This Sunday Jews all over the world will celebrate the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the escape of a Jewish community in ancient Persia from a genocide planned for them by an evil official named Haman – the story told in the Old Testament’s Book of Esther.
The book has no particular religious content (it’s the only one in the Old Testament that doesn’t even mention God), and apparently most Bible scholars (even the Jewish Encyclopedia) doubt its historicity – it’s generally considered a “historical novella.” But on the surface it’s an uplifting story, a seemingly innocent expression of ethnic pride and a celebration of courage and resilience in the face of persecution. And the holiday itself, at least as American Jews typically observe it, is a festive, even raucous occasion, featuring foot-stamping, play-acting, noisemakers, and lots of hamantaschen, a special-for-the-day kind of pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds.
That’s why, a couple of decades back, my partner Jean, who’s half Jewish and half Irish Catholic by background and thoroughly pagan by inclination, decided to add a Purim celebration to a St. Patrick’s Day-spring solstice party she was planning for our then-young daughters; she figured it would be a fun way to give them a taste of their Jewish heritage. Then she dug out a Bible and actually read the Book of Esther….
For those who’ve never read the book or don’t recall it, the heroine is a young woman who was raised by her cousin, Mordecai, in the Persian city of Shusan, then the capital of a large multiethnic empire, supposedly extending from India to Ethiopia. The king, Ahasuerus, ditches his queen, Vashti, because she refuses his command to “show the peoples and the officials her beauty” at a drunken banquet. (His aides argue that he has to get rid of her or else “this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.” Lest anyone miss the point, the king follows up with letters “to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” In 1877 Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.”)
In search of a new queen, officials gather beautiful young virgins from throughout the kingdom. Esther is among the chosen. On Mordecai’s advice, she doesn’t disclose her ethnicity. After the women complete a year-long course of cosmetic treatments under the supervision of a royal eunuch, Ahasuerus tries them out, one by one, in bed, and ends up choosing Esther to be his queen.
Shortly after she was crowned, Ahasuerus appoints an official named Haman his prime minister and orders that everyone bow down before him. Mordecai, hanging around the gate of the palace, refuses to do so. Haman is infuriated, and upon learning that Mordecai is a Jew (but apparently ignorant of his connection to the new queen), he decides to retaliate by convincing the king that his Jewish subjects are disloyal and all of them must be killed.
The king dutifully issues a decree to that effect, but before it is carried out, Mordecai persuades Esther to approach the king – a dangerous move, even for the queen – disclose her background, and plead for mercy for herself and her community. Ahasuerus sides with his queen, orders Haman hanged, and appoints Mordecai to replace him. The Jews are spared, and there’s great rejoicing among them. Ever since, Jews have commemorated their deliverance and celebrated the heroism of Esther and Mordecai.
That’s the Purim story as I learned it in my Conservative Sunday school back in the 1950s (except that I don’t suppose anyone highlighted the patriarchal message associated with Vashti’s fate). But when Jean read the biblical text, we discovered that the story didn’t end just with rejoicing. Although Esther had actually asked Ahasuerus simply to issue an order revoking Haman’s genocidal decree, the king, according to the Bible, didn’t actually do so. Instead, he told his queen and her uncle to “write as you please about the Jews, in the name of the king.” The order they composed didn’t merely call off the planned genocide – it turned the tables, authorizing the Jews “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them” and to plunder their property, all on the very day Haman had designated for the attack.
In the event, the Jews didn’t bother to loot anything, the Bible tells us, but they killed Haman’s 10 sons and 500 other people in Shusan alone. At the end of the day, when all this was reported to Ahasuerus, he asked Esther if she had any further favors to request. In response, she asked not only to have the corpses of Haman’s 10 sons hanged from the gallows, but also for the royal go-ahead for another day of killing. The king granted her wish, the sons’ bodies were strung up, and another 300 people were killed in Shusan. Around the empire, the Jews did in a total of 75,000 of their “enemies”!
In short, the Jews faced real danger, but they managed to survive, and then they lashed out in an orgy of vengeful violence at people they considered enemies, even though, on the evidence, the victims had nothing to do with the original threat. Sound familiar?
Among American Jews, at least among the liberal majority, the bloody denouement of the Purim story is rarely mentioned, but I’m told it’s well known in Israel. In any case, the story – along with other gruesome tales of religiously sanctified tribal violence in Joshua and other books of the Bible – has surely played some role, direct or indirect, in shaping Jewish culture and psychology in both countries. In a book called Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, historian Elliott Horowitz uncovers a long history, going back at least to the early Middle Ages, of Jewish attacks on their gentile neighbors during Purim (as well as gentile violence against Jews, especially, as is often the case, when Purim coincided with the Christian Holy Week). In the West Bank, especially in Hebron, settlers regularly celebrate the holiday with pogroms against the Palestinians. In 1994, it was on Purim that Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, killing 29 Muslim worshipers and wounding 125.
And, of course, it’s not just Purim – Deir Yassin, Tantura, Qibya, Sabra and Shatila, Operation Cast Lead, and so many more massacres took place on different dates, but the same murderous mindset underlies them all.
Progressive Jews often claim that Zionism, or at least its cruder and more violent expressions, contradict the real essence of Judaism, which they believe lies in the prophets’ cries for justice or in the modern tradition of social activism among some Jews. But Purim is a good occasion to remind ourselves that there’s another, darker side – a history of tribalistic violence – that’s at least as deeply rooted in our traditions.
As for that children’s party, Jean did bake hamantaschen, along with Irish soda bread and half-moon cookies to represent the solstice. But we decided to skip the retelling of the Purim story.