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A Kosher Megillah Reading

This past Purim I found myself in the vibrant Jewish community of Las Vegas. Amidst the man-made opulence, gambling casinos, and streets that stayed awake all night, I looked for a traditional megillah-reading with which to fulfill the religious obligation to hear every word of the Book of Esther read from beginning to end.

Arrangements were made for me to attend a local Conservative temple. My hostess was an admirable woman: active in the Jewish community, a stalwart of the local day school. I didn’t want to offend her, but as an Orthodox Jew I had to ask: Will it be a kosher reading – meaning, does it follow the tenets set down by tradition?

Yes, she assured me. Although her congregation was Conservative, they were very, very traditional.

I should have suspected something when I was greeted at the Temple door by Big Bird, and he turned out to be the Rabbi. But the megillah-reading started traditionally enough. I was following closely, my finger tracing each word, when suddenly Haman’s dreaded name was mentioned and all heck broke lose. Wait a second, I thought. Isn’t Haman about three pages away…? Could it be, no….! Were they … skipping pages!!!?

Well, before I could answer that question (yes, it turns out) the reading deteriorated into a general pandemonium of shouting down Haman until it was abandoned altogether. Instead — by decree of the Rabbi and the elders—the traditional megillah was replaced by (I kid you not) The Megillah By Way of Broadway, i.e., (to the tune of Makin’ Whoopie)

(Virgin #1)

Check out my main frame

Check out my screen

IBM the one

Should be your Queen

Sure I do Windows

See how the wind blows

I’m user friendly…

Will they go back to the reading, I asked my hostess in shock. She made inquiries. The answer was no. Sensing my dismay, she apologetically delivered me forthwith to Chabad. Luckily, the Hasidic habit of starting everything late worked in my favor and I arrived before they’d gotten to the part where the Conservative congregation had gone over to vaudeville.

At Chabad, instead of the noise of bored and restless children desperately being entertained, there was absolute silence. A large screen projected colorful slides depicting the Purim saga, which the Rabbi clicked forward so that everyone could understand and enjoy what was being recited. At intervals, the young Rebbitzen held up a “Boo Haman” sign which allowed those assembled to vent their spleen. The children were fascinated, amused, attentive. And the reading was lovely.

Unlike some in the Orthodox camp, I’m not afraid of change. It’s invigorating. Leaving behind the U.S., living in Israel, my husband and I chose an engagement with the world, with change, a dynamism we could allow ourselves because we lived in the security of a Jewish country. We had chosen to be Jewish with both hands, thus leaving both hands free to explore.

The fear, the need to cut off from the outside world, is only necessary, I believe, if one has no confidence that one has chosen wisely; if we are afraid that our children by investigating will actually discover superior alternatives out there. “They might get confused,” some tell themselves, banning reading, watching, understanding. But aren’t they really saying that they themselves are confused, conflicted about the choices they’ve made?

The idea that we can keep our children close to us by shutting all exits, sealing all windows is a foolish one. The doors are paper, the windows fragile glass. They can walk out, walk though, at any time. There is nothing we can do to stop them. And so we have no choice but to reexamine with a piercing, almost heartless honesty all we’ve chosen to do and be.

Will our life choices hold up? Do they have worth? Are they worth preserving and passing on? We can’t be afraid to face the answers. But neither do we need to present the face of absolute conviction when we feel none, to bluff our children into thinking we do.

Orthodoxy errs when it thinks forbidding this and forbidding that is going to impress young people or win their respect. And the Conservative and Reform movement err no less when they degrade and abandon traditional rituals in a misguided attempt to entertain bored fringe Jews into becoming committed members of the community.

Let’s face it, when you turn a megillah reading into an MTV video, why shouldn’t the kids just go home and watch the real thing? No amount of tap dancing and Broadway tunes is going to shore up a religious rite and make it meaningful if the adults involved are clueless, and it’s meaningless to them.

I applaud the Chabad rabbi and his slides. He managed to clarify the ritual reading, without destroying its value.

Like Helen Keller, whose salvation came from attaching meaning to words – the letters w-a-t-e-r to a wet, cold liquid – so must we in all branches of Judaism attach a meaningful substance to our activities: Torah learning must be connected to morality and kindness in deed. Our rituals and traditions explained and explored. Not discarded.

When we start a megillah reading, we need to finish it.

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