Remembering Matthew Eisenfeld z”l and (somehow) Celebrating Purim

Dear members of Yale’s blessed, dispersed Jewish community,

I hope my words find each of you well: secure, healthy, and beginning to emerge from the pandemic with those you love. And as always, I invite you to reply with your thoughts, questions, and needs.

Twenty-five years ago today, Matthew Eisenfeld SY ‘93, his girlfriend Sara Duker, and twenty-four others were murdered by a suicide bomb that tore apart a #18 bus on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. A young man who embodied the very best of what this community has been, and can be – brimming with brilliance, piety, and possibility – Matthew was living in Israel as he studied for ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

I never met Matthew, who would have been just over 50 years old now. He has nonetheless been a guiding spirit for the past two decades: in the fall of 2000, during those first horrifying weeks of the second Intifada, Matthew’s JTS roommate, Shai Held, was the rabbi at Harvard Hillel, where he again and again invoked his friend’s memory in our frantic search for understanding as bombs struck Jerusalem’s buses with relentless ferocity. When I entered the halls of JTS in 2006, a group of us studied Talmud each morning in the hour before the morning prayers – in the beit midrash named in Matthew and Sara’s memory. And here at Slifka in non-COVID-times, each Shabbat comes to life as students raise their voices in the songs Matthew loved, sung from the elegant song-books created to keep the memory of him, and his music, alive in the hearts and mouths of Yale’s Jewish community. Many of you reading this were his classmates and dear friends, and today brings with it the annual flood of memories, and of sadness.

Yet each contact with Matthew’s legacy further underscores the gaping hole his death left in our community. His scholarship and personal essays collected in Love Finer than Wine, are works of clarity and beauty, and leave the reader achingly aware of how much richer Judaism would have been – how much sweeter our lives, and our world, would have been – had only Matthew’s love of Torah and his knack for rigorous scholarship been allowed to flourish over this past quarter-century. I hope that these words, which I dedicate to Matthew’s memory, are a fitting tribute to a man who, had he lived, would have been a formative, even treasured, teacher of mine – and of so many others.

Today is fraught with paradox, because this day of grief is also the eve of Purim, Judaism’s day of reckless abandon and irreverent merrymaking. Is it possible to hold the heartache of Matthew’s loss and the possibility of laughter? How could we abandon ourselves to a carnival in this world tinged with tragedy?

Celebrating Purim and mourning Matthew are dialectical opposites. And like all opposites, they meet in a single point: the fragile partial-miracle that is the State of Israel. The introduction of Israel’s complexity – and its seemingly tenuous connection to Purim – likely has many of you confused. Let me try to explain.

Michael Walzer, in his lovely Exodus and Revolution, tried heroically to reclaim an ‘Exodus Zionism’ from the regnant ‘Messianic Zionism.’ Walzer was right: messianic Zionism is not only dangerous, giving its adherents a blank check to ignore history, ethics, and politics – it is also a radical departure from the open-ended, this-worldly work of creating a just and holy society in which the dreams of the Exodus find their fulfillment.

Walzer was right, and he could have gone further yet: the initial religious Zionist reflections on the proper celebration of the State of Israel’s birth took neither messianism nor the Exodus as their paradigm. Purim was their paradigm for the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. 

In the spring of 1949, as the first anniversary of Israel’s declaration independence approached, the Ashkenazi and Sefardi Chief Rabbis, Hayyim Herzog and Ben-Zion Uziel, issued a joint statement making the 5th of Iyyar into a religious holiday by paraphrasing Esther 9:27, in which the Jews “undertook and established” the annual celebration of Purim “for themselves and for their children afterwards.” They understood the Jewish present not in the image of the Paschal lamb, nor the splitting of the sea, nor Joshua’s conquest of the land, but in the harrowing political maneuvering of Persia’s Jews to survive Haman’s threat and to gain the power to defend themselves.

Three years later Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the new state’s first Minister of Religions, asked the prominent Rabbi Meshullam Roth for guidance in creating a formal liturgy for the annual celebration of Israel’s independence day, which by then had taken on the title “Yom Ha-atzma’ut.” Roth (Kol Mevaser 1:21) placed present-day Israel in a tradition initiated by Rabbi Moshe Alashkar, himself among the Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. Alashkar (Responsa #49) was asked if a town’s residents could establish a certain day as a “Purim for all purposes, to celebrate the great miracle that saved them on that day” – and responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ Roth then connected the links from Alashkar in the early 16th century to the present, citing the 17th century establishment of “Purim Vinz” by the Jews of Frankfurt am Main to celebrate the defeat of Vincenz Fettmilch, who had expelled them from the town two years prior (Yosef Ometz #909) – and evidence that, some two hundred years later, the great Rabbi Moses Sofer and his community in Bratislava continued to celebrate Purim Vinz (Responsa 1:191). Rabbi Roth saw 1948 as the most recent, and most meaningful link in our long chain of exiles and deliverances – the long chain of Purims, from Susa through Spain and Germany – and now in Israel.

In the early 1970’s the great – and controversial – Hakham Ovadia Yosef refused to include some of the liturgy’s most festive elements in the prayers for Yom Hatzma’ut, (Yabia Omer 6, OH 41) remembering that following Israel’s declaration of independence, 

The war of independence continued for some time with unabated fury, and so many were killed. The ceasefire came some time later, and even after that, the enemies who surrounded us continued to inflict casualties on us. So even though the establishment of the State allowed us to gather in the exiles from the Middle East and the survivors of the Holocaust in Europe – our joy is not complete… it is tinged with sorrow.

The story of Israel – including Matthew and Sara’s time living there and their deaths there – is not the simple, inexorable triumph of Passover, much less the Messianic era, but the contingent and conflicted deliverance of Purim, “tinged with sorrow.” And it is not only Purim that illuminates present-day Israel; Israel’s realities of alternating deliverance and danger may hold the very keys to the joy of Purim.

Long, long ago, Isaiah urged us (66:10), “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, All you who love her! Join in her jubilation, All you who mourned over her!” Mourning is not incompatible with jubilation, but a prerequisite for it; hearts that have not been broken open by anguish have no furrows where the seeds of joy can take root. The Rabbis did Isaiah one better, making this connection explicit and necessary (Taanit 30b), “Those who have mourned for Jerusalem will merit to see it in its joy; those who have not mourned for Jerusalem will not.” Our people’s mourning for Jerusalem stretches back millennia; over the past-twenty five years it has included, as one of its most searing chapters, February 25, 1996. Today, we carry that compounded mourning into our celebrations, with the faith that somehow we can, and must, hold them together.

This year our path to joy passes through the valley of the shadow of death – and perhaps it does every year. The month of Adar, defined by Purim, is one of magnified joy – not in the simple multiplication of moments of happiness, but in an expansion and transformation of what our hearts can hold. Jewish weddings culminate in the breaking of a glass; at the pinnacle of joy, something shatters as well. True, courageous joy only comes after an agonizing awareness of our fragility, and never through denial. This Purim, and all days, may we carry Matthew and Sara in our hearts – and with them, the blessings of community, of Torah, of song, and of Israel that they treasured and loved so dearly, every day of their too-short lives, and beyond.

Yours in friendship, mourning, and celebration,


Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale