03/07/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

Purim: A Serious Misunderstanding Of The Festival's Mirth

Purim's cathartic effect is remarkable, providing an opportunity for Jewish communities to parody themselves and their own hierarchies and imbue often-serious religious practices with music and merriment (and traditionally, copious amounts of alcohol and silly costumes).

It is in many respects a self-conscious parody of the ancient Persian culture in which one of Judaism's most intellectually important communities was steeped. Overflowing with cultural references (or faux cultural references) we may no longer comprehend, it mocks royalty and magistrates, the mob-mentality of the masses and the not-so-courtly political classes.

Yet there is also a somber edge to Purim's story: the narrative of devolution in interfaith relations. The Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim, makes light of a most serious situation, namely an existential threat to the Jews living in the purported Kingdom of Shushan. Through devious political machinations, the hero of the story, Mordechai, and his cousin Esther, succeed in having the Jews spared from a royal mandate that is initially set to have them killed.

At least ostensibly.

Perhaps mocking Persian bureaucracy, the decree is not repealed. Rather, a second decree, intended to compensate for the first, is issued. It does not undo the harm of the first edict, but rather ensure that the harm is more evenhanded -- a true disaster if measured by standards of current interfaith relations.

Jews, the second edict determines, are to take up arms in defense of themselves and slay their would-be attackers. The Jews do, wiping out their potential adversaries -- and realizing in verse the fanciful dream of a people versed in oppression.

This second edict is but more parody of the real condition of many Jews living in the Diaspora. Yet extremists, notably Jewish settlers in the West Bank, have taken the second edict of this sacred comedic scroll to be a pretense for violence against non-Jews. Missing the point of the entire holiday, they don't dress up humorously, but as the thugs that they truly are.

Most notorious is the 1994 massacre Baruch Goldstein carried out against Palestinians praying at a local mosque in Hebron. The American-born Goldstein is still lauded in some fringe settler circles as a role model for killing 29 innocent Palestinians and wounding of 150 more.

This past fall's vandalism of mosques (including some in Israel proper) suggest that Goldstein's horrific acts are not simply heinous history. Real threats exist to the well-being of non-Jews living near extremist settlers.

Moreover, as Rabbis for Human Rights reports, "the real test will be to demand that the IDF be prepared to protect the Palestinians when there are outpost evictions." If the peace process heaves forward once again, even a few extremists could carry out unthinkable acts against innocents.

Purim may provide the tragic excuse for such acts of violence -- or less vicious but all-to-hurtful expressions of disdain for non-Jews.

Especially on a holiday that more closely resembles Halloween than Yom Kippur, questions of life and death should be drowned out by singing and rounds of good schnapps, not actuated brutally in the streets.

Even for those who do engage in a more fundamentalist reading of the Scroll of Esther, Purim provides an answer to the profound fear of hatred between faiths: freedom of the mind and the suggestion to laugh off tough times once in a while.

Extremists who misuse a joyful holiday to cause misery to others are not merely sadistic but also utterly unaware of Purim's innate message of sacred irony and humor.

It is upon us to stand up to extremists within our midst who misapprehend and misappropriate a holiday of joy to cause others pain. Laughter may help us overcome our own tears, but the tears of others must not bring us joy.