When is it appropriate -- and even encouraged, both socially and spiritually -- to show up at your house of worship in full costume, make all kinds of racket, and even get really snockered?
Well, if you're a Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, the answer is never.
But if you're Jewish, it's Purim!
Even though I'm not Jewish myself, Purim, which began Monday night at sundown, is one of my favorite religious festivals -- and not just because of the costumes and cocktails. It's essentially a story of joy's triumph over oppression (with a smart, daring female hero to boot).
Purim commemorates the Jewish people's escape from total annihilation by the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C., as told in the biblical Book of Esther.
As the story goes, Jews were living relatively unmolested (if still in captivity) when the Persian King Ahasuerus appointed a rather nasty fellow named Haman as his No. 2 man. Haman hated Jews and one palace official named Mordechai in particular, so he got the king's permission to kill all Jews.
King Ahasuerus was looking for a new queen and summoned all eligible women in the kingdom to the palace so he can choose a mate. Hadassah, a beautiful (and wise) young Jewish woman and Mordechai's cousin, knows about Haman's plans to slaughter the Jews. So she changes her name to Esther and disguises herself so the king won't know she's Jewish. The king falls for her. She invites him to a banquet where she reveals her true identity and persuades the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves against Haman's attack.
Traditionally, this victory for the Jewish people has been marked by a boisterous celebration. There's a passage in the Talmud that even says Jews should drink on Purim until they're a little more than tipsy. Getting blotto on Purim is a mitzvah -- a blessing.
"A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai,' " a passage from the "Megillah," i.e. the Book of Esther, says.
The great Jewish scholar Maimonides interpreted the "Purim drunk" passage this way: "What is the obligation of the feast? That one should . . . drink wine until he is drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness."
Other scholars argue that Purim revelers need not be blind drunk but should drink more than they're accustomed to in order to let their guard down enough to be led by their hearts instead of their heads if only for one day.
Monday night the folks at Temple Sholom in Chicago commemorated Purim by reading the Megillah (by the way, that's where the saying "the whole Megillah" comes from) followed by a lively costume party with loads of food, drink and graggers (noisemakers that are sounded any time the villain Haman's name is said aloud).
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, who dressed as a "wacky wizard" for Temple Sholom's party, says behind the revelry and silliness of Purim is an important spiritual message, not just for Jews, but also for all of us.
"There are some great lessons for right now, certainly that even in the face of vulnerability there is the obligation to laugh and be joyous," Conover said. "When we look at how vulnerable we feel, especially these days, most people want to curl up in a ball in a bed and hide away from the world.
"But the Purim festival says you are obligated to join together with the community to be able to hear the story of Purim -- the time when the Jewish people were almost all the way wiped out. Instead of despairing, there was someone strong enough to have a voice."
One of the traditions practiced during Purim is making sure other people are feeling joyful, too, Conover said. "We send out little baskets of foods and items to friends and also to the poor," she said.
"You have to reach beyond your immediate community to make sure that other people are joyful this time of the year. Get out of yourself a bit. We get caught up so much in our lives that we forget that there are other people who actually need to be reached out to."
There are many Purim events going on in Chicago this week, in and out of synagogues. One of the bigger gatherings is the "Purimpalooza" from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. An $18 cover buys you admission as well as complimentary wine, soda and "Purim-tinis." (For more info: CLICK HERE)
Temple Sholom's Purim bash also included the thoroughly silly annual "Latke-Hamantashen Debate." It's a tradition that began at the University of Chicago in 1946, where high-minded intellectuals got goofy for an afternoon to debate what the superior Jewish holiday food was: the latke (potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukah) or hamantashen (triangular-shaped cookies filled with poppy seeds and other sweet fillings consumed during Purim.)
There's never been a clear winner in 62 years of latke-hamantashen debating at the University of Chicago, and the result of Temple Sholom's debate Monday night was no different.
"The whole thing is just this funny, festive, silly thing that happens," Conover said. "Purim is all about laughing and having great time."