Megillat Esther as a Warning Against Jewish Power

The first of our submissions addressing the dark side of Purim

Eliana Fishman lives in Washington DC and works in Democratic politics


I grew up with really excellent Purim spiels. They were written by NYC screenwriters. Most memorably, in the third grade, my shul put on a production entitled Purim from Haman’s point of view. It included Freudian psychoanalysis, flashbacks to Shushan cheder where little Mordy bullied little Hamie, a romantic subplot where Esther refuses Haman’s romantic advances due to his religion, only to turn around and marry a non-Jewish king. My brother Akiva played Little-tan, Bigtan’s taller co-henchman, I played little Hamie, my Dad played contemporary Haman. The most memorable lyric from the spiel went as follows, to the tune of Tracks of My Tears:

So take a good look at my face / You killed seventy-five thou of my race

That’s why it’s so easy to trace /The tracks of my tears

This was the first time, at age 8, that I encountered the dark side of the Purim story. Until then, Purim had focused on Esther’s heroism, on Ahashverosh’s stupidity and silliness, on beauty pageants and feasts. Once the bad guy got his comeuppance, and got hanged on a tree, we talked about the Jews getting to defend themselves, mishloach manot and matanot laevyonim. We conveniently skated over Jews committing mass murder. We don’t talk about the profound moral challenge the text presents us with: are we really meant to celebrate a genocide?

Fortunately, I am far from the first person to have deep moral problems with the ninth chapter of the Book of Esther. Unfortunately, I’m not in such great company. Martin Luther, in his infamous essay “The Jews and Their Lies” writes about how much the Jews “love the Book of Esther, which so well fits their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous greed and hope”. This attitude towards Jews and our relationship towards the Book of Esther continues throughout Christian Biblical scholarship of the 18th and 19th century—Jews are inherently violent, which is why they love the Book of Esther.

Jews don’t start engaging with the Book of Esther as a moral challenge until the 19th century, and, perhaps shockingly, accept that the Book of Esther is a moral failure. Claud Goldsmid Montefiore hems and haws his way around the this moral challenge by saying that Judaism possesses both “excellencies” and “defects”  but you cannot single out the moral failings of a religious system and use it to essentialize about the entire faith system. Later, Montefiore even advocates abandoning Purim, saying he would not be sorry if Purim were to gradually lose its place in our calendar. Apocryphally, Yishayahu Leibowitz took the same approach, spending Purim day in Jerusalem and Shushan Purim in Tel Aviv so that he would be exempt from celebrating Purim at all.

I find both Leibowitz and Montefiore’s approaches to Purim to be completely unconscionable. I refuse to “lean out” when Torah makes me uncomfortable. I insist on “leaning in” and finding a way to read the megillah in such a way that the morality of the text is not foreign.

Along comes Rabbi Menachem Leibtag. Leibtag understands the entirety of Megillat Esther as a satire (Venahafokh hu). He points out textual parallels between the description of Shushan and Jerusalem (the only two cities described with the word bira in Tanakh), between Ahashverosh’s palace and the temple and between God and Ahashverosh, between Vashti’s refusal to appear before Ahashverosh, and the Jewish people’s decision not to return to the Land of Israel following the exile. Leibtag believes that the satire in the Megilla reflects a prophetic censure of the Jewish people in Bavel for not returning to Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Leibtag does not address the mass murder in Chapter 9 at all. He discusses numerous other elements of the megillah, paralleling location, timing, characters, the mitzvot of mishloach manot and matanot laveyonim—but he does not discuss the mass murder in chapter nine.

Jonathan Swift, the 17th- 18th  century satirist par excellence said that “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.”

What happens if we look at the mass murder in Chapter 9 through Leibtag’s lens of satire? What if we assume that the author of the Book of Esther shares the same repulsion that many of us feel towards mass murder?

I think what we wind up with is a very difficult parallel. Jews want to read Esther as othering Haman, and comparing him negatively with Mordekhai. Haman is malevolent, violent, genocidal, while Mordekhai is blessed, moral. However, when Chapter 9 holds up the glass, we see ourselves as being as just as capable of malevolence, violence and dare I say it, genocide. Given the opportunity Jewish power can be as cruel as Amalekite power. The Book of Esther challenges us to see ourselves as just as morally bankrupt as Haman. Purim as Yom Hakippurim.

I see Purim as a challenge to the belief (advanced by thinkers such as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi) that Jews are morally superior to non-Jews. I also see it as a challenge to notions of the morality of Jewish power. After all what is the commonality between Mordekai and Haman that turns each into genocidal maniacs? Their appointment as mishne lamalekh, appointment as second to the king.



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