Abby Wisse Schachter: The Problem with the Jewish Holiday of Purim

Roundup: Talking About History

[Abby Wisse Schachter is an associate editor at the New York Post.] The liturgy and observances of the Jewish religious calendar have been set in place for many centuries. But in recent decades a trend toward the reinterpretation of many holidays has been gaining ground. Passover’s celebration of freedom has served to turn it into a clearinghouse of trendy concepts, with Seders dedicated to civil rights, the labor movement, ecology, and a host of other topics. Chanukah’s festival of lights has become for some a reminder to conserve energy or save the planet from global warming. But it is the holiday of Purim that has undergone the most thorough makeover by a new generation of liberal and feminist thinkers....

As told in the Book of Esther, the saga of Purim begins when the king of Persia, Ahasuerus, holds a banquet and asks his wife, Queen Vashti, to display her beauty before him. She refuses. On the advice of his counselors, the king banishes Vashti from the kingdom and replaces her with a new queen, Esther. Next, Haman, a highly placed adviser to the king, concocts a plan to kill the Jews of Persia, sets a date, and convinces the king to issue the murderous decree. Mordechai, a Jew and uncle (or cousin) of Queen Esther, informs her of the plot and demands that she plead with the king for the lives of the Jews. Esther agrees but amends Mordechai’s plan. She holds two banquets for the king and Haman, reveals herself as a Jew, and asks that the king save her and her people. Haman is hanged and the plot is reversed; it is the Jews who rise up and kill the Persians, who intended to murder them. In the final chapter, Mordecai replaces Haman as Ahasuerus’s top adviser.

Purim is the Jewish carnival, a day on which the consumption of alcohol is traditionally encouraged and the prohibitions against cross-dressing are removed amid the revelry that celebrates the heroes of the story. It is also the quintessential Diaspora festival, as its narrative emphasizes the plight of a Jewish community whose security depends on the goodwill of non-Jewish sovereigns. The decision of Queen Esther, a hidden Jew who comes out of the closet, turns the tables on her people’s persecutors, setting the stage for a massive score-settling in which those who planned to murder the Jews are instead the ones who are killed in a preemptive war of self-defense. This dramatic turnabout has helped endear the holiday to many generations of Diaspora Jews, and especially to those also living in hiding, such as the Marranos, for whom the Fast of Esther was among the most important vestiges of Jewish practice.

Yet in recent years Purim has come under criticism from some Jewish thinkers in large measure because of the bloodiness of the triumph at its conclusion (the Jews kill 75,000 Persians in a single day). Elliott Horowitz of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University devoted his Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence to the questionable claim that Purim has long been the occasion for outbreaks of Jewish animosity and even violence toward Christians. Horowitz based this bizarre thesis largely on the fact that Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994 occurred on Purim. In his review of the book for Commentary (June 2006), Hillel Halkin pointed out that the incidences of Jewish violence against non-Jews through the centuries are extraordinarily few in number and that the connection between them and Purim is more than tenuous....

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