Joshua Schwartz

Until You Do Not Know: A Reconsideration of Ethics


Given my status as a young man in his roaring twenties, one could expect my favorite custom of Purim, the Jewish carnival holiday, to have something to do with drinking 80-proof whiskey with a criterion grounded solely in quantity. Instead, my favored point of Jewish law resides in an astounding gloss by R. Moshe Isserles, the great 16th-century European scholar, namely, that on Purim, Jews are allowed to wear substances which are ordinarily forbidden by the rabbis as an expansion of a biblical prohibition. Pretty radical, if you ask me. Isserles, in his gloss on the 16th-century law code, the Shulchan Aruch, writes,

And regarding the custom of donning masks on Purim and a man wearing women’s clothing, and a woman wearing the clothing of a man, there is no prohibition in this matter, since it is not intended for anything other than celebration [in the holiday] alone, and similarly in the wearing of rabbinically forbidden mixed substances [kilayim de-rabbanan]. Some say there is a prohibition, but the custom follows the first [permissive] opinion. Additionally, one person grabbing from another in a joyous manner, [the commandment of] “Do not steal” does not obtain, and this is the way [it is appropriate for us] to behave as long as nothing that is simply not done occurs, due to social [lit. civil] welfare.

The prohibition against making use of mixed substances is found in Leviticus 19:19 as well as Deuteronomy 22:5, 9-11, in which the Torah forbids the mixing of wool and linen (shatnez), interbreeding different species of animals, and planting different species of seeds together. Later on, the rabbis of the Talmud expanded the list of forbidden mixtures, creating the additional category of kilayim de-rabbanan.

Bewildering laws such as these are often the site of controversy regarding how far human investigators can come in understanding them. Famous scholars such as R. Solomon b. Isaac (Rashi) insist that such laws are laws with no discernible rationale; they are strictly decrees issued by the transcendent King, whose Will we cannot discern. Still, we are able to understand how these Divine laws structure the reality in which we are embedded. Indeed, this is perhaps the central modality which occurs in the general discourse of Jewish law (halachah), namely, to separate and distinguish, to mark and maintain difference. Especially in the case of such a transrational law, one would imagine for there to be even less room for flexibility than in other cases, since there is no reasoning by which one can make a case for leniency. But Isserles makes the bold decision to carve out this permissive space in the context of Purim. It is understandable how the Talmudic rabbis could authorize themselves to create more prohibitions, to create a protective “fence around the Torah,” safeguarding against unnecessary iniquity. However, how could Isserles justify his permissive ruling in the face of the decree of the King? How can he claim for himself the authority to re-legislate, even cancel, the decree of the transcendent ruler?

Despite our inability to suss out whys and wherefores of the law of shatnez, we can associate it with a certain mode of existence, as noted above: that of separation and difference. This is the precise mode of reality which Purim seeks to overturn. The banner cry of Purim is an excerpt from Esther 9:1, “...and the opposite occurred!” (Ve-nahafoch hu!) Purim is the holiday of reversals, as typified in the miraculous upset that characterized the coup of the Persian Jews over the genocidal machinations of the wicked Haman. The Queen boldly risks her life, and her reward is manifold. Ve-nahafoch hu. Mordecai rides in royal finery, and Haman hangs from gallows he himself designed. Ve-nahafoch hu. The purported victims are found to be the victors. Ve-nahafoch hu.

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin defines the carnivalesque as a literary form that liberates and subverts one’s presumptions through comedy and chaos. This reversal is precisely the modus operandi of Purim. While the most obvious example of the carnival today is the children’s fair put on by synagogues on the Sunday preceding or following the holiday itself, the logic of Purim is truly structured along the lines of the carnival. When we recite the words ve-nahafoch hu, we commit ourselves to (for one day at least) living in an upside down world, a world in which we simply cannot rely on the ways things usually are. In this world, convention exists to be subverted, to be reversed. Men wear women’s clothing, and the opposite. Always the opposite. And the opposite of the opposite. This is the day on which boundaries become blurred.

So how can we understand this quibble of a permissive ruling issued by such a great sage, that one is allowed to wear kilayim de-rabbanan on Purim? In a sense, Isserles’ permissive ruling marks the blurring of boundaries on this most carnivalesque of days, the subversion of the status quo. On this day alone Jews are allowed to (gasp!) mix. Yes, on the face of it, this kind of admixture is almost meaningless. After all, what kind of significance would such a borderline anti-nomian nomian practice truly have? What real revolutionary impact does wearing a shirt made of wool and hemp (for example) possess?

In a spiritual life engendered by a life structured by halachah, the import of a practice is less its external reverberations than what it inculcates within, and how it structures, one’s own lived experience. Even the smallest, most niggling heter, or dispensation, induces within us a certain mode of freedom, the permission to subvert the status quo, perhaps even more so because it is hardly noticeable to the outside eye, providing for each an opening which leads down a path particular to that individual.

I suppose we cannot pass through this discussion without giving mention to that most (in)famous of customs. The Mehaber, in the Shulchan Aruch, writes, “A person must drink [lit. celebrate] so much on Purim that one does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai.’” (OH 295:2, citing BT Megillah 7b). One is supposed to attain a mode of being in which one thing and its opposite become indistinguishable. What has become radically reversed is our very mode of living—ve-nahafoch hu. This is the derech simchah (“manner of rejoicing”) referred to by Isserles, since the law in the Shulchan Aruch literally instructs us to become so happy that we cannot make such conventional distinctions. Of course, the most common manner of attaining such a state is with liquor, but the essence of the matter is to realize such a euphoric state. R. Israel Mayer Kagan, in his 19th-century legal commentary The Elucidation of the Law, explains how halachah could allow for ecstatic behavior, such as drinking to excess. He argues that drinking is an appropriate mode of behavior on this day since the miracle which happened in the megillah itself occurred by means of a feast! That is to say, our miraculous reversal was possible only through the lubrication and fluidity of drunkenness, of Purim consciousness.1

The character of such a celebratory comportment is one of blurry misperception and accordant generosity. Joy is overwhelming and induces one to share it with others. Hence, it is no surprise that during Purim, the boundaries between individuals begin to elide as well. Isserles begins his gloss by referring to the practice of wearing masks on Purim. On this holiday, we are not restricted to who we have believed we must be. We are not our facticity; we are sheer possibility. The mask blurs who we feel we have to be and slides us into a freer future. We realize that we have become another. Perhaps the most striking element of Isserles’ statement is when he declares that matters of theft which come to pass through celebration are forgiven with no liability. Private property bespeaks the security of the individual. One cannot take my things because they are mine; others have no claims on them. But on Purim, the lines between us blur, and what is proper to one can be claimed by another. There was simply no crime, since the mode of rejoicing offers to another that which is one’s own.

Traditonally, in Western philosophy, as typified by the metaphysics of G. W. F. Hegel, reality is structured through opposition, most strikingly through Self and Other. The telos of Hegel’s philosophical program is the attaining of the Absolute, in which the Self looks into the Other and realizes that only through the Other can one become Self. The two are inextricably bound up one in an/other, allowing for the realization of true subjectivity. The Self can only become through the Other. Understandably, the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas protested boldly against this privileging of the Self. To Levinas, the Other must never become instrumental to the Self. Rather, the Self must recognize the radical alterity, the absolute difference (whereas Hegel’s Absolute was a collapse into the Same) between the Self and the Other.

Purim, however, presents us with an alternative model, one which teaches us a new way of understanding ethics. While Levinas sought to criticize Hegelian metaphysics for its totalitarian tendencies, his philosophy results in its own deconstruction. For Levinas, the purpose of maintaining the Other’s absolute alterity is to ensure that the Self did not co-opt the Other as one’s own means, re-conceiving the Other as an aspect of oneself. However, identifying the Other in such radically absolute terms results in yet another projection emanating from the Self. There remains no means to actually facilitate relation. The problem resides in this radical differentiation. Luckily, as we have been discussing above, Purim is designed to deal with this very problem.

The function of the customs of Purim is to blur the boundaries between oneself and an/other, to show that the human condition is not one of radical separation but rather of interrelation and coexistence. Martin Buber, in his classic I and Thou, wrote, “Whoever says You does not have something for his object… where You is said there is no something. You has no borders… he stands in relation.” To address an/other is not to have the subject-object relation described by Hegel (and, in his own way, Levinas) but rather to emerge together. Buber famously writes in his opening page that one cannot utter the word “I” without also speaking its pair. The Self does not come into its own on its own; rather, one can only be with an/other. Ve-nahafoch hu—and the opposite became what is. The Self must participate in the Other, for only that is the ground of existence.

One is not separate from the Other. We cannot so easily distinguish between our selves (perhaps this is why we put on masks). In discussing the confluence of Purim and the Sabbath, R. Sholom Noach Berezovsky, otherwise known as the Slonimer Rebbe, comments on Exodus 25:8, “Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst you [be-tocham].” He writes, “This is a commandment impinging on every Jew, to make one’s body a dwelling place [mishkan] fitting for the possession of the Divine Presence [Shechinah]2 in one’s very being, as the Rabbis interpret... be-tocham signifying in each and every one.” While the contextual reading of the verse would see the word “amidst you” to mean, “in the presence of the community,” the Slonimer Rebbe, following a long mystical tradition, articulates a radically literal rendering, such that the word means, literally, “in you,” in your very being. One could read this mode of mystical spirituality in an atomistic way, in which every individual by their lonesome becomes a fitting residence for G?d. However, such a rendering would fracture G?d’s being into similarly atomistic fragments, an assuredly unacceptable result for the Jewish people, those who pledge fealty twice daily to the one G?d. Rather, for each of us to be fitting residences for the Shechinah, we must all be bound up together in that Divine superstructure. As the Divine inheres within us, we are all inherently involved one with an/other.

Since ethics has traditionally been based in these absolute distinctions, between Self and Other as well as right and wrong, one can easily imagine a protest against this alternative ethical thinking. If living in Purim consciousness allows one to take liberties with an/other, since the boundaries between Self and Other are blurred (e.g. not having to pay back what is appropriated when one was celebrating, as in Isserles’ ruling), how can we ensure that this mode of inter-relation does not devolve into anarchic chaos? If the lines between Self and Other are elided, then are we not sliding into the fascist fantasy of the Hegelian Absolute once more? Thankfully, Isserles, in his understanding of the matter, attempted to ensure that this would not be the case. One is not permitted to steal; the lines are not absolutely erased. Rather, to truly live out the radical vision of Purim is for a people to agree that one is disposed towards another. We forgive slight trespasses, since we are all bound up one in an/other, attempting to accomplish something holy together. Yom Kippurim is often interpreted as being Yom Ke-Purim, (cf. M Taanit 4:8), a day that is like Purim. Perhaps their interrelation also extends in the opposite manner (ve-nahafoch hu), in that just like on Yom Kippur, on Purim we are committed to forgiving each other. And we must still make sure that we are not behaving in an absolutely unacceptable manner, as must be the case in all relationships of trust and consent—we must respect each other’s boundaries, despite their fluid nature on such a day. The freedom of fluidity is not a license for taking liberty with an/other. In other words, Isserles only allows one to don rabbinically forbidden mixtures, but not those identified in the Bible itself. There is only so far he can bend the law’s reed before it breaks, as would we.

We conclude by responding to one final and essential critique that would (and should!) be posed against this model of ethics: If Purim’s ethics is grounded in this ecstatic modality, in which the lines between the Self and Other are blurred, how can we ensure that the Other is still cared for, if the Other cannot be strictly distinguished? The solution to this problematic is the rub of Purim’s ethics: our inherent interdependence and interconnectedness teach us that our welfare is bound up one in another. We care for the other as we care for ourselves. This is not banal egotism. One’s care for oneself is the ground of caring for others. If we are continuously consumed with our own need for care, then how can we truly be present with and for an/other? The security self-care brings is the foundation, the sure ground on which we stand when we extend a helping hand to an/other. There are three major commandments in Purim: Sending gifts to friends, giving gifts to the poor, and partaking in a great feast, all of which involve giving to others or sharing of one’s own. Sending gifts to friends possesses the dynamics of mutuality; one exchanges gifts with another, and a reciprocal relationship is formed. The feast in which one is commanded to partake is an opening of one’s homes to others, of sharing one’s food, one’s space, and one’s time. The commandment to give gifts to the poor presents us with a problem, for, in this case, the relationship is unilateral, seemingly re-instantiating the division between Self and Other through the disparity of power. The 12th-century scholar, philosopher, and doctor Maimonides’ explication of this commandment shows us a possible answer. He writes, “One does not pay particular attention in giving money to the poor, but rather one gives to each and every outstretched hand.” One must lose oneself in giving. One expends (oneself) without self-consciousness. One merely gives, one becomes a pure giver, a quality of the Divine, that which has transcended need. As Maimonides imparts, “Whoever gladdens the heart of the unfortunate becomes likened to the Shechinah.

So may it be.

1 Here I want to note that the essence of the matter is not the drinking but rather the attainment of what I call “Purim consciousness.” There are different opinions on the matter in the literature of Jewish law, with greats such as Maimonides and the aforementioned Isserles ruling that one need not become overly intoxicated but rather one may go to sleep (see Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zemanim, Laws of Purim/Hannukkah 2:15 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 295:2, respectively). To sleep (perchance to dream) could also achieve a similar effect, since the consciousness one possesses in dream state is characterized by the same quality of fluidity that strikes through the heart of Purim.

2 The Hebrew word for “Divine Presence” (Shechinah) has the same stem-root as the word for “Sanctuary” (Mishkan), both referring to the act of dwelling.

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