After Purim, Whither Prophesy? The Legacy of the “Hidden Tradition” (And a New Schlemiel-Anniversary)

In the blog entry entitled “The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1),” I cited a passage from the Talmudic tractate Baba Batra (12b). The Midrashic passage made the claim that prophesy passed on from the prophets to children and fools. What I didn’t note is the date that prophesy ended: it ended on Purim. Yesterday. This means that today is the anniversary of the first day after the end-of-prophesy.

But what begins after the end of prophesy?

The answer to this question is not so simple. The Midrash from Baba Batra says that after prophesy ends it passes on to fools and children, but Talmud Yoma 39a says that end of prophesy is the beginning of the Oral Tradition.

Here is the passage:

Why is Esther compared to the dawn? To teach you that just like the dawn is the end of the night, so to is Esther likened to the end of all Miracles. But what about Hanukkah? We are talking about miracles mentioned in the prophets. (My translation)

Here, miracles are linked to prophesy. And the reason why Hanukkah is not included within the purview of prophesy is because the Book of Esther is the last recorded prophetic book in the cannon of the written Torah (the book of Prophets – Neveim). The miracles of Hanukkah, which happened chronologically after Purim, are not a part of that cannon and prophetic lineage.

In one of his reflections on Purim, the 18h century Hasidic Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev, who the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem regarded as one of the most important Hasidic mystics, addresses the future of prophesy after Purim.

In this reflection, he begins by citing the line which says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received”(Esther 9:26) the Torah on Purim. In a Midrash from Tractate Shabbath 88a, we learn that this passage marks a distinction between the acceptance of the Torah through Moses and its acceptance and fulfillment during Purim.

Upon receiving the Torah in Exodus 24:7, the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”(Na’sah v’nishma). In contrast, the Book of Esther says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received it.” The obvious question is why is the acceptance of the Torah on Purim different? The answer some Rabbis give is that this reception, on Purim, is out of love while the first reception of the Torah was out of fear.

To illustrate, one of the Midrashim in Shabbath 88a details how God turned the mountain over the Jewish people “like a tub” and said if you do not accept it “here will be your grave.”

Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev reads “fulfilled and received” differently:

Mordechai was the last of the prophets as it says in the Talmud (Yoma 29a). We find that until Mordehcai the light of the Written Torah shined. From Mordechai on, prophesy stopped and the light of the Oral Torah began to shine. From Mordechai on begins the Knesseth G’dolah and the canonization of the prayer book. And this is the meaning of “they fulfilled and received” (the Torah): they received and accepted amongst themselves the Oral Torah from Mordechai onwards. Prophesy had ended and the oral tradition began because, in truth, all the time that there was prophesy, that prophesy was written down. When prophesy ended, it was no longer written down and the light of the Oral Torah took precedence. (D’roosh Purim; my translation)

What I find so fascinating about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s reading is that he, a mystic, would not mention anything about the “other” new beginning of prophesy; namely, that it is now taken on by children and fools. Moreover, many Hasidim see Purim as a holiday which is all about “turning the world over,” a holiday where foolishness is deemed, to some extent, prophetic. Nonetheless, he bears no mention of this other post-prophetic beginning.

By doing this, he is, in effect, teaching us that this tradition of passing prophesy on to fools and children is either not important or it is a “hidden tradition.” It is, to some extent, esoteric.

The term “hidden tradition” is an expression used by Hannah Arendt to describe the history of pariahs and schlemiels which, for her, starts with Heinrich Heine, in Germany (not in Eastern Europe, with the Hasidim or with Yiddish folklore and literature and not in the pre-modern period). I’d argue that Arendt could have gone back much further so as to understand the beginning of this “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel; namely, to the passage from Baba Batra I cited in “The Prophet as Schlemiel (Take 1).”

The question of what begins after the end of prophesy seems to have two answers that lead us in two different directions. The first answer, the one cited in Talmud Yoma and reiterated by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, is that after prophesy ends the oral tradition (the Talmud) begins. Now, Revelation (not prophesy, which is based on Revelation) is confined to learning and, as it says in the Talmud, the “four cubits of Halacha”(Jewish law). The other answer is that after prophesy ends a new type of prophesy arises, one that is given to fools, children, and, as I noted in previous blogs, the man-child, the schlemiel.

Perhaps we can offer a third answer and say that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was hinting at this other answer? After all, what is an Oral tradition? If the Hasidim took the Kabbalah to be the Oral tradition, why wouldn’t they include, within that category, the prophesy of fools, children, and schlemiels? Don’t Hasidim record them in many of their stories? Is the schlemiel – in real life – and in its fictional life participating in this hidden tradition? Are Hasidic stories on the schlemiel parts of this hidden tradition? Were they meant to be esoteric?

The answers to these questions are thought-provoking since schlemiels were well-known to all Hasidim and to all non-Hasidim in Eastern Europe. They weren’t esoteric. However, their legacy, their secret, so to speak, is. It is a “hidden tradition” of sorts.

What new tradition begins today, then, the end of Purim? What new tradition should we celebrate on this anniversary?

On the Schlemiel Theory blog, let’s do something foolish. Let’s follow the Midrash in Talmud Yoma and declare the day after Purim to be the end of one kind of prophesy and the beginning of another! This can be the anniversary of the schlemiel’s birth into the Jewish prophetic tradition – the prophetic tradition of exile and the oblique, comic prophet. Today can be the anniversary of the “hidden tradition.”

Happy schlemiel-anniversary!

Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/prt/en4405872.htm

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!