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Does Purim Have an Ethical Foundation?

by Rabbi Reba Carmel

MEGILLAH 7b of the Babylonian Talmud ascribes the following to Rava: “One is to drink on Purim until he is unable to distinguish between blessed be Mordechai and cursed is Haman.”

The following story is then recounted:

Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together. They got drunk and Rabbah killed Rav Zeirah. The next morning when he awoke, Rabbh asked for mercy for Rav Zeirah and he was revived. The following year Rabbah invited Rav Zeirah to celebrate Purim with him again. Rav Zeirah declined, saying to him, ‘Not in every hour does a miracle happen.’

The story of Purim — the word “Purim” is means lots, as in casting lots, a method of divination -– is memorialized in the Book of Esther, which is named for the ostensible heroine of this enigmatic tale and was composed between 400 and 300 BCE. Bearing familiar tropes of palace intrigue, power grabbing, deceit, and drunkenness, Purim has evolved into a much-beloved event for children marked by costume parades and rowdiness. In Israel, the Purim parade in secular Tel Aviv is a kaleidoscopic pageant second in raucousness only to Brazil’s Mardis Gras.

As irresistible as the Jewish beauty queen who saves her people may be, the story of Purim has a palpable, unmistakably dark side, evident in its earliest references in Jewish texts -- as is apparent from the unsettling story of Rav Zeirah and Rabbah. Moreover, the Book of Esther’s gratuitously violent ending, in which over 75,000 people are slaughtered by the Jews after the danger to them has abated, has fed antisemitic assertions that Jews are inherently violent and power-hungry and lack any moral or ethical decency.

THE STORY begins at what appears to be an unrestrained, drunken bash hosted by the Persian King Ahasuerus. At some point he insists that his queen Vashti appear wearing only a diadem. She refuses, and after some consultation with his advisors, Ahasuerus orders her execution for insubordination.

After a kingdom-wide casting call throughout the king’s 127 provinces, the mysterious Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her uncle Mordechai, is installed as queen. At her uncle’s behest, she hides her Jewish identity — in fact, the meaning of her name in Hebrew is “hidden.”

Haman, the king’s chief of staff, is from the Agagite family, while Mordechai hails from the tribe of Benjamin. The Agagites were traditionally associated with Amalek, a people whom the Bible commands Jews to annihilate due to the purportedly heinous act they committed to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. The biblical narrative maintains that while in the desert, the Amalekite tribe launched a surprise attack on the Israelites from behind. That portion of the biblical text which commands the Jews to remember and never forget Amalek’s deed is read aloud in synagogue, with the vigor of a locker room pep talk, on the Sabbath before Purim.

It is not clear from the Bible, however, what crime the Amalekites actually committed. In his 2006 book Reckless Rites, Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press), Elliot Horowitz claims that the “attack from behind” refers to anal rape. (He also notes that Amalek was associated by Jews with both the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, because of their homosexual customs, and with their “medieval Christian inheritors.”) Ultimately, however, “Amalek” has come to mean less a specific tribe or specific crime than a trigger for the Jewish imperative to remember, avenge, and preempt violence perpetrated by non-Jews.

Mordechai, from the tribe of Benjamin, is of the same lineage as the Biblical King Saul, whose downfall is linked to the Amalek story: In the First Book of Samuel (15: 1-2), God orders Saul to destroy the Philistines in battle, leaving nothing, not even their cattle, alive (“I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel . . . on their way up from Egypt,” God declares). Saul balks at the order and is thrown into psychological exile, a king abandoned by God. Crown and power are wrested from him. Depressed for the remainder of his life, he sees his beloved son Jonathan killed in battle and becomes insanely jealous of David, who he believes to be conniving to secure the monarchy for himself.

In engineering the defeat of Haman, Mordechai is ensuring the final destruction of Amalek, which was left undone by Saul. And just as the prophet Samuel, to mark Saul’s downfall, beheads the captive Agagite king and has his head impaled, the heads of Haman and his family will be impaled at the end of the Book of Esther.

AS KING AHASEUERUS’ most trusted advisor, Haman expects that all subjects of the Persian realm will bow to him in obeisance. They all do, but for Mordechai. Day after day the palace guards implore him to bow, insisting that no harm would come to him if he did while refusing could be fatal. Yet with each passing day of Mordechai’s persistent passive resistance, Haman grows more enraged.

He has grander plans, though, than merely prosecuting Mordechai. Haman intends to wipe out the Jews. He casts lots to determine the month and day of the mass execution, and then presents the plan to King Ahasuerus. In what is perhaps the foundational antisemitic sentiment, a carrier of this plague of hatred through the centuries, Haman asserts: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury” [Esther 3:8,9].

Ahasuerus removes his signet and passes it to Haman. Haman issues the edict in the king’s name and seals it with the ring. The order now cannot be undone.

Still, neither Mordechai nor Esther reveal their true identity. Through the ages, this choice has been intensely debated.

Echoing a school of German scholars of the late 19th century, the British Baptist Thomas Davies declared that the Book of Esther sets a “low ethical standard,” with Esther’s concealment of her Jewish shaping his sentiment. In 1910, the narrator in G.K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross mused about two types of Jews, the ones who changed their names and the ones who did not. In an address to London’s West End Jewish Literary Society, Chesterton distinguished between broadminded Jews, whom he considered an offense to society, and the more narrow-minded ones whom he admired “and regarded with an amount of veneration as one did any other great relic of antiquity such as the pyramids.”

On the other hand, the courage and adroitness of Esther and Mordechai served to strengthen the resolve of crypto-Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who were obliged to keep their identity a secret. Many crypto-Jews created rituals to compensate for ones they could not publicly observe. One of these was drawn from “Esther’s Prayer,” one of six existing additions or variations on the Book of Esther in the Apochrypha (ancient Jewish writings that were not canonized). The Book of Esther records that she fasted for three days before revealing her true identity to Ahasuerus. Some crypto-Jews also ritually fasted for three days, believing it would save them from death by their Inquisitors. Indeed, the Fast of Esther was observed more stringently than Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, among crypto-Jews. (Some scholars maintain that their veneration of Queen Esther was in response to the surrounding Catholic environment’s elevation of the Virgin Mary.)

AS THE STORY of Esther unfolds, Mordechai asserts that if she does not inform the king of the impending murder of her people, the edict will in fact be carried out. Esther balks, maintaining that appearing uninvited before the king is a capital offense. In his response — which has proved tragically true through the ages -- Mordechai asserts, “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape . . . On the contrary, if you remain silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:12-14).

After her three-day fast, Esther approaches the king and invites him and Haman to an intimate dinner party. At no small peril to herself, she reveals her identity and points to Haman as the strategist behind the order to annihilate her people. The king orders Haman impaled on the stake that Haman has prepared for Mordechai, then elevates Mordechai to be his chief royal advisor. The signet ring now belongs to Mordechai.

Because a king’s decree cannot be annulled, however, the Jews in the 127 provinces still fear for their lives, despite the fact that the immediate threat has been averted. Mordechai’s new order in the king’s name runs like this: “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children and plunder their possessions ...” (Esther 8: 11).

Over 75,000 “of those who sought their hurt” are slain by the Jews. Esther declares a celebration of “festive joy . . . feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor” (Esther 9:22-23).

IN BEATIFYING Edith Stein, an Orthodox Jew who converted to Catholicism, Pope John Paul II compared her to Esther. Just as Esther risked her life to save her people, so, too, did Edith Stein, he said, for when the Nazis approached her convent, rather than endanger the sisters, Stein left alone and was taken to Auschwitz, where she died.

Still, critics over the centuries have suggested that the Book of Esther has no ethical, moral or spiritual value. God goes unmentioned in the book. The public impalement of Haman is reminiscent, for some, of the crucifixion. The strongest motive shown by Mordechai and Esther is to save themselves. Finally, the notion that murdering over 75,000 people, even preemptively, constitutes self-defense is difficult to accept. In its ugliest incarnation, the 1994 murder of some twenty-five Arab worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn Baruch, was premised on his notion that violence against Palestinians is justifiable self-defense since they are the modern day Amalek.

Tragically, the Holocaust revived the temptation to link historical events to Biblical figures. Yet such connections, while unavoidable, do strengthen Jewish resolve and the hope for redemption; as Bernard Berenson wrote in his diary in 1943, “Like the ants, the Jews never lose faith in life ... Hamans and Hitlers are everywhere; [yet] they live on and enjoy life.”

The Nazis, who were keenly aware of the Jewish calendar, took great pains to play horrifying pranks on the Jews on Purim. On Purim eve, 1943 ‚more than a hundred doctors and their families were taken to the cemetery at Czestochowa and shot. On the following day, the Jewish doctors of Radom were rounded up, supposedly to be transported to Palestine, and taken to a nearby Jewish cemetery. Since there were only eight and ten had been requested, the Nazis also rounded up the cemetery keeper and his wife, in keeping with the number of Haman’s children who had been impaled.

At the end of the Book of Esther, the ring is passed from Haman to Mordechai. There is, however, no institutional change: King Ahasuerus “imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands,” and Mordechai basically basks in his power and glory while seeking “the good of his people and interced[ing] for the welfare of all his kindred.” Power remains purely hierarchical, in other words, and life is just as precarious as before. The ring changed hands once, and it will change hands again. Stability will be short-lived and give way to violence. As Rav Zeirah so perceptibly observed, “Not in every hour does a miracle happen.” Therefore, Purim suggests, we should eat, drink and be merry, for there is no changing the world — at least, not until Passover.

Rabbi Reba Carmel, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, has served as a facilitator for the Jewish Dialogue Group regarding Israel/Palestine and has edited their facilitator’s manual. She received facilitation training both from JDG and the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, and is active in the Cheltenham Multifaith Council in Pennsylvania. Her last article for us was “Maimonides for the 21st Century.”