Sunday, March 6, 2011

Purim and a Question of Hypocrisy : Update with a link to the answer below


At first blush you might think that this post has nothing to do with autism, but I can assure you that it really does. The question that I am looking to answer is how do you explain hypocrisy to your child and expect them to adhere to the basic principles you lay down? We all have our beliefs in right and wrong, our religion and our views on honor, duty and country. But what do you do when you are faced with a person/child who does not understand gray and only sees things in black and white? That is collegeman.

He sees things in absolutes. In many ways that is a good thing. When he gives you his word, it is his word. He does not lie, cheat or convolute. He does not manipulate a situation to his advantage; he just does what he is supposed to do and works very hard at it. He also only believes what he can see, touch and smell. That does present a problem for him and religion, as I have written before. When Collegeman took a class on Judaism in college, I am sure that the Rabbi who taught the class had a mini-stroke every week trying to get collegeman to understand Torah, Talmud and Mishnah. At one point when his wife took over the class for a day, she actually forbade collegeman to ask anymore questions. He just wouldn’t stop. He can grab onto something and just never let go. It’s what has gotten him so far in life, that stubborn and stiff-necked refusal to give in. But I can also tell it that it can be a gigantic pain in the ass.

Oh it’s not that collegeman didn’t know how to read and interpret the stories in these religious texts, it’s the whole God thing that he has major issues with.  Now that he is minoring in Holocaust studies, forget it, God is  in such deep trouble with collegeman that it’s not even worth talking about the subject with him. There is no comfort for him, only anger when he thinks about it.

So I have approached my son in a much different way. The reasons we have right and wrong is basically because we understand right and wrong today and that we don’t need to have God in the picture. That the reward for doing what is right is a good life and the reward for doing evil is an evil life. Of course, anyone can challenge that reasoning. Society decides what is right and wrong and can change on a dime what it holds dear. Mankind has proven time and time again that it truly cannot be trusted with an understanding of the ultimate manifestation of good will without having some ulterior motive (reward in heaven) to look forward to. There is just too much human on human pain in this world, to think otherwise. However, for collegeman it seemed to have sufficed somewhat. I also told him that a lot of the Judaism doesn’t have to do with Gods word as much as it has to do with life’s experiences and knowing how to choose justice. (The Torah exhorts us, to seek Justice: “Justice Justice Shall thou pursue.” I always find it interesting that the Torah commands us to seek justice, not law. As a lawyer I understand that justice and law are not necessarily always the same thing.)

The next issue that I confronted with collegeman is an understanding of his Jewish heritage. Both the American heritage and Jewish heritage are taught simultaneously in this house. Understanding and growing a love for the US Constitution is a way of life for us. Belief in civil rights and the need for society to protect those unable to protect themselves is what and who we are. For collegeman an understanding of his American heritage is also manifested through his family tree on hubby’s side, as he is a direct descendant of the Revolutionary War hero, Haym Solomon (approximately 1500 Jews lived in the colonies at the time of the Revolution.). This is oh so cool when he thinks about it. His history in many ways is the history of the United States, from the Revolution, through the growth of this nation, to the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century; to the lives that they all led through the 20th century and how the world we live in was shaped. History comes alive for him, good thing he is a history major.

In dealing with his Jewish heritage, he understands the 3500 years of struggle for freedom and acceptance. He understands the growth of anti-Semitism and sees the manifestation of an old hatred come alive in today’s modern world. He sees and understands through the history of the Jewish people who he is and where he may happen to go in life. He delves into why and wherefore. He thinks and questions and thinks again.

Now you may ask what about HSB. HSB is not such a deep thinker when it comes to these things. He decides he is who he is and that is that. Doesn’t really care about the particulars really. One day he might. But if you ask him what does it mean, he says he’s a Jewish-American. He was born that way and if you don’t’ like it f***y**. HSB does have an inimical way of basically cutting to the chase, so to speak. He doesn’t need to know how it came about just that it is. He doesn’t need to know the particulars of hard won battles just that they were won and that right triumphed. He doesn’t need to know about the particulars of the Holocaust or the American Civil War. These things happened. He doesn’t need to know why there are problems in the Middle East; come at him and he will kick your ass. He has no sympathy for those who want to murder him and his loved ones. Doesn’t care their reasoning and has no use for them as well. As far as HSB is concerned there are no great philosophical questions to answer, no great philosophical issues at hand. He makes no apology for who he is not as an American and not as Jew. Collegeman doesn’t apologize either, but he needs all the questions answered.

Now how does this all figure into their autism? Their need for black and white. Ironically you would think that it would be HSB who would be a little more flexible when it comes to ideas than collegeman, since collegeman is always questioning his world. But no, HSB was the one who gets a hold of an idea and doesn’t really let it go. Collegeman perseveres, but HSB perseverates. HSB has less tolerance for those who disagree with him, and no tolerance or understanding for why someone may be mean. Collegeman tries to understand why someone would be evil (he loves to watch Forensic Files) It is his way of trying to make sense of evil in the world (genocides, holocausts and cruelty) while, HSB doesn't care why someone is evil, he just knows some people are beyond redemption.

Along those lines, is the discussion we had last night at dinner. This month is the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is the celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from genocide at the hands of the Persians. During the reign of the King Ahasuerus (historians also call him Xerxes, yes the Xerxes of Thermopylae fame-think the movie 300.) there rose a Prime Minister who was a terrible anti-Semite. He did not like that the Jews were not subservient enough to him, so he hatched a plot to slaughter all the Jews of the Persian Empire.  This man’s name was Haman.

Now unbeknownst to Haman the King had in his harem a Jewish wife, named Esther. Esther upon learning of Haman’s plot fasted and prayed that she may find some way to stop the slaughter. She eventually went to the King and told him of the evil plot. Because of the Xerxes’ love for Esther the plot was averted and Haman was executed instead.

Now here comes the conundrum for the boys. At Purim there are parties and singing and gift giving. Purim is like the Jewish Halloween because all the children and some adults dress up in costume. The Rabbis of old used to tell us that the requirement for Purim is that you become so drunk that you cannot distinguish between Haman and Esther’s uncle Mordecai. We go to Temple and read the Megillah Esther and every time Haman’s name is read there is a huge hue and cry to drown out his name. So in essence, we celebrate the deliverance of the Jewish people from genocide, but we also celebrate the death of Haman. We also eat a pastry called hamantaschen. It is a wonderful buttercookie filled with jam. Now that hamantaschen cookie is supposed to represent Haman’s ears, which were cut off after his execution.

So here is the boy’s problem…we are taught that we as Jews are not supposed to celebrate our enemies suffering. We are not supposed to sing and dance when our enemies die. Today you never see huge groups of Jews celebrating the death of their enemies (OK there are some but you can’t control everyone and even Jews have morons in their midst.) Now it does not mean that we allow our enemies to wantonly kill our children and us. We are allowed to defend ourselves with all our might and everything at our disposal. We are just not supposed to enjoy doing it. We don't dance in the street, sing songs and give our children candy in celebration of the death of our adversaries.

In explaining this attitude, we are taught in the Talmud a story from Passover, that when Miriam began to sing when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea God looked down at Miriam and asked, “How can you sing when my children are dying?” We empty our wine glasses when each plague upon the Egyptians is recounted at a Passover Seder because we cannot be joyful when even our own freedom came at such a horrible price for someone else, and never do we pray for evil to befall our enemies only that they would grow to understand and respect us. So what do I tell the boys about Purim?

If it was just the story about being delivered from genocide I think there would not be an issue. But it is the celebration of the death of another human being that causes problems, even an evil human being. The fact that there are songs, which celebrate his death, and that we eat hamantaschen does fly in the face of everything that the boys have been taught. On another vein, many young children are taught that it’s not Haman’s ears, but his hat. That people wore three-corned hats back in those days. I suppose it glosses over the problem area in the holiday, but not when you have a 20 year old and a 17 year old, who know too much for their own good and ask too many questions that you truly have no answer for.

So we left it with a simple I don’t know how the story jives with what we are taught as Jews. Perhaps that is why at Purim Jews are required to give charity and to give it anonymously. Because we are trying to make sense of something that does not make sense and we can assuage our own guilt by doing justice for those less fortunate. But leave it to my two autistic children to point out the inconsistency to me and to once again leave me dumbfounded with no answer. I suppose nothing, no religion, and noone, not one human being, is perfect. Maybe that is the answer that will have to suffice. Maybe in the end that is the true lesson of Purim.