It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim, with some modifications. The last time was in 2012. But when I read yesterday what I wrote then, I realized that little had changed in the last three years. There was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with his annual Purim message: Present-day Iran is Persia, its leader is the wicked Haman, they want to destroy us; if the US doesn’t come through, “there will be salvation from another place,” in other words, Israel will get the job done, i.e., unilaterally attack Iran without provocation (and no, tweeting that Israel should disappear is not a provocation, much less a casus belli). In 2015 Bibi told the US congress, “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.” Now that’s a provocation, although not as explicit as the constant threats Israel has issued against Iran.
So without further ado, here is what I wrote in 2012:
This year [I present my post] a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a megillah/Scroll of Esther to President Obama. The scroll, read twice on the holiday of Purim, relates the victory of the Jews over Haman the Agagite, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg explains the point of Bibi’s gift:
The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.
Goldberg reads Bibi right, but Bibi reads the megillah wrong. In the story, the Jews are saved only because the Jewish Queen Esther convinces the Persian king to execute the wicked Haman, after which the king authorizes the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.
The real message of the megillah for Bibi should be: Diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.
Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy. It’s not just the Scroll of Esther; it’s the Amalek thing; it’s the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it’s the Hanan Porat “Purim Sameah” (“Happy Purim”) thing (That’s what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.
Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way. And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.
Consider the following:
As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don’t worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can’t shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B- (after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did — providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.
James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters — which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do — then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality. I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.
And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture — and physical welfare– destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.
After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity. Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 15, 2015, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume). It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.