Purim and Religious Freedom

Franc Kavcic’s “Esther Before Ahasuerus”

We’re coming quickly to Purim. Yay, noisemakers and parties and costumes and drinking ad lo yada (until you can’t tell the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed by Haman), right!?

As an introvert, Purim as a big party is pretty hard for me to get into. I’m thinking about wearing a suit and saying I’m dressed like a rabbi. (Get it?!) But Esther, the book many communities read on Purim and which almost all communities at least talk about during the holiday, is an interesting read. (There’s always some way to make lemonade from lemons!)

Lots (get it!? because purim means “lots”!) has been said about how the book of Esther is more or less a kind of fairy tale, or perhaps involves some ties to Babylonian mythology. And there’s plenty that has been said about how the story is about the first known instance of antisemitism, though of course, we don’t actually know if any of this ever happened, as there’s no Persian literature to confirm…well, any of it, which makes calling it “the first recorded instance of antisemitism” kind of questionable.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t until this year really dug into Esther’s Hebrew. I’d read the Hebrew before, but I just had not paid a ton of attention to the exact wording, the sequencing of events, and other details. (Sometimes you read for quantity, not quality, and this is one of those books I’d read only for quantity.) There is always a temptation, even when trying to read closely, to take for granted that you know what a text says, and Esther was one of those texts for me.

This year, I paid close attention to the middle chapters of the story, and it gave me the chance to rethink some of the more frequent ways we identify the “message” of Esther. Some of what’s in the Esther story itself makes me resist hanging the “original antisemitism” tag on it. I think some of the features of antisemitism may be somewhat prefigured in it, but for reasons I’ll discuss below, I think we’re not on quite the solid ground we generally believe ourselves to be when we tell the story of Esther as one necessarily connected to antisemitism. I think we’re on much firmer ground when we use the story as a way into talking about religion and society.

I think all of these themes really find their homes in chapters 2 through 4 of the book.

Chapter 2 has the “beauty pageant” material in which Esther is volunteered by her uncle Mordecai to join King Ahasuerus’s court/harem. Mordecai notably tells Esther not to reveal that she is Jewish. (Should we be saying Jewish here at all? Assuming any of this story were true, it seems that Judahite might be the better translation. In the context of when the book was written, Jewish is far more justified. I’m going to use a lot of “Jew/Judahite” and “Jewish/Judahite” here.)

Why does Mordecai insist on Esther not revealing her origins? We don’t have a direct explanation. If you were reading this for the first time with no background, mentioning this piece of the story is useful in a Chekhov-like way: “If there’s a gun in act 1, it had better be fired in act 2.”

Yet a chapter later, we find Mordecai has told others that he is Jewish/Judahite. Again, why? It appears to be an explanation for why he won’t bow to Haman. It garners him trouble, and it’s this part of the story that earns the “first antisemitism” reputation.

Haman’s response to Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him is not only to want to have Mordecai killed, but also to have all Jews/Judahites killed. We see, of course, the charge of dual loyalty that is leveled at Jews as an established part of antisemitism. (And it’s worth remembering that in the United States, Catholics were often regarded as having dual loyalties, and no doubt are still subject to that charge in some circles.)

But is this really what’s happening here? There’s a human dimension to Haman’s behavior, and he is incensed that Mordecai won’t bow down. But the explanation for why he wants to engage in genocide isn’t rooted in an entirely imaginary problem:

And all the king’s servants who were within the king’s gates would kneel and bow down to Haman, for the king had commanded this for him — but Mordechai would not kneel and would not bow down. And the king’s servants who were within the king’s gates said to Mordecai, “Why are you transgressing the king’s command?” And they would say this to him every day, but he did not listen to them. So they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew/Judahite. (Est. 3:2-4)

It’s here that Haman is angered, because Mordecai won’t bow down, and bowing down is conduct that had been ordered by King Ahashuerus. The text continues:

But Haman rejected acting against Mordecai alone, for they had told him who Mordecai’s people were; so Haman sought to wipe out all the Jews/Judahites in all the territories of Ahasuerus — the people of Mordecai [note: “the people of Mordecai” was perhaps not originally in the text, or perhaps was supposed to be “along with Mordecai,” which is the matter of changing a vowel marker]… And Haman said to King Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered out among the peoples, in all the provinces of your kingdom. Now, their religion [Hebrew: dat] is different from all the people, and they do not follow the king’s decrees [Hebrew: dat], and it is not fair [Hebrew: shoveh] for the king to leave them alone. (Est. 3:6, 8)

From here, of course, the plan begins to unfold: Haman asks for and receives a very large allotment from the royal treasury, and messengers go out to tell the governors in all the provinces that they will have to help round up and kill the Jews/Judahites in their areas on the thirteenth of Adar, eleven months from the date of the decree. (Note: the decree, per the story, happens right around Passover, in the month of Nisan.)

But let’s back up here. What exactly has happened here with Haman and Mordecai?

  • Haman is elevated to the highest post in the land other than the king’s
  • The king has commanded that the servants in the palace bow down when Haman goes past
  • Mordecai refuses to comply
  • The others ask Mordecai why he’s not complying, which is to say that they tell him he should do so, and he refuses (this is the import of the “he did not listen” in response to the repeated “Why are you transgressing” inquiry)
  • The others eventually ask Haman about this whole thing, “to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand” — I think this could as easily be translated more like, “to see whether Mordecai’s actions would stand unanswered”
  • Haman is incensed
  • Haman has also been told that Mordecai is a Jew/Judahite, and ascribes Mordecai’s recalcitrance as a rebellious trait among an entire people
  • Haman asserts that a different rule applying to Mordecai and perhaps other Jews/Judahites is somehow inappropriate
  • Haman uses this as a basis to kill all Jews/Judahites in Persia’s 127 provinces

The text tells us that Mordecai’s reason for refusing to obey is that he is a Jew/Judahite. Haman attributes this to Mordecai’s — and the Jewish/Judahite people’s — religion (Hebrew: dat, on which more below). And in complaining to Ahasuerus, Haman claims that the matter is, as I’ve translated it, “unfair.”

Let’s talk about that unfair bit. The old JPS, the new JPS, and the new Robert Alter translation all translate the end of verse 8 as something like (I’m summarizing): “you don’t benefit from leaving this situation alone.” These all appear to be driven by Rashi’s commentary, which interprets the Hebrew here, ein shoveh, as meaning “there’s no benefit.” Some non-Jewish translations, including the New International Version, follow this approach. (The NIV also squarely identifies Ahasuerus as Xerxes, though…which one of two? Also, there are five kings named Artaxerxes to choose from.) Others, including the mainline-Protestant New Revised Standard Version and the Catholic Church-endorsed The New American Bible, understand this phrase in Hebrew to mean something more like “suitable” or “appropriate”: it means not so much “you don’t stand to benefit by leaving this alone” as it does “it’s not appropriate for you to condone this.”

Here’s the thing about the Hebrew shoveh here: its root seems to have originally meant something like “level” or “smooth,” and it ordinarily conveys meanings of comparability, equality, or suitability. Profitable? Not so much, unless it only means that in Esther 3:8. I translated this as “it is not fair for the king to leave them alone,” because there’s a sense in which Haman is observing, “this is unequal.”

This is an important point, and one that I think some modern commentators hit in passing — but I think as well that it deserves further attention. Alter’s notes on his translation of Esther, include the observation that the entire episode of plotting to kill every Jew/Judahite is part of what really cements the “this is a storybook story” feel, because the Persians were more than just tolerant of other peoples’ religious traditions. The Persians appear to have spent money and resources to return people to places from which they had been deported by Persia’s predecessors — this is largely what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about — and the many different groups within the Persian empire were given tremendous leeway to practice their own religions. Remember: Persia is the empire that returned people to Judah and provided some amount of support for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. If the book of Ezra is to be believed, Persia didn’t have any input on Ezra’s telling of the now-Jews to divorce their non-Jewish wives, an act that would have had tremendously destabilizing social effects; he simply did it, the consequences were whatever they were, and the Persians simply didn’t intervene.

Put another way: Persians would have needed a very compelling reason to engage in genocide, and the story doesn’t add up historically with what we know about Persia. Our dubiousness should be increased by the fact that we have perhaps seven different Persian rulers to choose from, based on the closeness of Ahasuerus’s name to both Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and Ahasuerus’s name doesn’t seem to connect up to any known representation in Hebrew of another Persian ruler’s name.

But Haman’s complaint carries some weight that we need to deal with — after all, though not fact, sometimes fiction nevertheless conveys truths. Mordecai’s to refuse to follow a law, and Haman’s observation that this is ein shoveh — unfair — does point to a real problem that comes with religious freedom: at some point, someone is going to say that their religion trumps government orders, or that the rules must change to accommodate their religious beliefs and practices. After all, Mordecai’s explanation for why he won’t bow is: I’m a Jew/Judahite.

Jewish resistance to idolatry is a through-line for more than 2000 years of Jewish history: it is, in fact, the very center of the Maccabean revolt and the revolts against Rome. And all of this conflict between Haman and Mordecai is set against a story where the backdrop is social control. Vashti is not expelled from the king’s court simply because she didn’t follow the king’s command. It is rather that word of her refusal to parade herself around at Ahasuerus’s party would get around and give women a basis for not obeying their husbands. And there’s a similar thing at work in the story of Haman and Mordecai. Mordecai’s colleagues tell Haman about Mordecai’s disobedience to “see if Mordecai’s words would stand.”

If the Esther story were a three-act play, almost all of Act 1 is about threats to social hierarchy. And religion can challenge established hierarchies, even as it creates its own hierarchies.

Haman’s complaint about Mordecai has another dimension we need to address in considering the religious freedom/antisemitism/whatever question: what does the text mean by “religion”? The Hebrew used is dat, which has come to be the word used in Hebrew for the concept of religion. But that term, dat, is used in Esther in a number of different ways. It appears in Esther chapters 1, 8, and 9 not as “religion,” but as something more like “decree.” In Esther 1:13, Ahasuerus is mentioned as talking to wise men who know dat va-din: decree and judgment (or law). In Esther 3:14, 8:13, and 9:14, the word dat appears very clearly as “decree,” as in, “let the decree be posted.” So there’s some significant overlap between religion on the one hand and decree on the other, at least in the book of Esther.

Jewish thought even at this time rejected bowing down to other gods or to people. That principle — that decree — is at odds with Ahasuerus’s decree concerning bowing down to Haman. In a book whose first third is about social control, conflicting decrees and their consequences (and there are more conflicting decrees later in the story!) present an opportunity to think through some very real problems.

There’s a chance to think about antisemitism, but I think it may be overrated as a topic here. There’s some spooky prefiguring of antisemitic tropes in the book of Esther. Conflicting decrees suggest dual loyalty, though this charge isn’t particularly credible as historically accurate within the setting of the Esther storybook. Haman’s move to wipe out all Jews in Persia’s provinces is eerily prescient; but, again, it’s just not very believable in the setting of the Persian empire. And the core of Haman’s complaint isn’t connected to some religious dogma or conspiracy theory: the book of Esther tells the reader that Mordecai’s noncompliance is a function of his Jewishness/Judahite-ness. That is to say, in the universe of the story, it’s not some imagined thing about Jewishness/Judahite-ness that creates the problem: a manifested challenge to authority is at the center of the crisis, and the challenge to authority comes wrapped in Jewish/Judahite clothes.

Haman’s character is portrayed as fanatically bigoted and spectacularly vengeful — he builds a gallows in front of his house on which to hang Mordecai separately, after all! It’s not a particularly special kind of bigotry, other than being especially murderous.

In other words, Haman is a horrible character, but I don’t think we’re at our most productive to center our discussion of Esther on antisemitism.

But we might do well think about Esther in the context of religious freedom and how religion and society interact. There are plenty of modern writers who do that, but it’s curiously pat stuff: Haman is bad, Jews can function in a diverse society, yay religious freedom! If you’ve spent time looking at how this all actually works — the rubber-meets-the-road stuff of balancing the needs of a diverse society — you know it’s not this simple.

What does it look like for a society to balance its needs against the religious (construed broadly) principles of its citizens? How do we know when it matters that someone won’t bow, for instance? We can look at the story in Esther and say, “Well, in that situation it doesn’t really matter that much. What’s the difference?” But there is real difficulty tied up in saying, “The law should apply equally to all” while also saying, “but that law is stupid.”

Governments tend to prefer positions in these situations that come out in favor of their own power, and they tend to remain of that opinion until the people affected are tied into the government itself. This is, for example, what moves the creation of “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) legislation at the state and federal levels: few people are much disturbed when government employees are fired for peyote use until someone realizes that maybe a Christian could be fired for doing something, at which point the wagons circle and “something must be done!”

All the answers are imperfect. American law ostensibly answers this with, “if it’s an otherwise constitutional law of equal application regardless of religion, it’s not infringing on First Amendment rights.” So as long as no one can smoke peyote, it’s okay if that means a religious group can’t use peyote in its rituals. As long as no one can have a slaughterhouse in the neighborhood, it’s okay if the city won’t give a permit to a kosher butcher or to a Santeria shrine. The RFRA laws try to mess with this rule by creating exceptions, etc., that is, by creating opportunities for unequal applications of the law in favor of religious practices or beliefs. But there are limits to what RFRA laws can accomplish, and they can have unforeseen consequences for those who advance them: sure, it allows them to challenge a healthcare law, but it can also allow others to challenge other measures. (Here’s a good one: suppose a student is in a public high school that offers a secularly-oriented Bible class, and the scheduling on the student’s classes work out so that they have no option but to take the Bible class as an elective. Suppose the student is an Orthodox Jew and rejects the legitimacy of secular Bible classes. RFRA to the rescue?)

The point here is that there’s a lot to a refusal to bow in the face of a government order, and it’s not actually enough to say, “Secular democracy can fix that.” What kind of secular democracy? Where are the lines? After all, France is famously oriented toward the concept of laïcité, which in the French setting has meant that employers can prohibit an employee from wearing a hijab (a woman’s head-covering that many Muslim women wear), and France has passed a law that prohibited wearing even kippot in public.

Again, I don’t have answers. But perhaps more than any holiday other than Hanukkah — and now, with significant Establishment Clause cases pending in the Supreme Court — Purim gives us a chance to work through some of these issues.

Heavy thoughts for Purim, right? Well, look, everyone else is writing about how Purim’s dark side involves killing 75,000 people; that’s not untrue, either (except that it’s a storybook, so…probably that didn’t happen). I let you off easy.

Chag Purim sameach! (meant unironically)