02/22/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Inverted Soul of Purim and the Puppet Theater

This past fall, I watched the Broadway hit "War Horse," featuring life size handspring horse puppets, at the Lincoln Center Theater. The horse puppets' breath, movement and gaze compelled me to believe, on some deeply embedded, irrational wavelength, that this creature, born of plywood, foam rubber and nylon, was constructed of the same flesh as I. I believed that if I were to walk on stage, it could look my way and see me. Although its puppeteers stood in plain sight, I only faintly registered their presence.

The Lincoln Center Theater Review's interview with Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the creators of the War Horse puppets, handily addresses the connection between puppet and puppeteer. Adrian Kohler defers to the wisdom of Sergei Obraztsov, creator of the classic Russian glove puppet Petrushka: "Obraztsov believed that the soul of the puppet lives in the palm of the hand. Literally, when you are talking about a glove puppet the puppet itself is nothing without the hand inside." Obraztsov imbues the ostensibly soulless with a soul. The hand, like the eyes and face, is often recognized as expressive of the human soul. Obraztsov's words then, are a strange reconfiguration in which the hand becomes a puppet, and the soul becomes a hand.

There is a major perspectival shift that occurs between Kohler's first statement and his re-articulation. Obraztsov's idea is concerned with the soul of the puppet, while the next statement is concerned with making logical sense of this mystical message through the ordering lens of mechanics: the hand is technically the animating force behind the puppet. And while these two statements can exist cohesively side by side, they point to two completely different world views: spiritual symbolism and natural logic.

This weekend marks Purim, and the Book of Esther is famous for simultaneously conveying these opposing worldviews without favoring either. After all, this is the only book in the entire Hebrew Bible that does not mention the name of God even once. Thus, the twists and turns of the plot line, wherein the underdogs, Esther and Mordecai, eventually triumph over the villain Haman, may be studded with a multitude of minor miracles -- or not. Perhaps the hand of God is silently but ubiquitously present, or perhaps this a story without God, where randomness rules and good fortune is a product of good human planning aligning with pure coincidence. The Book of Esther confronts us with two equally viable world views: we might envision a world of purpose, spearheaded by God, or a world of chance, where logic rules. In either case, we choose what to see.

When I watch "War Horse," I can't help feeling an affinity for the idea of a puppet soul. But my rational brain croaks: This puppet is not alive and it cannot see me anymore more than the cup I am drinking from, or the couch I am sitting on.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 10a, it is written, "Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world, so the soul fills the body. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, sees, but is not seen, so the soul sees but is not itself seen." The Talmud weighs in clearly on the matter of God's presence in this world. God fills this world like the hand fills the glove puppet Petrushka. The matter of the soul, however, is turned on its head in puppet theater, and for that matter, during the feast of Purim.

The hand inside Petrushka cannot see, and nor can Petrushka. The puppeteers of "War Horse" are plainly seen, and even the hand within Petrushka might show its wrist in the place that feet should be. The puppet soul is seen without seeing -- a complete inversion of the Talmudic soul.

On the feast of Purim we are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai. This effectively blinds our souls. We blur the line between good and evil, and to what avail? The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Eruvin 65a, memorably tells us, "In comes wine, and out comes the secret." The "secret" may well be connected to the soul, if it is not the soul itself. At the very least, this indicates that our souls become more vulnerable during the Purim feast, somehow more visibly apparent. Once a year, our souls are seen without seeing -- another complete inversion of the Talmudic soul.

Purim is the consummate Jewish carnival. It involves feasting, masquerading and merry-making. And while I might be hard pressed to find someone who refuses to partake in such revelry, the idea of purposely getting intoxicated enough to forget the difference between right and wrong may strike some folks as excessive or even lowly behavior. "That of fools and failures!" the more vehement moralists might cry out, fingers wagging.

Puppetry -- very much at home in the carnival -- is often considered a lowly art, if an art at all. Basil Jones mentions in the Lincoln Center Theater Review that "professors were constantly admonishing Adrian for making puppets, and reminding him that at art school they produce artists, not puppeteers."

So what can we make of lowly behavior, lowly art and inverted souls?

Mikhail Bakhtin, in "Rabelais and His World," offers feast for thought: "One might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order." Without hierarchy, "all were considered equal during carnival ... People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations."

In "The Radicality of the Puppet Theater," Peter Schumann, founder of The Bread and Puppet Theater, writes that the "puppeteers' traditional exemption from seriousness ... and their asocial status acted also as their saving grace, as a negative privilege that allowed their art to grow." The puppeteers' "low" status liberates them from the expectations of the art world, allowing for a complete focus on the development of puppet and puppet soul.

So too, the drunken revelry of Purim has the power to liberate us by pushing the limitations of possibility and expanding our field of vision. By reorienting our stance toward good and evil we might become more thorough in our evaluations, less rash in our judgments, and stay present to the unpredictable delight of every moment.

The blinded, exposed soul is the great equalizer, opening the door to radical reconception and change. Purim and puppetry, by their very form, seek out this expanding vision.