Purim, the Beauty of Difference

Purim is arguably one of the merriest holidays of the Jewish calendar. Because of that, perhaps, we don’t often reflect on its deep meaning and its contemporary relevance.

Purim pays homage to the resilience of the Jewish people, our capacity to withstand aggression, to survive all who seek to destroy us, and to persevere, making a unique contribution to the world. Today, from the ancient land of Persia, we face the specter of a nuclear armed Haman, who, like the original one, seeks to exterminate us. But we’ve been there before, and we know, eventually, how the story ends.

But, Purim is about something else, as well. It is about the right to be different. Purim is about seeing diversity and pluralism as sources of richness, and not as problems. When Haman the wicked demands the extermination of the Jews, he uses an argument that would subsequently be employed countless times: “There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation…. It is not in the King’s interest to tolerate them.” In other words, “they are different,” and the difference is something bad that needs to be eradicated. At the core of hatred and bigotry lies not just evil, but also an irredemptive fear of the difference.

Judaism, on the other hand, is a culture that praises and celebrates difference. Judaism doesn’t try to convert others or to impose its culture by force. We believe that the world is more beautiful as a rainbow than as a monochromatic picture. We believe that interaction with those who are different from us enriches us because it forces us to analyze and review our own beliefs. Confident cultures are strong enough to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the broader society. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have interacted with, and been enriched by, Babylonians, Greeks, Christians, Moslems, among others. Our tradition embraces the history of these encounters. We know how to learn from others while preserving our core values. The Greek elements in the Pesach seder (like the afikoman – from the Greek ‘epi-kommon’) are a beautiful example of how we borrowed things from others and used them to enhance the transmission of our values.

Across history, Jews have embodied the concept of “the other,” the “different.” Because of that, and because of the ways in which we celebrate diversity, we always became the preferred targets of bigots and tyrants, since the totalitarian mind can’t stomach differences. And because of who we are and what we believe, we always stood up for the right of others to be different. From civil rights in the United States to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, to the refuseniks in the Soviet Union, whenever somebody fights for the right to be different they will find an ally in the Jewish people.

Judaism’s romance with diversity is not only with respect to the outside world. It is also internal. Judaism is, within itself, a diverse and pluralist culture. It has been so from its very inception, and this accounts for its greater richness. The Talmud is a discussion and debate, wherein all opinions are valid. Judaism does not claim ownership of the truth. In the famous debates between the Hillel and Shammai—which represented radically different views of Jewish law—the Mishna proclaims, “the words of both of them are the words of God.” Many discussions in the Talmud are unresolved. They finish with the world, “teiku”, literally, a tie that only the Messiah will break.

Within the Jewish community, we each have the right to be different and to think differently. There is no single “authentic” Judaism, a concept that would have made the rabbis of the Talmud laugh (or cry). As we stand for the rights of others to be different, we need to defend to right to diversity and difference within our own community. We need to understand that one of the secrets to our survival is the flexibility that comes from the pluralism in the Jewish DNA. We seem to live in a ‘zeitgeist’ of polarization and intolerance. One only has to look at the political discourse in the US. The Jewish world is not immune to this ‘age of extremes’. Behind the lack of civility lies a much deeper and worrying trend: a reticence to tolerate and accept other views.

As funders, we need to be keenly aware of this trend. Our funding has the power to influence the internal dialogue and debate in the Jewish Community. We need to ask ourselves: are we encouraging the respect of the difference, or are we funding those that foment intolerance and polarization? Is our funding an encouragement to dialogue or an incentive to discord? Are we, as funders, talking to one another with respect and tolerance? Are you open to listen to those with whom we disagree?

In a few weeks, 400 funders from all corners of the world will come together at the JFN conference. It will be a unique opportunity to be counter-cultural and go against the stream of polarization and ideological isolation; to show that we can come together despite our differences and discuss the common issues affecting the Jewish People. It will be a great venue to discover that even those who don’t think like me, share a passion and a commitment to make the world a better place. It will be a possibility for funders to lead by example: by showing that they can dialogue openly and respectfully, the community can learn new codes of civility and tolerance.

Purim is a joyful holiday because we celebrate our survival and rejoice in the fact that history’s bigots and tyrants never managed to destroy the beauty of our polychromatic world. We also celebrate the diversity of the Jewish people, because that’s the source of our spiritual richness. Let’s leave the dark fear of the different to Haman and his modern heirs. While they hide in their violent cave of intolerance, we can celebrate plurality, for both the human race and the Jewish people are like a diamond: the more faces they have, the more beautiful.

Chag Purim Sameach! And see you all in Tel Aviv!

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