Purim and Violence (Or the Lack Thereof)

I was reading an interesting article at Slate by Steven Weiss entitled The Ghosts of Purim Past: The holiday's violent beginnings—and what they mean for the Jewish future.

I knew nothing about the Jewish holiday of Purim, or why it might have violent undercurrents. Here's what I've learned by researching online.

Purim is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated on Adar 14 (Hebrew calendar). The secular day for the celebration, in 2010, will be February 28.

Purim commemorates and celebrates the events of the book of Esther: The deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from Haman's plot to kill them. You'll recall that Esther and Mordecai are the heroes of this story. According to Wikipedia the celebration of Purim involves "public recitation of the Book of Esther (keriat ha-megilla), giving mutual gifts of food and drink (mishloach manot), giving charity to the poor (mattanot la-evyonim), and a celebratory meal (se'udat Purim); other customs include drinking wine, wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration."

In his article about Purim Weiss opens up with a theological concern:

Much like Halloween, the Jewish holiday of Purim carries a veneer of boisterous and innocuous fun overlaid on some ghoulish history. Of all the "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat" holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim has been the most responsible for shaping the Jewish view of other nations—and the theology behind that worldview has rung many alarm bells over the potential for Jewish violence.
Why are their violent, xenophobic worries about Purim? It goes back to events in the Old Testament. During the Exodus the Amalekites attacked Israel when Israel was at its weakest. Because of this, God (or the nation of Israel, depending upon who you think is speaking at this point in the Old Testament) will not forgive the Amalekites and commands the nation of Israel to "blot out the memory" of Amalek. See Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
This lust for revenge carries over into the book of Samuel and is the motive behind one of the most horrific commands in the bible:
Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"
Okay, so what do the Amalekites have to do with the book of Esther? According to Weiss:
Amalek yet lives, according to the Talmud's claim that Amalek's King Agag conceived a child while imprisoned during a reprieve from execution at the hands of Saul. Purim became the next major confrontation with Amalek, as the antagonist of the Book of Esther, Haman, is called an "Agagite," and commentaries declared Haman the true heir of the legacy of Agag and thus Amalek.
Eventually, the rabbis began to interpret "Amalek" allegorically. Amalek became a symbol for any enemy of Israel. Consequently, the celebration of Purim has an undercurrent of anger about Israel's enemies. Historically, Purim celebrations involved the burning of Haman's effigy, much to the anxiety of the surrounding Christian population. And just like conservative Republicans tend to use the Old Testament to guide foreign policy so does Israel. Last year an Israeli political advisor was asked to evaluate the nation of Iran. His response: "Think Amalek."

So there is a lot of aggressive nationalism associated with Purim. Curiously, however, despite the gas the holiday could throw on the flames of Jewish fear and anger, there has been been, historically speaking, few incidents of Jewish violence associated with the holiday. In his article Weiss tries to understand why this might be the case. He comes up with three reasons:

First, rarely have the Jews been in power. Although diaspora Jews could vent some anger during Purim they really couldn't do anything about it.

A second reason is that the Jews are Pharisees. Weiss elaborates:
Another reason why Jews don't kill various Amalek-identified groups en masse is that Jews are Pharisees. Yes, the commandment to kill Amalek is real, but most Jewish legal minds have asserted that it's only considered operative when Jews are living under a monarch as part of a messianic era. That might seem an extreme technicality, but it's sustained a mostly peaceful Jewish outlook for millennia.
But the real reason, suggests Weiss, for the peacefulness of Jews during Purim might be a bit more parochial and interesting:
Perhaps the historical lack of violence can also be attributed to one of Purim's most famous traditions: getting drunk. The Talmud instructs Jews to drink on Purim until they cannot differentiate between the statements "wicked is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai," the Book of Esther's Jewish protagonist. As countless slurred sermons have reminded us, little separates good from evil, and any one of us can easily fail.
Ah, the salvific effects of getting drunk. Note to any Jewish readers: Could I be invited to your Purim celebration? I'm free on the 28th.

Surf on over to Slate to read Weiss's article. As you can tell, it's very interesting.

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8 thoughts on “Purim and Violence (Or the Lack Thereof)”

  1. You have pointed out many times that we have a propensity to be xenophobic. But, I would argue that the cause of xenophobia is not nationalistm, or ethnicity, but religious identification. Understanding is built when twe distance ourselves from the emotional aspect of religion and build bridges by affirming cultural differences. (The problem today, is whether we can affirm those differences when they go against the basic rights of life and liberty, that the West holds as universal.)

    We all identify with something, whether it be a tribe, nation, family name, or job. And identification with God is misguided when there are so many vaious "interprestaions of him". And God cannot be proved on a rational basis, only by faith, therefore, we further the clashes of diversity, instead of inhibiting them.

    There was an article in the Washinton Post about whether diplomacy should use religion to further diplomatic efforts. There is much disagreement.

    Religious identity has deep and strong roots that are so hard to penetrate, that whenever they are threatened, there is an intense reaction. Obviously, the writers of scripture were using this perspective.

    The Founders understood what happens whenever we form a government based on theocratic understandins. This is why we have the separation of Church and STate.

    (BTW, my children went to a Messianic Jewish school and celebrated Purim, as well as all the other Jewish holidays, throughout their grad school...)

  2. Angie, you write "But, I would argue that the cause of xenophobia is not nationalistm, or ethnicity, but religious identification."

    That's a good point. Every nation I know of is really open to outsiders and ethnic groups get along really well.

    No, the problem isn't "religious identification." It's actually with nations and ethnic groups and how they harness "God" to justify violence. I think you have the causality reversed.

    (BTW, most of the Founders were okay with slavery, they didn't allow women to vote, and they did some pretty bad things to the indigenous peoples of America. Let's not turn them into saints or idolize their clarion call to "freedom." We owe them a great deal. But liberalism has helped correct some of their sins.)

  3. Is there an Israeli hockey team at the Olympics for Purim? International sports competition does get some political/national aggressions out, with a declared winner, and usually no mortal casualties.

  4. "liberalism has helped correct some of their sins"??? - the civil war was an act of "liberalism"?

    The apostle Paul also seems insufficiently critical of slavery. Still looking for his thoughts on womens sufferage.

  5. Abolitionism wasn't conservative? But it was Republican;)

    And, you agree that "the Civil Rights movement ... finished the job"

  6. Hey, I don't mind Republicans being liberal. :-) And my general point was that liberalism helped realize the Founders' vision. A vision they didn't even know they had (although their wives knew).

  7. Richard,
    Today, at the Holocost musuem, the special exhibitian was about Nazi Propaganda. It seems that not only religion, but ethnicity, and nationalism can all be useful for xenophobia.

    It was interesting how they used and suppressed information for the conditioning of human response. Marketing does this all the time.

    Critical thinking, and a society that allows freedom of press, speech and information is a necessity to prevent such distortions and abuses of power.

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