What does the Jewish Holiday of Purim have to teach us today? Purim is a story about antisemitism or Jew-Hatred, and what it can lead to when wedded to power.
Haman, the second-in-command to King Ahashverosh of the Persian empire, managed to extract from his King a formal decree to murder all Jews living in the 127 lands of the Persian Empire.
“Esther and Mordechai,” oil on canvas, 1675. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
However, Haman’s plans were foiled by the Jew, Mordechai and his cousin Esther, who happened to be Ahasverosh’s Queen. The whole story is relayed in the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, read annually in homes or synagogues of Jews worldwide. It states:
“When Haman saw that Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself before him, Haman became full of wrath. But it seemed contemptible to him to lay hands on Mordechai alone, for they had told him Mordechai’s nationality, and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout Ahasuerus’s entire kingdom, Mordechai’s people.”
Haman said to King Ahasuerus:
“There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries.”
The king took the ring off his hand, gave it to Haman, and said to him:
“The silver is given to you, and the people to do to them as it pleases you.”
What do we learn from this?
- Prejudice starts in the heart of a single person and is based on personal obsessions and assumptions that are not necessarily true. Jews do have a particular culture. However, for over two thousand years, they have lived among other cultures worldwide, and one of their principles is “to obey the law of the land” in which they find themselves and to always include a blessing for the governing entities in their daily prayers.
- Moreover, we see how specific hatreds rely on stereotypes that assume that all members of the group share similar characteristics. These ideas are only tangentially based on human interaction. Nevertheless, once floated and received as “truth,” they serve to separate and incriminate the hated group with no recourse to engaging with the truth.
- Destroying the Jews has a financial benefit to the destroyer.
Purim celebrates the fate of a minority in a diaspora. It presents us with the first literary paradigm for antisemitism/racism/persecution of a minority group.
These are the same themes one finds whenever analyzing racism towards Blacks, First Nations, Immigrants, or Ethnic minorities. Every form of discrimination has its “narrative.” As the Rogers and Hammerstein song recount:
“You have got to be taught to hate and fear. You have got to be carefully taught.”
Nazi antisemitism was founded on the notion that Jews were engaged in a deadly conspiracy against the German people. The Nazis charged that the Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” during the first world war, thereby engineering its loss. The truth is at the start of World War l, 12,000 German Jews volunteered for the German Army. Of the 100,000 Jews who served with the German military – a very high proportion relative to their numbers:
70,000 Jews fought at the front line.
- Three thousand were promoted to officer ranks.
- Twelve thousand were killed in action.
Moreover, immediately at the outbreak of the war, the Federation of German Jews requested the introduction of Feldrabbiner (Field Rabbis) – rabbis dedicated to military chaplaincy in the German Army – something that had not existed before in the German Empire. In August 1914, eighty-one German rabbis volunteered to serve as Field Rabbis, and the first seven, among them, Rabbi Leo Baeck, entered service the following month. Rabbi Baeck’s service for Germany did not spare him from being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp during WWll.
Every act of antisemitism – from shoving a Jew on the street, to mass murder – has conspiracy and demonization at its roots. In the middle ages, the common folk believed that their Jewish neighbours had poisoned the wells and were the source of the spread of the Black Death. This prompted massacres and expulsions. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known 19th-century book written by the Czarist government, purports to record a meeting of influential Jews scheming to control the world’s finances. It has no basis in fact. This book continues to prompt libels about Jews and their supposed control of money and power. It has resulted in libels of Israel, the Rothschilds, the Jewish financier Soros, and a general suspicion that all Jews aim to “control the world”.
Deborah Lipstadt, the genocide/holocaust scholar, points out that demonized groups can be either successful or victimized.
“The racist “punches down” and loathes persons of colour because they are apparently “lesser than” the white person. They are, the racist proclaims, not as smart, industrious, qualified or worthy. In contrast, the antisemite “punches up.” The Jew is supposedly more powerful, ingenious and financially adept than the non-Jew. Neither of these notions is true; they serve to separate and isolate one group from the other.
The Megillah text teaches us profound lessons about the social and psychological webs that we are all entangled in, personally and communally. And yet, each of us writes our individual story as exemplified by the actions of each of the characters: Haman, Mordechai, Esther, Vashti – the King’s first wife, and Zeresh – Haman’s wife.
The Megilla text continues to tease young and old and to inspire as satire, character study, and politics and offers important messages for all of us, perhaps, especially for our times. But when all is said and done, it inspires one of the most joyous days of the Jewish year: we are encouraged to dress up in costume, drink hard stuff till we can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, exchange gifts of sweets with our neighbours, give money to the poor, have a shared feast and above all enjoy the moment with singing, dancing and homegrown plays.
This is a lot to unpack – Happy Purim!
Creating satirical theatre is one of the traditions of the Purim celebration.
Here is one I discovered on YouTube: An original play By Itzik Manger, the Yiddish playwright with subtitles: a takeoff on the Purim Megillah.
A retelling of the Purim tale: