The War Against Purim [1]

The Talmudic Sages were well aware that in adopting the Book of Esther and the festival of Purim as parts of biblical tradition, they were opening a door to some potential problems in public relations.

In one remarkable passage, the Rabbis created a fictitious dialogue between Esther and her contemporary sages which must reflect the sort of rabbinic debates that were taking place in the 1st century over the acceptance of the Scroll of Esther into the scriptural canon: When Queen Esther asked that her book be included in the Bible, the rabbis are said to have responded, "You will awaken animosity between us and the nations!"

Jews over the ages must have often felt discomfort at the vengeful mood that seems to characterize Jewish-Gentile relations in this book, and may have frequently looked over their collective shoulders to check who was listening to the recital of the Megillah.

Haman the Jew

In the early Christian Church, there was also considerable reluctance about accepting Esther into their Bible. It was not until 397 C.E. that a formal decision was made to accept it, in the Greek version that included a number of additions of a more palatable religious nature, including prayers of Mordecai and Esther that are lacking in the Hebrew.

Esther was seen as a symbolic representation of the Church, and Haman (who died by crucifixion, according to rabbinic legend) as an antithesis to Jesus. In an extreme (but almost inevitable) example of such allegorical role-reversals Haman was made to represent the Jews, and Vashti the Synagogue!

Even so, not all Christians were at peace with the inclusion of Esther in holy scripture. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation and one of history's most vicious antisemites, did not hesitate to complain, "I am so Esther that I wish it did not exist at all; for it Judaizes too much and has heathen perverseness."

Unlike other works of the Hebrew Bible, whose national context could be universalized, Esther was too much a celebration of undiluted Jewish national feelings--a fact which Luther could not stomach.

Italian Carnivals

In other countries of the Diaspora different sorts of objections were being raised against Purim.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
In Italy, for example, the Catholic authorities were particularly disturbed by the carnivals that came to be associated with the holiday (a feature which had originally been introduced by the Italian Jews). The Jewish celebration fell during the sombre Lenten season, and proved an attractive source of relief for Christians looking for amusement. Church authorities in 16th century Venice came to fear that Judaism might appear too attractive, and tried unsuccessfully to enforce separation of the two communities during the festivities.

The founders of the Jewish Reform movement, who were much concerned with making Judaism respectable in the eyes of their Christian neighbours and with defining Judaism as a system of beliefs devoid of any parochial national or ethnic associations, were equally uncomfortable with the Book of Esther and the celebrations associated with Purim.

"Enlightened" German scholarship, not bound by the religious reverence that had moderated earlier Christian assessments of Esther, were quick to pounce on the Megillah as an example of blood-thirsty Jewish chauvinism.

Moral Corruption

As early as 1790 an article appeared in a Berlin Jewish monthly suggesting that Jews abandon the observance of Purim because it fomented moral corruption, since Jews were secretly equating the ancient Persians of the biblical story with their own Christian contemporaries.

A defence of Purim was written in response by David Friedlaender, a distinguished student of Moses Mendelssohn. Friedlaender argued that among Prussian Jews, at least--who were cultured and devoted to their fatherland--no such suspicions need be entertained. The festivities even encourage generosity and charitable activities.

However in a manner typical of his disdain for the uncouth traditionalist Jewish masses, Friedlaender adds that the way the average Jew celebrated Purim, though not immoral (since the noise he makes on hearing Haman's name is merely a mechanically performed habit, done unthinkingly like all other Orthodox religious rituals), is surely disgraceful. Such a Jew spends the whole morning at synagogue in anticipation of the gluttonous feast that awaits him at home.

Friedlaender, by the way, was later to achieve notoriety when he offered to convert to Christianity, on the condition that he not be required to accept any distinctly Christian dogmas or rituals. In the end he did not go through with the conversion. The "universalistic" Protestant clergyman to whom he had submitted his offer insisted that it be accompanied by an acknowledgment that Christianity was a superior religion, an admission which even Friedlaender, embittered as he was with his Judaism and his Jewish community, was not prepared to concede.

Such attitudes were to typify the responses of the Reform leadership. Abraham Geiger, one of the giants of 19th century Jewish scholarship and the principal ideologist of the movement, observed that the Book of Esther was marred by "bad taste and mean feelings."

A 20th Century Reform thinker, Schalom ben Chorin, actually proposed, in 1938, the elimination of Purim and the removal of Esther from the Jewish Bible, arguing that "both festival and book are unworthy of a people which is disposed to bring about its national and moral regeneration under prodigious sacrifice."

In retrospect, we can look back with considerable sympathy at the misgivings expressed by Queen Esther's rabbinic advisers. Indeed, Purim does have a way of arousing animosities among our Gentile neighbours, especially where the hostility is there in the first place.

Conversely, the degree to which Jews are willing to openly celebrate this story of national deliverance can serve as an accurate gauge of our feelings of security, Jewish pride and positive self-image.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:
JS Edmonton edition, March 1989, pp. 4-5.