most profound concepts – like tsimsum, God's absence, or withdrawal,
into God's own self, which allowed the world to rush into the breach and be
created. Kellipot, the vessels
into which divine light was poured at Creation, and from which it escaped, as
the vessels, and the world, broke, creating the need for Tikkun Olom, mystical
repair of the world, the supreme task of each Jew, whose daily acts of prayer
and kindness would drop by drop return the divine light to the vessels, so that
the world's brokenness would be healed. It is remarked by many scholars that Luria's kabbalah
is essentially a kaballah of exile, and that his teaching was an effort to make
sense of the history of Judaism during the medieval period of torment and exile
– especially the culminating moment of that period, the 1492 exile of the Jews
from Spain. Luria's kaballah is
essentially a teaching about God's hiddenness and exile. The world is not so much the expression
of God's grandeur as it is the expression of God's hiddenness – God literally
hides God's self, contracts God's self into an absence, and from this absence
the world is made – in brokenness, in exile. And Jewish life appears to be one thing outwardly, but
inwardly, in ways that no one but God can understand, it is somehow the repair
of the world, the restoring and healing of the world, which is left by God
entirely up to an obscure and exiled people whose true purpose is completely
hidden from view – even to themselves.
This is essentially the teaching of the Ari, and it has become a
normative teaching in Judaism today.
The patron saint so to speak of the Marranos and Conversos was Esther,
Saint Esther as they called her.
Like her, their true identities were hidden, and they had to keep them
hidden, on pain of death. But
also, they hoped, like her, their true identities would one day be revealed,
and when they were the Jewish people would be redeemed, making their very
hiddenness not an act of shame or cowardice, but God's own secret plan for the
universal salvation.

also may have noticed in my chronology that many of the Jews expelled from
Spain went to neighboring Portugal where they could live legally as Jews for
only five years, before they too were forced to convert – without any option to
leave. Many of them bided their
time and as soon as they could emigrated illegally. A large community of Portuguese Jews immigrated to the Netherlands,
a Protestant country where they could live openly as Jews. It was into this community that Baruch
Spinoza was born. It was a very
odd situation: the chief Rabbi of Amsterdam had been a Christian in Portugal
and so knew very little of Jewish law and had to consult with Italian Rabbis to
figure out how to construct and manage a Jewish community. Imagine the spirit of this community,
for whom Judaism had been more or less a dream that could now for the first
time become a reality. The Dutch
government was among the most liberal in Europe but even it had to pause and
consider the effect of this mass immigration of Jews into its midst. It declared that it would be ok for
Jews to practice their religion under one condition – that they actually and
faithfully did so, and did not mix with and therefore perhaps confuse their
Christian countrymen. So in
Amsterdam in the 17th century Jews were not only permitted to
practice their religion, they were required by law to do so. That, and the fact that observant
Judaism was new to them, gave them a particular zealousness, which is why they
had so little tolerance for someone like young Baruch Spinoza, who at an early
age began to ask some difficult and embarrassing questions – questions that
most of us in this room, probably including Rabbi Richman, would have also
asked. (The Jews of the Netherlands,
by the way, saw themselves as Esther – as having been hidden in Portugal, and
now, in the new country, revealed at last. Because of this they nurtured a powerful sense that the
salvation of the Jews and therefore of the world must be at hand, and rational
business people though they were, many of them sold all their worldly goods and
awaited the end of days in the mid-17th century when Shabatai Tzvi
declared himself the Messiah and marched on Constantinople. Spinoza was a young man at the time and
this spectacle must have corroborated his sense of the basic lunacy of Judaism
and religion in general). Spinoza
was a brilliant thinker and a confident rationalist who believed that religion,
if it were true, could not violate reason. Though he was excommunicated, and as such could have no
contact whatsoever with any Jew, including his own family members, and became
perhaps the first secular person in history – that is, the first person to
profess no affiliation to any religion – Spinoza was not an atheist. He believed in God. But in his own way. He was the first person to apply modern
historical scholarship to the scriptures
– that is, to recognize
that however divinely inspired scripture may be, it was written down by human
beings over a period of time and not divinely dictated to Moses in the
desert. As essentially a human
product, scripture was subject to reason and questioning. Quoting scripture, in and of itself,
could not be considered proof of anything. For Spinoza, God perhaps shone through the scriptures, but
was not limited by them. God was
the essential and supremely reasonable basis for the world, the ultimate a
priori assumption from which all else flowed. Though he eventually came to feel that Jewish law was not
necessary or reasonable, and that prayer was not prayer to anyone in
particular, Spinoza believed firmly in love and kindness and ethical concern
and a wide sense of human identity that flows naturally from what we are and
what the world is – and what God is.
Most religion, he felt, was mere superstition that came from narrow
personal identity and the unconscious fear of death. There was no heaven or hell. But goodness was necessary because God was good and the
world was good, and it was only because we humans had become so irrational and
selfish and twisted, and, unthinking, had lost our divine reason, that there
was evil in the world. In her
wonderful book Betraying Spinoza
Rebecca Goldstein remarks in an aside that Spinoza was the first Jubu. Maybe so! Though it is nearly impossible to actually read his writings
today because they are so archaically technical, and though we may not share
his scathing critique of superstitious religion, or his enormous faith in
reason, I think most of us would find a good deal of what he says to be
consistent with our own views. In
fact, it seems to me that the average educated person of today, whether he or
she is religious or not, is at least in part a Spinozist. Einstein was. So is Antonio Damasio, the contemporary cognitive scientist,
who sees in Spinoza's Ethics most of what cognitive scientists are now
discovering about human emotions.

is a major focus of Spinoza's thought.
For him wisdom is ultimately a matter of a widening of identity. As your contemplation of God – which is
also a contemplation of the world and of humanity through reason – deepened
over time your sense of identity grew.
You went beyond being a Dutch Portuguese Jew and went beyond being a Jew
and went beyond being a person separate from others and the world to
identification with all of life, so that even your own death was not so much a
concern for you. Spinoza writes in
The Ethics Part IV (Goldstein 2434) "A free man thinks of death least of all
things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life."

did not make a point of rejecting Judaism, and I am sure that if he were alive
today he would certainly be a member of a Jewish community of some sort, if not
a synagogue goer. In fact he did
attend religious school into his adult life, was a brilliant Hebraist and
Talmud scholar, and was a member in good standing of the community until the
death of his father (his mother had died when he was a child). At that point the rabbis could no
longer avoid his views and decided to excommunicate him. Though it was not something he
welcomed, he received it philosophically, saying something like, well, if this
is the way they want it, I will embrace it as my own. And so he moved away to a nearby town, dissolved the
business he had had with one of his brothers, and took up grinding precise
lenses for telescopes, a solitary profession that gave him plenty of time to
think and write. Having long ago
reasonably decided that romantic attachment would lead to much more sorrow than
joy, because you can never possess another person, and trying to do so could
only bring pain, he remained single his whole life. Oddly, 1492, the year Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the
Jews from Spain was also the year that Christopher Columbus, under their
patronage, stumbled into the New World.
It is equally odd that as Spinoza's fame as a philosopher grew the
British political thinker John Locke became interested in him and came to
Amsterdam to study with him.
Locke's thought, and Spinoza's, became foundational for the
Anglo-American patriots who were responsible for the American revolution about
a century after Spinoza's death, and it is possible that the American idea of a
secular society, in which religion can have its place, but need not and should
not dominate public space, traces its origin to Spinoza.

he was technically finally not Jewish and his philosophy is not considered a
particularly Jewish philosophy, Goldstein writes that "… Spinoza is something
of a Jewish thinker after all. He
is paradoxically, Jewish to the core, a core that necessitated, for him, the
denial of such a thing as a Jewish core.
For what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the
Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?" 2297.

friend the poet Charles Bernstein makes a similar point when he says, "I am no
more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness
means." (Radical Poetics page
3.). Charles defines himself – if
we can say that he defines himself – as a secular Jew, a non-meditating non
praying Jew. For him secular
Judaism is not merely Judaism that has lost its way religiously and is one step
away from assimilation but a distinct and noble enterprise which is essentially
cultural, involving especially the arts, but also other aspects of culture
practiced in distinctly Jewish ways, although as he indicates, it is not so
easy to say what ways. Secular
Judaism for him includes Jews who practice Buddhism and Jews who practice
meditation as two of its many branches. I find this very interesting. If as time goes on we are willing to
admit that there really does seem to be something to Jewish identity, although
there will probably never be a way to figure out what it is, we may also be
willing to admit that there is something to Jewish religion – something more
perhaps than we had noticed – and that we will probably never be able to figure
out what that is, either.
This however doesn't mean that we can't think about it, talk about it,
debate it. Probably we can't help
ourselves from doing so – because that's the Jewish thing to do.