Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

Many of the religious Jewish thinkers who have attempted to bridge this gap have misunderstood the nature of science; they have not understood that in the world of physical laws there is no place for divine intervention. One of the few who met the problem face to face is the late Rabbi Shimon Gerson Rosenberg, better known by his initials as Rav Shagar, who passed away less than a year ago. A collection of his talks on Purim, Pur Hu Goral (available in English as Chance and Providence) offers a framework for grappling with this dilemma. It’s not a solution to the problem, but it offers a guide for the believing person’s choices in this physical world.

 “There are four levels to the Book of Esther,” Rav Shagar writes (this is my own translation from the Hebrew), “which are in fact four different ways of reading reality: chance, fate, divine intercession, and chance again.”

This is not what we expect to hear from a rabbi. If we find a reading that confirms divine intercession, don’t we stop there? Isn’t that what we’re after? Why do we return to chance—the very thing we are trying to preclude?

Chance, he writes, is the attitude that “things could happen this way, or in some other way. Chance is possibility. Fate says: things are this way, and cannot happen any other way.” In other words, fate is not random; it expresses the divine will. That is why Haman casts lots. He could have simply issued an edict that the Jews were to be slaughtered. By casting lots, he demonstrates that it is the will of heaven that the Jews be slaughtered on a specific day. In this way he also removes blame from himself and makes himself merely the executor of divine will.

“Divine intercession says: this is the way things are, and this is they way they ought to be,” Rav Shagar writes. “The world is guided by the laws of divine justice.”

That’s what religious people believe, right? But that is not the endpoint for Rav Shagar.

But he goes one step further and maintains that the believer must go beyond this simplistic reading. The answer to the question “Why is my life like this and not something else” should not be “because that’s what God wills.” One step beyond that is the understanding that the question itself is the wrong question.

Only when we stop asking this question, Rav Shagar says, do we obtain the total freedom of the will with which God endowed us. And at that point we stop asking “What is the truth?” and we begin asking “What do we want the truth to be?” We can then declare: “This is what I believe because this is what I have chosen.” We can decide how we want the world to be, and seek to understand what we must do to make it that way.

In other words, God does not dictate the moral, just, and good choice to us. We must choose it ourselves. God does not save me, or the Jews, or the world; God saves us when we choose to bring God into the world. We see God’s hand in the story of Esther not because the story tells us it is there, but because we choose to bring God into the story.

“And who knows if it was not for this occasion that you were brought to royalty?” Mordecai asks the hesitating Esther. Only when Esther makes the choice to approach the king and acknowledge his ability to save her people can the king act.

God can manifest himself in this world of physical laws only when we decide to read his world as a story of purpose and justice.

1 thought on “Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice”

  1. Wonderful post Haim. I completely agree. We are made in God’s image are we not? Meaning is something in which we must participate to realise and in so doing we start to establish a relationship with the divine.

    I can’t resist going on to observe that this needn’t be quite so paradoxical as we moderns are inclined to make it. I am sorry if this sounds familiar!

    Purpose is something that only makes sense in considering something capable of thought, but physics (and the physical sciences) work to systematically filter out such effects in order to build mathematical models of pure physical causation. If you think that physical processes are all there is in the immanent world then the whole order of value and purpose will look very mysterious and maybe mystical. I don’t think it needs to be that mysterious, our rational faculties can certainly play in this area–in which case we are in the ‘humanities’. But it is possible to see how they fit together into a coherent whole.

    There is a school of thought (to which I belong) which says that the physicists were the first to be forced into accommodating the fact that reality is not entirely physical in the early 20th century. As I have already said, Stapp has given great force to this old idea most recently in the Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer.

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