Purim: Coming to Terms with (A)History

Editor’s note: This is the first of our solo pieces. We’ll still be writing up conversations, but we think that this will offer us both a chance to flesh out some of our ideas more fully. 

Aron: On the Shabbat before Purim, known as Shabbat Zachor, we read a passage from the Haftarah in which the Israelite King Saul massacres the nation of Amalek (the same nation that Haman supposedly is from). How do we understand a story that stands in such stark contrast to our moral principles? Doesn’t liberal Judaism assert that the message of the Torah and Talmud is that humans are all created in the image of God?

The issue isn’t unique to Judaism. Most, if not most, ideological movements have to wrestle with a complex history of failing to live up to their own moral standards, as well as a legacy of being both oppressed and oppressors. The early Christians were a persecuted minority but, several centuries later, Christianity became the most murderous force in Europe. The Communists in Russia and China, leaders of their countries’ disenfranchised working class, became ruthless dictators.

How do we, as liberal Jews, wrestle with texts that we’d rather ignore? The story about Saul and Amalek isn’t the only one in which Israelites slaughter others. The Book of Joshua is largely an account of the Israelites wiping out the Canaanites; the story of Purim, to which this week’s Haftarah about Saul and the Amalekites is tied, ends with the Jews of Shushan killing 75,000 of Haman’s supporters.

What’s most intriguing about these accounts is that they’re likely ahistorical. Writing on the Book of Esther, historian Adele Berlin states, “The author of Esther was not writing history; he was imitating the writing of history… In a way, the story of Esther is nothing more than a conglomeration of common motifs associated with the Persian court.” The Book of Joshua is believed to have been edited, exaggerated, and redacted following the Babylonian exile (for more, see How to Read the Bible by Mark Zvi Brettler). As for Saul and the Amalekites, there’s a historiographical debate over whether Saul existed at all and, if he did, whether any of the stories about him can be taken at face value.

What does it mean if these stories are accurate depictions of events that occurred when the Israelites had power? What does it mean if they’re ahistorical narratives edited or written in exile?

If these stories are in any way historically accurate, and were written during times of triumph, then they indicate that when we became powerful, we sometimes failed to live up to the moral principles we developed during our oppressionDuring the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites craft a set of (relatively) equalitarian principles that were influenced by their experience of slavery. The most frequent command in the Torah is to care for the stranger. Despite this, when the Israelites come into Canaan and find themselves more powerful than the local inhabitants, they slaughter them. Similarly, the Israelites recall how painful it was when the Amalekites slaughtered Israelite civilians during the Exodus. Instead of making them more empathetic to others’ suffering, this experience motivates them to slaughter Amalekite civilians as soon as they have the power to do so. The Jews of Shushan follow a similar trajectory. When Haman tries to decree a death sentence for the entire Jewish community, Esther tells King Achashverosh, “We have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.” She and her fellow Jews know the terror of annihilation and recognize the immorality of senseless killing. When they are saved from genocide, though, they quickly become oppressive themselves. After Achashverosh reverses the decree,”on the very day when the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” The story ends with the Jews of Shushan killing 75,000 of Haman’s supporters.

If, on the other hand, these stories are really not based in fact, and if they were written during times of despair, they suggest that when we became endangered, we sometimes lost sight of the moral principles we had developed when we were safe. Many historians believe that I Samuel was first written in a small, weak Israelite kingdom and then edited, along with the Book of Joshua, shortly after its fall. The Book of Esther is believed to have been crafted by a member of a minority group in a powerful Persian empire. It doesn’t seem like to much of a stretch to say that these texts might be a response to feelings of disenfranchisement. How better to cope with the trauma of the destruction of the Israelite kingdom than to imagine an Israelite army that had enacted its own destruction? How better to compensate for being a tiny minority in Persia than to dream of being a military power? As Rabbi Michael Lerner writes, “The text itself continues to reflect a different voice and sensibility as well [as a moral one], one that embodies the fear and denigration of the other, and the desire to pass on to others the violence that has been done to us, the common practice for those living in a world of oppression.”

This weekend, as we read both I Samuel and the Book of Esther, in a time when Jews in America are under growing threat and Jews in Israel are militarily stronger than ever, let’s remember both the beauty of the moral insights evinced in Judaism and the twin moral pitfalls in the stories above. Let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring that our strength doesn’t corrupt our sense of justice and that our oppression doesn’t encourage us to compromise on it.



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