This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Haman for All Seasons*

Haman's condemnations of the Jews, as they appear in the Megillah, are alarming enough, even without any additional embellishment. Nevertheless, the ancient expositors of the book of Esther did take the trouble to supplement the hateful tirade with some additional slanders that they found hidden, as it were, between the words and lines of the biblical text. The retellings of the Purim story in the Talmud, Midrash, in the Aramaic Targums, and in the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus Flavius, overflow with new crimes and failings that were ascribed to the Jewish people by Haman.

The unfortunate fact is that hostility towards the nation of Israel and its religion was current among many circles in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The reasons for this attitude can be readily understood: Greek culture prided itself on its tolerance and universalism, and therefore any culture that insisted on maintaining a separate identity in the new global civilization was perceived as narrowly parochial and unworthy of sympathy. This is a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent historical settings; self-professed enlightened liberals could be downright ruthless when it came to the suppression of cultural individuality.

The ancient historian Josephus Flavius was impelled to compose a special treatise, Against Apion, in order to refute the accusations of his contemporary antisemites. We are familiar with several of the arguments that were being voiced by enemies of the Jews in the ancient world, by virtue of their inclusion in Josephus' work. This information is very helpful for understanding how the ancient Jewish sages depicted Haman and his hateful message.

The rabbis of the Talmud, when interpreting the episode where Haman castigated the Jews because their laws are diverse from all peoples (Esther 3:8), expanded Haman's arguments to identify specific Jewish practices that limited their social interaction with pagans: They do not eat or drink with us, nor do they intermarry with us.

Accusations of this sort, irritating as they might have been to gentiles, had a factual basis. They bear an uncanny resemblance to Tacitus' indignant complaint that Jews sit apart from us at meals, and sleep apart. Although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from relations with foreign women. Similar expressions appear in the satires of Juvenal: they cannot share the pleasures of the table with the rest of humanity, nor join in their libations, prayers or sacrifices.

Jews in the ancient world were not always affectionate towards their gentile neighbours. They usually insisted on maintaining a cautious distance from the polytheistic religious outlook that united almost every other segment of the Hellenistic and Roman empires.

Nevertheless, the criticisms being voiced by the Hellenistic writers went far beyond recognition of the Jews' insularity, loyalty to their monotheistic faith, or distinctive religious practices. It was widely believed that active hatred of humanity (in Greek: misanthropia) was a central teaching of the Law of Moses. The historian Pompeius Trogus alleged that Moses had ordered his people to have no communication with strangers. The Egyptian anti-Semite Apion even went so far as to describe a solemn oath that all Jews allegedly took, in which they solemnly swore to show no good-will to a single foreigner, especially to Greeks.

Familiarity with Greek and Roman anti-Jewish accusations helps us to better understand some other allegations that the rabbis inserted into Haman's tirade. For example, when the Bible has Haman describe the Jews as scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples, the rabbis utilized a word-play on the Hebrew words for scattered--mephorad-- and for mule-- p'ridah-- making Haman draw an analogy between mules and Jews: just as mules are incapable of reproduction, so the Jews are fundamentally incapable of benefiting society by productive activity.

This bizarre claim, perhaps the earliest instance of the Jew as parasite libel, had a long history. The first-century B.C.E. orator Apollonius Molon, charged that Jews are the most witless of all barbarians, and are consequently the only people who have contributed no useful invention to civilization.

This accusation is closely related to a similar one that the ancient Jewish expositors read into Haman's words neither do they keep the king's laws. Several midrashic interpretations saw this as an allusion to the loss of productivity that was occasioned by observance of the Sabbath and festivals. Because ancient employers and tax collectors expected workers to toil throughout the year, the Jewish institution of days of rest was regarded as fiscal idiocy, and a sign of outright indolence. As Seneca declared, by introducing one day of rest in every seven, they lose in idleness almost a seventh of their life. And not to be outdone, Tacitus related that the Hebrews were led by the charms of indolence to give over the seventh year as well to inactivity. Taking a day off was portrayed as both silly and unpatriotic.

The implication that emerges from many of these traditions is that Jews were being singled out for persecution, both in Haman's time and in the days of the Greeks and Romans, precisely because of their scrupulous adherence to the Torah, which required that they eschew their neighbours' gods, abstain from their food, wine and social events, and observe their own cycle of holy days.

To be sure, when they felt it appropriate, the same preachers could take the opposite approach, arguing that the Jews in Esther's generation were placed in peril because they were too lax in their religious commitment and too accommodating in their readiness to assimilate to the gentile culture.

Clearly, many Jews felt frustrated at the apparent unfairness of the situation, at the fact that their religious loyalty was a stumbling block that provoked hatred and suffering. In one midrash on Esther, this irritation was placed in the mouth of the angel Michael, who came to Israel's defense with the impassioned plea Master of the universe! It is clear and manifest before you that they are not being condemned because they were worshiping idols, nor because of sexual impropriety, nor because they were guilty of bloodshed. On the contrary, it is because they were following your Torah!

The Almighty responded to this heartrending entreaty with an assurance that, notwithstanding their desperate predicament, he would never really abandon the Jews. Of course, Haman did receive his just desserts, and the Jews of ancient Persia emerged unscathed. In the face of similar threats through the generations, we have not always fared so well.

There are many features that contribute to the timelessness of Purim. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent of them is history's unrelenting parade of Hamans who arise continually to defame us.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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