Thursday, February 12, 2009

Valentines Day, Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue, and the Jews (Web Journey)

Dear Rabbi,

Can Jews Celebrate Valentines Day?

Dear Dis-heartened,

No need to be heart-broken. While we might ordinarily tend to shy away from holidays dedicated to saints, Valentines Day, as a celebration of love, fits right into our value system. There is in fact a Jewish Valentines Day, called Tu B'Av which occurs in the summer. And yes, we can make the claim that every day should be a celebration of love. And yes, love in our tradition is defined more by commitment than romance (see the V’ahavta paragraph of the Sh’ma and a super article, Shema: A Love Story), but there is a place for romance as well (just look at the biblical Song of Songs).

Here are some other reasons why it Valentines Day is kosher in my book:

The beginning of the month of Adar is seen as a time of great joy for Jews. (Adar begins on Feb. 25 this year). "When Adar enters, joy increases." Says the Talmud. The sages said that, and they knew nothing about the fact that pitchers and catchers are reporting this week. What they did know is that, when Adar begins, Purim can't be far behind. Read about Adar at As you can see from this site, much happens during that month, including the death of Moses (Adar 7), the Second Temple's dedication (Adar 5), and Nicanor Day (Adar 13), marking the anniversary of Judah Maccabee's defeat of Syrian general Nicanor in 161 BCE; originally it was observed as a festival but later became the Fast of Esther.

That's weird -- a feast becomes a fast. Why?

First, read about the destruction of Nicanor here. The source, the 1st book of Maccabees 7:26, states:

"Then the king sent Nicanor, one of his honorable princes, a man that bare deadly hate unto Israel, with commandment to destroy the people."

This Nicanor was one mean dude. Sort of reminds me of What's-his-name from the Purim story. If you read on, you'll see that he was even worse than that other guy; not only wishing to destroy the Jews, but mocking our religion as well.

Now, look at the final few verses:

"So the thirteenth day of the month Adar the hosts joined battle: but Nicanor's host was discomfited, and he himself was first slain in the battle….Afterwards they took the spoils, and the prey, and smote off Nicanor's head, and his right hand, which he stretched out so proudly, and brought them away, and hanged them up toward Jerusalem. For this cause the people rejoiced greatly, and they kept that day a day of great gladness. Moreover they ordained to keep yearly this day, being the thirteenth of Adar."

It all sounds vaguely like the Purim story. Yet different. Read the article by David Holzel, “Nick at Dawn.” He calls Nicanor Day: “the Un-Purim." He claims that the rabbis deliberately sabotaged Nicanor Day by replacing it with a fast day and then one-upping it with an even more raucous day of celebration, Purim, on the following day. (It's sort of like what we've done to Hanukkah, in transforming it into an 8-day present-orgy for our kids, just to compete with that other December holiday…Kwaanza).

Indeed, the rabbis had lots of problems with the Maccabee (read: Hasmonean) family and their descendants, and they were the ones who were writing the history and arranging the calendar. But there's no reason for us to forget about Nicanor, precisely because it will help us to understand the earliest strata of Purim's development.

Many trace Purim not only to the historical roots of Nicanor, but to pagan roots as well.

Excuse me, did you say 'pagan' roots???

Fear not. Just about every Jewish observance has some connection to the environment in which it grew. What the heck is an "Afikoman," but a Jewish reaction to the rather disgusting way Romans would end their meals, called "Epikomios." It's rather obvious that the Purim tale is meant as a reaction to something was going on in the real world of the Jew(s) who wrote it. But the story itself is fiction: -- it's cartoonish, outlandish, hysterical, and the names Mordechai and Esther sound curiously like the old Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar. The events may reflect the story of Nicanor, but the names give the book of Esther a mythological, timeless quality.

Ishtar and Haman, life and death, vie with each other for supremacy. Ishtar triumphs; spring returns; and life is renewed.

By the way, did I mention that Ishtar was a fertility goddess. And Purim is on Adar 14. Adar 14…Feb. 14…hmmm.

Could there be a connection between Purim and, gasp, Valentines Day?

Before lightning strikes, I think there is. First of all, it's important to note that Valentines Day predates all this "saint" stuff. Read some of the Roman and Christian roots of Valentines Day’s history here. It all goes back to the Roman festival called Lupercalia. It was a biggie and it was all about the sense of rebirth that comes as winter's winds begin to wane. It was also a bit of a Sadie Hawkins day, much like the aforementioned Jewish Tu B'Av and the ancient celebration of Yom Kippur. The romantic instincts of spring (or summer, winter and fall, for that matter) are universal. Why else would Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue come out at this time of year?

(Sorry, no hyperlink here, but for the first time ever, an Israeli is on the cover, Bar Refaeli, and another Israeli model is featured inside! Or so I've been told.... So I suppose that this issue now needs to become part of every self-respecting Jewish library, right next to Rashi's commentaries)

But the key to the Purim connection to Lupercalia is that a key component of the celebration was that girls and boys would get matched up by way of a lottery! Take a look at Purim: we've got a beauty contest, we've got a lottery and we've got Ishtar. The name Purim itself means "lots."

So what happened? The rabbis, in all their desire to wrest Jews from their Maccabee hero-worship and Nicanor Day, created a new and improved festival of bawdiness -- one that would make all other holidays pale in comparison (and a few of them blush), and they gave it a touch of Roman romance to make it sexy and just enough pagan overtones to make it dangerously attractive.

And to the rabbis I say, WELL DONE! They knew that this is exactly what we need at this dreary time of year. And to keep us from doing what comes most naturally when dealing with fertility rites and such, abusing and objectifying women, they gave us Vashti, just to keep the men in line. (see "Feminist Aspects of Megillat Esther").

If only Vashti were asked to model for Sports Illustrated…. That would be quite a cover-story.

Also, see this interesting essay about the topic, A Jewish View of Valentines Day, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love February 14.

So that’s a long, roundabout way of explaining why it’s OK for a Jew to celebrate Valentines Day. But there is a much shorter reason as well:

It’s my birthday.

Be HAPPY, It’s (almost) ADAR!

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