The Wise King Ahasuerus[1]

Well, Australia is still in the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth is still your official Head of State . As a Canadian, I welcome you back to our charmingly anachronistic political association.

In this democratic world, the role of the sovereign is indeed a questionable one, particularly in constitutional monarchies where their role is ceremonial and symbolic.

The story of Purim has provided Jewish scholars through the ages with occasions to contemplate the nature of government, and the place of the king within the mechanisms of power. Not surprisingly, their interpretations of the Biblical text often reveal a great deal of their own contemporary concerns.

I think that modern readers have tended to regard Ahasuerus as something of a comical buffoon. This is not only the result of the frivolity that has characterized our Purim celebrations, but it legitimately reflects the king's ever-changing positions in the Esther narrative. Initially, he is a benevolent leader entertaining the populace with banquets and festivities. Quickly he is persuaded by Haman to support a genocidal massacre. And then, just as instantly, Esther turns him into an ally of the Jews, determined to execute vengeance on Haman and his collaborators.

It is difficult not to agree with the Talmudic rabbis who termed Ahasuerus a hafakhfakhan, an unstable personality easily influenced by his counselors and subject to constant changes of attitude.

A recurring argument in the Talmud concerns the evaluation of Ahasuerus' intelligence. Was he a shrewd statesman, or an incompetent boob? Certain episodes lend themselves to either interpretation.

Thus, the opening verses of Esther recount two separate royal feasts. In the first, the king entertained the citizens of the provinces, and only afterwards did he convene celebrations for the residents of Shushan, the capital city. Some rabbi were convinced that it was a wise political move to curry the good will of the outsiders first; while others insisted that it was an act of folly to befriend the provincials, who might rebel at any moment, before he had properly secured his position at home.

Several Talmudic sages were quick to adduce examples of Ahasuerus' stupidity and fickleness: in his abandonment of former allies, in his impulsive treatment of Vashti and in several other acts of dubious judgment.

In light of this critical attitude among the ancient Jewish sages, it comes as something of a surprise to observe how determined many of the medieval commentators were to paint the Persian king in flattering colours. This was particularly true among scholars who lived in Spain.

Even with regard to that most incriminating of passages, when Ahasuerus gives Haman a carte blanche to eradicate the Jews of the empire, several Spanish Jewish exegetes insisted that the king did not really intend that the Jews should come to physical harm.

Reprinted from Ha'Atid, a publication of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

Thus, Rabbi Abraham Hadidah argued that the king only planned to destroy the Jews' possessions, but not to kill the people. According to this interpretation, when Haman subsequently issued the order to "o destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old," he was exceeding the authority that had been granted to him by the king. For this reason, Ahasuerus could sincerely claim later on that he had been completely unaware of Haman's machination.

In as similar vein, Rabbi Isaac Arama wrote that Ahasuerus scheme had been to expel the Jews from his domains, rather than to murder them. Clearly Rabbi Arama had in mind the recent experiences of several European Jewish communities, in England, France and elsewhere who had been forcibly evicted from their respective lands.

Another Spanish interpreter, Rabbi Abraham Saba, could not conceive of the possibility that a great emperor of Ahasuerus' stature would knowingly perpetrate a ruthless massacre. To do so would bring lasting shame upon his kingdom, and no self-respecting king would consider it. Rabbi Isaac Arama concurred, insisting that the very possibility of murdering an entire nature was so abhorrent to human nature that no monarch would have given such an order.

For other commentators, the king's sympathies for his Jewish subjects was assured by their indispensable contributions to the royal coffers. It would be an act of economic irresponsibility to eliminate such a lucrative source of tax revenues. Rabbi Solomon Astruc argued that in the closing verses of the Megillah, when "king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea," he was in fact following Mordecai's advice in levying a tax on the Jews, as a way of underscore their fiscal benefits to the realm.

This irrational desire to defend Ahasuerus, to a degree that is unwarranted by the Biblical account or its Midrashic interpretations, seems to accurately reflect the attitudes of the Jews towards their own monarchs. Under the prevailing rules of medieval politics, the Jews were the "property" of the king, or of the royal treasury, and subject to the direct protection of the Crown. When anti-Jewish hostilities arose from other segments of the society, whether from the nobility, the clergy or the peasantry, it was the king who was responsible for guaranteeing the safety of "his Jews". The monarchs usually lived up to their obligations, but not always.

At any rate, the ability of the Jews to maintain their fragile existence, as a despised minority amidst a hostile environment, demanded that they convince themselves of the faithfulness, not only of their current rulers, but of the institution of monarchy itself. If they could not depend on their kings, then who knows what might befall them?

In the end. as we all know, the latter-day Ahasueruses into whose hands they had placed their destinies betrayed them, and the glorious Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula were destroyed overnight, with the blessing of the monarchy, through expulsion, massacre and forced conversion.

Of course, from our post-Holocaust perspective the patriotic self-delusion exhibited by the Spanish Jewish commentator appears pathetic, if not pathological. It reminds us of the naiveté of those German and Polish Jews who upheld their faith in the decency of European enlightenment, until the bitter end.

And yet, it is difficult to know if we would have acted differently under the circumstances. Only in recent years have the Jewish communities of the United States and Canada become aware how our governments (unlike that of Australia), while maintaining public postures of liberality and benevolence, were in fact hard at work suppressing all reports of Nazi genocide, and insuring that no Jewish refugees would find refuge on our hospitable shores. At the same time, Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom was making additional efforts to keep the Jews out of Palestine, for fear of alienating their Middle-Eastern allies.

Through all those years of betrayal, the Jews of these enlightened lands continued to maintain unwavering faith in the uprightness of their leaders. Any alternative was unimaginable.

I expect that future generations of Jews will continue to examine the story of Purim from the perspective of their own experiences. Even after the last despicable Haman has vanished from the earth, the events and personalities of the Book of Esther will inspire us to insightful discussions about the ideals of good government.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press

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