Take off your mask- Yom Kippur morning 5779
There are probably better ways to enamor yourself to a congregation than starting a Yom Kippur morning sermon by talking about a banquet. I’ll spare you the detailed descriptions of the culinary delights on offer, but if there was ever a day to talk about this banquet, or grand ball to be precise, it’s today. Because the ball in question took place on Yom Kippur.
In 1888 a group of free thinkers hosted the first Yom Kippur Ball in London. Held in a rented hall, it featured lectures, music, and refreshments for the duration of Yom Kippur, from Kol Nidre to Neilah. It was a roaring success, and… an even bigger controversy!
Image: An invite to a Yom Kippur ball in New York in 1893
The ball was the brainchild of Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists. Designed to push back against the oppressive dogma of religious authorities, and only open to the most committedly Jewish of heretics, the phenomenon quickly spread, and balls were held all over the western Jewish world.
They tapped into a disconnect between religious leaders, with their high standards for religious observance and increasing piety, and ordinary Jews; many of whom still had to work on the festival, and who had turned away from religious life towards a secular or cultural identity. They felt their religious leaders were out of touch, and the increasingly affluent Jewish mainstream had lost touch with the challenges facing ordinary workers, and with their roots in the old country.
The balls turned everything inside out, or to borrow a phrase from the book of Esther, n’foch hu, everything was turned to the contrary. The opposite of Yom Kippur’s deprivation and solemnity, it’s stripped back nature and God-heavy liturgy is reflected in the ball’s embrace of hedonism, revelry, sheer indulgence, and all manner of fantasies. It would seem that, in every way, they went against the essence of Yom Kippur.
Their popularity was strongest amongst those who understood Yom Kippur. They’d grown up in the community and they understood how deeply transgressive their actions were. It was an insider movement.
And yet, perhaps the balls weren’t as transgressive as they seem.
In Mishnah ta’anit, we find the surprising statement us that there were “never more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur”.
Now, it’s possible that we were all asleep during the religion school classes that mentioned Yom Kippur’s joyous nature, and the young maidens skipping through fields dressed in white, that accompany the mishnah’s statement; but it’s also possible that we’re looking for the missing festivities in the wrong place.
The clue, as they say, is in the title.
Yom Kippur is a festival that is first mentioned in the book of Leviticus where he text declares יוֹם כִּפֻּרִים, הוּא. Not Yom Kippur, but Yom Kippurim. The Hebrew speakers amongst you might already have worked out where this is going, because yom ki Purim literally means, a day that is like Purim.
Depending on who you are, that description is either a rallying cry or damming critique.
What does it actually mean to say that something is like Purim?
On Purim we wear masks, act out the story, draw strength from Esther’s heroism. We make noise and blot out the sound of Haman’s name, and then at the end of the story, when whipped up into a drunken, celebratory fervor, we have to face our darkest nature as the Jews embark on a bitter and bloody campaign of revenge. Purim is fun, but also reckless and dark. It’s indulgent, it’s about fantasy and play, it’s messy and uncontrolled. It seems a world away from the asceticism and focus of Yom Kippur.
So why the comparison? What were the people who first became attached to the idea thinking?
The masks of Purim are about hiding, but with them comes the hope that when cloaked beneath them our true selves emerge. Disguised and anonymous, we can say the unsayable, satirize and speak political truths in Purim spiel format, and shake off the formalities of social convention.
On a good day, arguably that’s what we might hope the theatrics of Yom Kippur could offer too- an opportunity to be hidden enough behind communal confession to be able to speak truths we’ve struggled to voice. Protected from the demands of the outside world by our presence here, we get a chance to dabble in approaching the world differently, to see what we might learn about ourselves when we try out a different way of being.
The good day sounds like a pretty lovely idea, but what about on a less good day?
What does the yom ki Purim statement look like as a critique of us, of this high day of organized religion?
As is often the case in the progressive Jewish world, the prophets have some helpful answers. In the book of Jeremiah, we hear of Jeremiah’s response to Jews who go up to the temple in Jerusalem en masse on days of religious or cultic significance- much like today. There’s a remarkable moment when with Purim-like jest, Jeremiah depicts a God who seems to mock the very act of prayer and pilgrimage that the Jews undertake
In the time of Jeremiah, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was approaching, and God was angry at the behavior of the Jewish people. The rebuke Jeremiah gives begins with God saying, “how do you expect to be able to come to the temple and make sacrifices and sing ‘this is the temple of God, this is the temple of God, this is the temple of God’ in joy”.
Those words ‘this is the house of God’ are words of prayer, and Rabbi Shai Held- in a class aptly named, ‘why Jeremiah hated religion’ teaches that in quoting their prayers to them, the prayers are being handed back, they’re being rejected.
Why? The text continues. ‘How can you do this, say these things, and then go back out and steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, and sacrifice to Ba’al’. These charges aren’t arbitrary, they’re at least five of the ten commandments. “I’ve seen all of it” says God to the Israelites, ‘I’ve been watching you. I can see what you do when you leave this place, and I’m angry’. In the language of the world of Purim, that means, ‘I see this mask you’ve put on, this act of piety, but I see too when you leave here and you take it off again’.
The American abolitionist Fred Douglass who himself escaped slavery in Maryland before becoming an activist tells in his autobiography that the day of the week slaves were most afraid of was Sunday. Why? Because on Sunday the slave owners returned from church and believing they were in good favor with God, felt they could beat their slaves with impunity. They got more and more scared as the week went on, realizing they’d have to face God again, but then high on a feeling of moral superiority they left their places of worship without taking with them the messages they’d heard inside.
Shai Held comments that this is the very kind of behavior that Jeremiah is talking about. The show, the theatrics of ritual participation, ticking the boxes, but forgetting the takeaways. It’s all very well to be a religious person, to be seen going to church or to synagogue, but what does it mean if you neglect a basic duty to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the vulnerable.
God seems to have quite a clear message for the people, saying to them ‘you don’t get to do this thing called prayer and expect me to accept it, if you do it only to please me in the temple and ignore the other things I commanded you’. The ability to worship God- not even to receive the benefits but simply to use words of praise- rests upon doing that worship with integrity.
We can pray, and we can expect our prayers to be acceptable to God, but only if we live lives that match the standards we and God set for our own behavior.
The haftarah we read this morning is taken from Isaiah 58. He observed the people’s technical observance of the fast day, their attention to detail in their ritual lives, and their supposed piety, and he says:
“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when God is favorable??” No this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.
For Isaiah, this ritual means nothing without an ethical foundation. Fasting is meant to unlock us, to stir up our empathy, to dull our attention to our own needs so we can focus on the needs of others. The most damming interpretation of yom ha ki-purim in the eyes of Isaiah and Jeremiah is that this is all simply a play, a show. Immaterial, frivilous, chag gadol l’yeladim. At the end of the day, take off your mask and costume, go home, it was all a game.
But that’s not all Purim is. The Purim story contains a remarkable, perhaps prophetic, act. Its heroine, Queen Esther, is a Jew in the seat of the King. Her life in danger because of her Judaism, and her place in the court at risk by speaking out of turn, she nevertheless speaks truth to power. It’s a story for all time, and perhaps especially for our time.
The paradigm of Purim here is far from immaterial, it’s essential. Esther’s actions speak to the heart of Isaiah’s call to not ignore your own kin. If this is what it means for today to be a day like Purim, then the charge from both Esther and Isaiah is to find a way to draw strength and courage from this moment, and to channel that into our actions when we leave this shul today.
Yom Kippur and Purim are two extremes. On one hand we have a total retreat from the world into the realm of prayer. We are to deny ourselves all physical sustenance and comfort, and devote our time to teshuva and to the worship and praise of God. On the other we have the hedonism of Purim, where the world is so full of us that God doesn’t feature in the story at all. Neither is sustainable, life lived fully in one realm or the other would endanger us- both bodily and spiritually. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Chassidic scholars who first wrote about the relationship between the two decided to do so.
As any of my teachers at Leo Baeck College would be quick to observe, Yom Kippur is an old festival, one of the oldest, biblical. Purim isn’t. Purim didn’t exist when Yom Kippur was conceived of, but it did exist as the codification of synagogue ritual around the festival came into being. Seeing the development of Yom Kippur over time, led to our ancestors tying the two together, as if in some way to try and tether them, to stop both floating further away from a level ground.
On the question of whether Yom KiPurim is a critique or a rallying cry, it’s clear how those Jews who organized the Yom Kippur balls of the 1890s would have replied. They saw a hypocrisy in their compatriots, and it’s a sentiment shared by Isaiah in his condemnation of his own contemporaries.
What does it mean for us? I hope something different, I hope a moment to be inspired and invigorated by Isaiah’s challenge. An opportunity to engage in a teshuva that galvanizes, that unlocks our consciousness of what Isaiah calls “the fetters of wickedness”. A moment to take off the mask that today’s ritual can provide, because, to paraphrase the words of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk “God doesn’t want more angels. God has enough angels. Angels are boring — they have no choice. What God wants is human beings. And being a human being is so much harder…”