February 3, 2010
Purim: Hiddenness, Revelation and Revenge
The Book of Esther asks its readers to live with the tension of the hidden and revealed. Comic misdirection, reversals and confusions about identity perform a central role in the story. Appearances deceive—that is, the world of things is not always what it seems to be.
By Matthew LaGrone
The rabbinic inclusion of the Book of Esther in the Jewish sacred canon is a curious one. References to G-d are absent from its chapters, and the content of the book—centering around Haman’s genocidal edict and its reversal, and the bravery of Mordecai and Esther—appears on first reading to be unambiguously secular. Readers are not told that the hand of G-d intervened into Persian-Jewish history to revoke the decree. The narrative arc itself feels remote from Israelite religion, as Esther does not reflect explicitly on commandment-based, Temple-centered practices. In fact, some events are far removed from what will become normative Jewish practice. For instance, the orphaned Esther marries a gentile king, and does without social censure and with the support of her cousin/adoptive father Mordecai. Set in Persia, it is a tale of exile, but without the traditional longing to return to a free Zion. The prophets of Babylonian exile expressed the afflictions of the Diaspora experience; the author of Esther is not troubled by the same anxieties. Persian Jews participate fully and happily in the public life of Shushan, as King Ahasuerus invites all of his subjects, including Jews, to a banquet to rejoice in the affluence of the region.
Why, then, does this strange book continue to compel our attention? Surely, it speaks to one of the central tensions of Jewish history—the often gossamer-thin line between prosperity and persecution, normalcy and fear. The happy resolution of this tension makes the events of Purim worthy of celebration. But something deeper is masked by this surface account. While the efforts of Esther and Mordecai help prevent Haman’s pogrom, the tradition has detected the unseen but providential hand of G-d behind the events. The appellation “Purim” refers to the lots cast to determine the date of Haman’s proposed massacre, and this action would seem to introduce an element of luck into the narrative. But the rabbis held that in fact all human motivations will be frustrated by the guiding direction of G-d.
The Book of Esther, therefore, asks its readers to live with the tension of the hidden and revealed. Esther conceals her Jewish identity, and later reveals it to the King in order to save her co-religionists. (Esther’s veiling of her identity is a variation on a theme throughout Jewish history. In order to be like the nations, Jews would suppress part of their self, sacrifice the separation inherent in the idea of chosenness, in order to better fit into society.) Comic misdirection, reversals and confusions about identity perform a central role in the story. The scheming Haman, arriving too late, believes that the king wishes to honor him rather than Mordecai—the latter had revealed a plot against Ahasuerus, saving the king’s life. Mordecai sees Haman hanged from the gibbet that had been constructed originally for the former. The writ of genocide for the Jewish community (“whose customs are different” [Esther 3:8], Haman tells the king, and therefore should be viewed suspiciously) is annulled and replaced by a royal decree for the death of Haman and his sons.
But what is hidden will eventually be revealed. Esther unmasks her origins (or “nationality,” according to the text); the masked banquets (1) of King Ahasuerus, an outward signal of security and prosperity, obscure a kingdom threatened by a vengeful minister, but Mordecai and Esther expose his genocidal intentions; the face of G-d is concealed (hester panim
), but is quietly made known through the actions of the Jewish people, especially their re-confirmation of the Covenant following the thwarted writ of mass murder.
Accordingly, one of the central psychological dynamics of the Purim story is that appearances deceive—that is, the world of things is not always what it seems to be. The world of sound, the world of words and speech, on the other hand, can be trusted. The Hebrew Bible consistently stresses the authority of the word—unseen and intangible—over sight—the seen and physical. Jonathan Sacks, among others, notes an important distinction between ancient Jewish and non-Jewish culture. Judaism is a culture of the ear, of sound, whereas other cultures, such as Persia, are cultures of the eye, of sight. Sacks quotes the 19th century German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz: “The pagan perceives the divine in nature through the medium of the eye and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, the Jew conceives G-d as being outside of nature and prior to it. The divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. The pagan beholds his G-d: the Jew hears Him.” When G-d speaks from Sinai, the people hear his voice, but do not perceive his face because G-d is not embodied in form. Of course, artistic representation of G-d is proscribed in the Ten Commandments.Words reveal, images mislead. Sacks enumerates several prominent biblical examples: Jacob dons Esau’s mantle in order to fool the blind, elderly Isaac and claim the birthright of his brother. Joseph’s coat, covered in blood, is brought by his brothers to their father as evidence of Joseph’s ghastly death by some beast. His father mourns for his youngest, although, unbeknownst to him, Joseph is alive. Elsewhere, Tamar veils herself as a prostitute as a snare for her father-in-law Judah. Judah’s first two sons had married Tamar and had died, and he was reluctant to allow his youngest son to take her as a wife and consequently violating yibbum
. As Sacks writes, “Sight does not reveal the truth. It reveals the opposite of the truth.” (2)Sacks’ statement holds true for Esther, too. When Esther reveals herself as a Jew—rather than hiding herself as a Persian queen—Haman recognizes that his plan has been ruined, and he throws himself on Esther’s couch, pleading for mercy (7:8). The king walks in on the scene and believes that Haman is trying to seduce his wife. Finally, if Mordecai had failed to convince Esther to admit her ethnicity to the king—if she kept the appearance of an ordinary Persian rather than a Jew—then the community would have suffered under Haman’s terrible edict. But by speaking honestly to the king, Esther changes the fate of Persian Jewry. Again, the world of sight deceives, but words, the culture of sound, convey truth.
Elements of Purim can also be troubling. The story is shot through with an undercurrent of violence, both potential and actual. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman (3:2) results in attempted genocide. (The moral distance between Haman’s humiliation and mass death is, to be sure, abysmal, and is in fact not even part of the same moral universe.) Soon, the situation reverses itself. Haman’s plan to hang Mordecai is frustrated, and Haman himself is hanged, along with his ten sons. The ferocity of these reactions does not seem to occasion any surprise within the text itself. Such violence appears normal, and the holiday later becomes one where expressions of aggression are permissible.
Elliot Horowitz, in his Reckless Rites
, shows that the history of Purim in the Diaspora has often released dormant impulses toward violence. (3) Diaspora Judaism generally avoided violence as a response to persecution, but since the rabbis permitted Purim participants to contravene traditional societal norms (such as allowing drunkenness, wearing clothes of the opposite sex, the mocking of authority figures, etc), the holiday has regularly seen representations of violence, sometimes actual, sometimes rhetorical (such as burning an effigy of Haman). Horowitz notes that, especially for Jews living under Christian authorities, the hanging of Haman symbolically re-enacts the death of Jesus, whom the rabbis suggested was hanged rather than crucified. Such parodies would ordinarily be discouraged by the rabbis, who, for good reason, feared Christian backlash. Occasionally, physical violence directed at Christians occurred on Purim, but more often the violence was ceremonial, expressed in words and not actions. Although it was Haman’s name that was wished into oblivion, the psychic damage of physical exile and persistent harassment by Christians plainly made attacks on Haman a substitute for attacks on Jesus, the primary object of Christian affection and devotion. Christian authorities noted the parallels and intermittently tried to prevent the hanging or burning of Haman’s effigy. In 408, the Emperor Theodosius II forbade the use of Haman in Purim ritual, stating that it was “contempt for the cross.” (4) Haman, of course, stands as one of the archetypal villains of Jewish history. The tradition considers him a descendant of Amalekites, the people who picked off weak and infirm Israelites during the Exodus. Their name is to be blotted out. While this emphasis on violence seems at a far remove from the conventional picture of rabbinic Judaism, one of the central responsibilities of religion to direct emotions properly, and the legacy of Purim’s the theatrical violence—cursing Haman’s name, mocking the enemies of Israel, etc—channels the historical hurt of suffering into a kind of internal revenge. The revenge can rarely be physical, however, as the history of Diaspora Jewry has largely been one of powerlessness.
The psychological power of Purim is robust. The story itself speaks to some of the deepest motivations in any human life: fear, revenge, courage, et al. These elements are part of what make us who we are. Esther’s life resembles much of Jewish life in the post-Emancipation world: shed one’s Jewish identity in order to be “normal.” However, the account of her life teaches a further lesson: such identity is impossible to hide, and the consequences of such concealment can be dangerous indeed. After Esther refuses to approach Ahasuerus about Haman’s decree, Mordecai reminds her, “do not believe that because you are part of the royal house that you alone will be safe” (4:13). As the rabbis remind us in tractate Shavuot (39a), “all Israel is responsible for one another (kol yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh
As a holiday, Purim has developed a push and pull of release and restraint, happiness and worry. The tradition declares that restrictions on sobriety on this day are lifted, but rabbis since the Talmudic era have attempted to narrow the scope of not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman. Haman’s name is cursed, his person mocked, but no actual “Haman” is touched—this is the violence of voices not fists. Purim is thick with joy and laughter, the release of nervous tension, but the joy and laughter are grave, because what is being laughed at is not frivolous but rather an eluded genocide. The holiday, then, stands as a dark caution: we ought to be wary of prosperity—although it is surely a good—and efforts towards “normalization” and with it the elimination of Jewish difference. Finally, Purim has a significant theological intention: the divine distance (hester panim
) of the narrative, the want of G-d’s name, does not tell the whole story. What matters, at least according to the tradition, is trust (emunah
) in G-d, even when, perhaps especially when, his remoteness seems to be greatest.Footnotes:
(1) The custom of wearing costumes on Purim appears to have its origins among the Italian Jews of the Renaissance era. This custom clearly mimicked the “carnival” traditions of Roman Catholicism.
(3) Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
(4) Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 17.