February 29, 2012
Purim, Persia and … Ahmadinejad ?
Purim is upon us. Remember Purim? For those not in the know, Purim is the next in the order of Jewish holidays which fit the meme: “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, lets eat,”—though Purim adds “and drink,”—a lot. Most Jews who celebrate Purim remember it as the story of the evil Haman who bribed the buffoonish King Ahaseurus to kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom as a result of his rivalry with the Jewish courtier Mordecai. The story is situated in the second or third century BCE in Shushan the capital of Persia. According to most scholars the story is a myth. However, like all myths, the story seems to reflect a deep truth and it has resonated with Jews over the centuries since it reflected the fact that in many countries over time Jews had been threatened with extinction by a variety of satraps and princes and ministers and so on, and had survived against all odds.
The Purim story (told in the biblical Book of Esther) is also different insofar as the Jews not only survived but they fought back and killed those who would have killed them—and their wives and children. This fantasy of revenge must have resonated deeply for a Jewish community in the many stations of the diaspora in which they were powerless against the actual enemies who wished them actual harm.
There is however a different reading of the Book of Esther which offers the Purim narrative as a darker story which poses a different set of questions. The key to the story is a statement by a Rabbi who lived centuries after the story might have happened, in the place that it was supposed to have happened—Persia. Before we get to this statement I will summarize the story itself for those whose biblical knowledge is a bit rusty. (For those whose biblical knowledge is not at all rusty, feel free to skim or skip the next three paragraphs)
Ahaseurus, king of Persia and ruler of most of the world (one hundred twenty seven countries according to the Book of Esther), threw an amazing party for all of his subjects at the end of which he banished his queen Vashti since she had refused to appear before him. This brought about the world’s largest and most complicated beauty contest at the end of which a dark horse contestant, Esther, was chosen queen. Esther was a Jew, raised by her uncle Mordecai who was a courtier at the court of Ahasuerus, and she was sworn by said Mordecai to secrecy about her religious or ethnic origins.
Meanwhile (cue foreboding background music) the king elevated the evil Haman to the position of vice-roy, giving him the royal ring, making him second in power only to the king. Mordecai was miffed by this appointment and refused to bow down to Haman. Haman was miffed and swore revenge. Together with his wife and advisors he decided to kill not only Mordecai, but, once he found out that Mordecai was a Jew, all the Jews in the kingdom. Ahaseurus was convinced of the worthiness of this plan by the deposit of much coin in the treasury of the king. A legal notice of the coming genocide was written, notarized and distributed throughout the land.
Mordecai then set to work. He informed Esther of the great danger. She devised a scheme by which she revealed to Ahaseurus that Haman wanted to kill her (and, by the way, all her people). Ahaseurus had Haman killed and transferred his ring (and the power attendant upon it) to Esther and Mordecai who issued an edict in which the Jews could defend themselves and kill all those who rose against them (and their wives and children). The Jews did just this.
The holiday of Purim was then declared, and its observance was to be by way of feasting, exchanging gifts, supporting the poor and reading the story. All these observances are found in the Book of Esther itself. Here is where it gets interesting. The aforementioned fourth century Babylonian Rabbi, Rava, added one more observance: “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Haman’.” This is a very specific obligation. First, this is neither buzz nor ‘happy drunk.’ This is virtually unconscious, blotto drunk. This is not celebratory. Celebratory stops way before this level of incomprehension. There is a specific goal here.
Another statement of Rava’s clarifies the matter. On all holidays, a special collection of Psalms (referred to as Hallel or “the praise”) is recited during the daily service. Not so on Purim. Rava explains the reason as: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” That is, when we recite the Hallel on Passover it is because Pharoah is dead and we are now servants of God. However, after Purim we are still slaves of Ahaseurus. This is the key.
The Book of Esther does not end on a note of definitive conclusion. The actual key to power rests with Ahaseurus and in the next chapter of the story (unwritten yet easily imagined) a new Haman will be given the ring which will be removed from Mordecai’s (dead?) finger and the Jews will once again be in mortal danger. In other words, as long as Ahaseurus is in power it does not ultimately make a difference who gets the ring this year. Thus the ritual of getting drunk is a way of performing what the world really looks like while Ahaseurus is still in power. There is no difference between Mordecai and Haman. It is all petty power games.
This is all by way of an overly long introduction to say the following.
If we do not change the system or structure of power, the short term victories of “good” over “evil” will not count for much in the long run. As long as the international power structure, and the relations between nations and people is based on who has and can deploy greater violence, nothing is ultimately changed. War, the deployment of uncontrollable violence, will never lead to peace, if by peace we mean the absence rather than the cessation of war.
It might seem bizarre, even immoral to some to speak of being against war, at the moment when the rhetoric around nuclear war and pre-emptive strikes is at a fever pitch. How can one talk peace with a nuclear warrior? Will the smoking gun of Iranian nuclear capability be a mushroom cloud?
All this is somewhat beside the point. As far as I can tell, there is no agreement even among the Israeli and American defense establishments about what the Iranian capabilities are and when they will or will not change for the worse. The same drumbeat of the horrors of weapons of mass destruction were heard before the unwarranted and unjustified invasion of Iraq. Still this is beside the point.
The standoff with Iran points to the fact that our diplomatic toolkit is severely limited. We are forced to the brink of warfare because of the lack of alternatives. It has been pointed out that for the price of one F-22, (a fighter aircraft that uses stealth technology) the United States “could — for 25 years — operate American libraries in each Chinese province, pay for more Chinese-American exchanges, and hire more diplomats prepared to appear on Chinese television and explain in fluent Chinese what American policy is.” These are the options that we know about and neglect to pursue. It boggles the mind to think of the possibilities that could come about if the Government actually spent even a very small percentage of the defense budget on a war-prevention budget, let alone a peace budget. That money could fund both research and scholarship on practical peace-making strategies, and also actual diplomatic and people-to-people interactions, while discovering which of the latter work. While it is definitely harder to make peace than to deploy massive uncontrolled violence, it is also less expensive.
The narrative of Ahaseurus is a narrative of unending war with with brief respites that we call peace. If we are to ever move beyond this cycle toward a more peaceful world, or even a world that lives in peace, we have to be rid of Ahaseurus. That we do not know how to get from here to there is not an argument against the project but rather a condemnation of the paucity of our imaginations. If we spent a small fraction of the time, effort, and resources on learning peace that we do on learning war, we may be able see our way to a brand new set of plowshares.