If you love Purim, as I do, you’ll probably go hear the Book of Esther read aloud. You’ll be wearing a costume, shouting and stomping your feet, getting high on sugar or whiskey. You’ll be having a grand old time following the story of ditzy King Achashverosh, ambitious courtier Mordehai, avaricious minister Haman, and the brilliant Queen Esther who outdoes them all.
Until you get to Chapter Nine. There, the king signs into law one official day of violence by Jewish citizens. In Shushan, Jews annihilate 810 of their enemies. Outside Shushan, Jews preemptively kill those who sought to hurt them, but actual numbers are unreported.
If you’re like me, you will wonder: why, oh why, does this comedic parable end with bloodshed? Why are our brainy Jewish heroes the perpetrators? And why am I laughing, hooting and hollering?
We discussed this question at Or Shalom’s Exploring Judaism Class.
Some class members thought it quite appropriate to celebrate Chapter Nine. Jews in the story do not initiate violence; they defend themselves. Jews have been attacked in many times and places; let’s find inspiration in a story of successful self-defence.
Other class members yawned at the violence. “It’s the genre,” said one. A story of two men competing for power has to end with action scenes. “It’s a typical Bible story,” said another. And I thought of Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement. Jews in Biblical times were renowned warriors, he said. That is our true Jewish heritage, to recognize that only military power can lay the foundation for a democratic regime. Actually, I think it’s nothing to yawn at. Revisionist ideals play a major role in Israeli politics today.
Some class members analyzed violence in the story’s particular context. In a satirical story, they said, everything is overstated, even the violence. Everything is writ large to emphasize the moral of the story. The kingdom is corrupt; courtiers buy, sell, and manipulate the king. Laws are ad hoc; decrees are made at drunken soirees; and legislation can never be repealed. Under such a (lack of) system, people resort to violence for self-protection.
One person reflected on our conversation itself. The troubling ending reminds us not to read on autopilot, he said. Esther’s book itself teaches that critical thinking is key to Torah study.
Speaking of critical thinking: the proactive violence in Chapter Nine grabs our attention, but another, more subtle violence pervades the story. Structural violence, built into the social structure, harming an entire class of people: women.
Women, enslaved as a symbol of the king’s power to commit violence against anyone.
Esther tells it like was — and, in some ways, like it still is.
Most of the women in her story are the property of one man who symbolizes state power. When his power is threatened, he consults his advisors at an all-male party. Solidify your power, they say, by requiring families to send you young women. For them, a harem testifies to the king’s control over law, taxes and armies. This is how it was, in the story’s not-so-fictional universe.
One woman, Esther, steps forward in a time of crisis. With talent, opportunity, and a strong network, she rises to great political power. But her unique success does not automatically open doors for other women. Her peers are unaffected, their sexuality and fate still controlled by a corrupt system, their bodies traded for power and money. You know about rape in war, sex trafficking, poverty for women and children. This is how it is, in many places today.
Does the violence in the Book of Esther upset you?
Before you think or drink the bad feeling away, take a small action. You may know it is a Purim custom to donate to charities that support the poor. This year, consider also supporting American Jewish World Service’s work on global women’s rights, or charities that provide alternatives for struggling women.
Then put on your costume, stomp your feet, and shout with joy.