One can easily view the Book of Esther, and the holiday of Purim which grew from it, as nothing but farce and frivolity. In fact, rather serious challenges and questions reside just beneath the surface of the Bible’s great comic melodrama, none of greater historical and contemporary consequence than the taxonomy of anti-Semitism. Esther isn’t the first biblical book to place the rhetoric of anti-Semitism in the mouth of a villain. That distinction belongs to Exodus which begins with Pharaoh’s devious observation that “the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:9-10)
Pharoah’s concern, that Jews are fundamentally disloyal, finds richer and more nuanced expression in Haman’s words in the third chapter of Esther. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them…” (Esther 3:8) Haman makes three claims – the Jews are ‘scattered and dispersed’, they follow different customs from everyone else, they don’t follow the realm’s law – each of which comes to be a standard trope of later anti-Semitism.
[Rembrant van Rijn, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther, 1660]
The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible expands on Haman’s statement, adding to the narrative the text of a letter to the governors of the empire’s 127 provinces written by ‘the great king Artaxerxes’. The letter includes the claim “that this nation, and it alone, consistently stands in opposition to all men, perverting society with its own laws, that it is hostile to our interests, and does all the harm it can so that the well-being of the land is threatened.” (Septuagint, Esther 3, Addition B:5) The basic tropes of anti-Semitic rhetoric are already here, a full two millennia before the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Two late medieval commentators tease out the deeper meanings of these staples of anti-Semitic thought. Gersonides (1288-1344, Provence) understands Haman to mean that the Jews “were always of one mind” and that “they are like rebels against the kingdom.” Solomon Astruc (14th century, Catalonia) goes even a bit further: “…The Jews have taken counsel together to rebel against the king and to make a union (yihud) and plot called union…They are in all the provinces of the kingdom and their laws are different from those of every other people. They do not eat and drink with us and do not worship like we do. They do not obey the laws of the king, even those which do not contradict their own faith. One must beware lest they multiply and when a war breaks out unite with our enemies and cause all the countries especially those farthest away from you to rebel.”
One wonders if Gersonides and Astruc read the anti-Semitism of their time and place into Haman’s words. Commentary often reflects the circumstances in which it is written, and we know that fourteenth and fifteenth century Spanish and Provencal Jews faced church sponsored anti-Semitism laced with precisely these themes of disloyalty and willed separation. Indeed, Spanish Jews didn’t eat and drink with their Christian neighbors, nor did they worship like them. For our medieval ancestors, Haman’s words described the move from observed reality to open hatred that they themselves experienced.
How might we read Haman’s words in this moment of renewed anti-Semitism and heightened awareness of the rhetoric of hate?
The temptation is great to hear current expressions of anti-Semitism as one more instance of the same old Jew hatred pioneered by Pharaoh and Haman. The words certainly employ some of the same tropes already on display in Exodus and Esther, and they come from both ends of the political spectrum. Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life murderer, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar utilize some of the same language.* But are they really one and the same? Troubling as Representative Omar’s words (and actual sentiments?) may be, they are a political statement with no incitement to violence. Bowers’ words, in contrast, preceded the worst act of mass murder committed against Jews in American history. Our difficult challenge is to confront both of these versions of anti-Semitism recognizing that they differ from one another and from the Jew hatred articulated by Haman and Pharaoh.
Our own disunity deepens that challenge. In Hebrew, Haman’s first words to Ahasuerus are yeshno ‘am ehad – literally ‘there is one people.’ Abraham Saba, himself an exile from both Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, serves up a tart piece of commentary on Haman’s words that, to my ears and eyes, powerfully resonates: “There is one people. That is, although it may seem that they are one people, in total harmony, nevertheless, they are scattered and divided – that is, they are divided against each other by needless hatred even though they are in exile among the nations.” Saba’s fellow exile, Isaac Arama, puts an even sharper point on the Jewish disunity of the time: “They are separated from each other and rejoice in each other’s misfortune and therefore since they are so divided it will not be difficult to overcome them.”
On this Shabbat after Purim, let’s leave the farce and frivolity behind, and get focused on the profound challenges that we face as a people. ‘Rejoicing in one another’s misfortune’, not to mention ‘needless hatred’, can not, must not, be our path. We can successfully combat the anti-Semitism that surrounds us on all sides only if we rediscover and reclaim our internal solidarity and really work toward yihud and union among the people of Esther and Mordecai.
*[Bowers: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Omar: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”]