Purim Will Never Be the Same

Those with an aversion to Purim, with its age-old legacy of Jewish violence and vengeance against Christians, will find an ally in the author of this book.

Ruth Meisels
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Ruth Meisels

"Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence" by Elliott Horowitz, Princeton University Press, 340 pages, $35

Allow me to begin with a confession: For as long as I can remember, I never liked the holiday of Purim, with its story of the massacre of the gentiles and its message of revenge and rejoicing at the downfall of others. As if hanging Haman's 10 sons were not enough, the Book of Esther goes on to boast that "the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes seventy and five thousand" (Esther 9:16). In addition, we read Esther's appalling request that the Jews of Shushan be granted another day to act "according unto this day's decree" - i.e., to slaughter their non-Jewish neighbors brutally. To eliminate any doubt, the author of the Book of Esther emphasizes that this was not a case of self-defense, and that "no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people" (9:2). And so every year all that's left for me to do is to grit my teeth during the synagogue reading of the Megillah, taking comfort in the fact that historically, at least, the veracity of this story is very much in doubt.

But then, just after the holiday this year, Elliott Horowitz's book, "Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence," fell into my hands, and I was glad to find in it allies for my aversion to Purim. Since the mid-19th century, I learned, criticism of the Book of Esther seeped into liberal Jewish circles, especially in Victorian England, and various leaders of the community sought to play down the killing and the element of revenge that underlies the holiday.

A "Bible reader adapted for the use of Jewish schools and families," published in 1877 and endorsed by the chief rabbi of Britain, Nathan Marcus Adler, left out many of the gory details that appear in the final chapters of the Book of Esther. Claude Goldsmid-Montefiore, a great nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, created a stir in 1888 when he published an article in the London-based Jewish Chronicle, harshly criticizing the message of Purim. Choosing his words with care, he declared that he "would not be sorry" if the festival "were to gradually lose its place in our religious calendar."

In his later comments on the Book of Esther in "The Bible for Home Reading," published in 1896, Montefiore was perhaps the first Jew to describe the events of its final chapters as "a massacre of unresisting Gentiles." "If the Bible had not included the Book of Esther," he concluded, "it would have gained rather than lost in religious value and moral worth."

But 19th-century liberals were not the first to criticize the Book of Esther. Censure first came from ecclesiastic circles, and especially the Protestant Church. Back in 1543, in his infamous essay entitled "On the Jews and Their Lies," Martin Luther remarked on how much the Jews "love the Book of Esther, which so well fits their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous greed and hope." Elsewhere, he described the book as "too Jewish," and in a seemingly unholy alliance with Jewish liberals hundreds of years later, Luther wrote that he wished the book had never existed. Over the generations, his disciples continued to portray it as the most bloodthirsty, and hence the most "unchristian," book in the Old Testament.

In the Jewish world, however, criticism of the Book of Esther was always a minority view, not reflective of the mainstream. And it is the mainstream approach that stands at the basis of Horowitz's central - and provocative - thesis regarding Jewish violence against non-Jews, especially, though not exclusively, on the festival of Purim.

In contrast to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as weak, passive and effeminate, Horowitz postulates that throughout the ages, Jews committed their share of violence, which has always peaked around Purim. Even if the bloody account in the Book of Esther lacks historical credence, the very fact that the acts described in it were glorified every year created a tradition of vengeance and violence, as well as the opportunity to act those feelings out.

It is true that Zionism, especially after Israel's occupation of the territories following the Six-Day War in 1967, allowed Jewish violence against the Arab "Amalekites" to flourish, but according to Horowitz, the seeds for such behavior were planted long before. Haman "the Agagite" is described in the Book of Esther as a scion of the Amalekites - a label applied over the years to the Romans, the Armenians, the Christians, the Nazis and in our day, by many rabbis, to the Arabs. And Amalek, as is well known, must be wiped out.

Mocking Jesus

In the year 408 C.E., the Roman emperor Theodosius II issued an edict prohibiting the Jews from "setting fire to Aman in memory of his past punishment, in a certain ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the saint cross in contempt of the Christian faith." In other words, the custom of mocking Jesus and the cross in Purim processions, which Horowitz discusses at length in the second half of the book, was already common in the fifth century C.E. Theodosius' edict, explains Horowitz, did not put an end to the anti-Christian traditions of the holiday. The combination of a narrative of divine salvation of the Jews and the vengeance taken on their enemies with the carnival atmosphere and the drinking that is characteristic of Purim, led to behavior that was very different from the stereotype of the meek Diaspora Jew.

The second half of the book begins with various accounts of Jewish debasement of the cross during the Middle Ages, not only on Purim. Horowitz cites dozens of instances, many of them conspicuously missing from modern Jewish historiography, of symbolic Jewish violence - or "violence against symbols," to be more exact - that included setting fire to, and spitting and publicly urinating on, the cross. Such acts often ended in "martyrdom," i.e., the death of the perpetrator, or harm to the entire community. These are the "reckless rites" that give the book its title, and are linked to Mordechai's stubborn but unexplained refusal to bow down to Haman in the Book of Esther.

To return to the present, in October 2004 a student at the Har Hamor yeshiva in Jerusalem, Natan Zvi Rosenthal, spat at the Armenian archbishop as he was walking in a holiday procession in Jerusalem's Old City, carrying a large cross. This incident, which sparked a public outcry and was reported widely in the local media, is portrayed in the book as a link in the long chain of Jewish violence against Christianity and Christian symbols. (To complicate matters further, the Armenians have been described in Jewish writings since the 10th century as descendents of Amalek.) Rosenthal's shameful act must thus be viewed in its historical context: as a direct continuation of the Jewish tradition of public disdain for the cross.

Unconcealed agenda

In the final chapters of the book, Horowitz broadens the historical discussion, moving from violence against Christian symbols to physical violence against Christians themselves. The most serious charge discussed at length here is that Jews participated in the massacre of tens of thousands of Christian captives in Jerusalem in the year 614 C.E., after the Persian conquest of the city.

Other incidents cited by the author are few and far between: the murder of a Christian boy during a Purim parade near Antioch, Syria in the fifth century C.E.; the 12th-century execution on Purim of a Christian who murdered a Jew in Brie, in northern France (carried out with the approval of the authorities); and a violent incident within the community, when a Jewish couple accused of adultery in 14th-century Provence was physically assaulted at a Purim parade. What is interesting here, more than the incidents themselves, is Horowitz's brilliant historiographical analysis of what inspired the documentation of these incidents - from the enthusiasm of a handful of Christian historians seeking to draw attention to Jewish violence, to the efforts of modern Jewish historians to whitewash and downplay them.

Meanwhile, the author himself makes no attempt to conceal his own agenda. On the contrary, in his introductory chapter he lays all his cards on the table: "I have therefore chosen, somewhat recklessly, to begin not at the beginning but at the end," drawing our attention to the lessons for today that emerge from his historical research. Since Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Muslims at prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim 1994, he writes, "for me and for many others, Purim has never been the same." In effect, it was this event that brought him to widen the scope of his study, which had originally been planned to end with the 19th century. His moral compass is Mordechai's warning to Esther: "For if thou holdest thy peace at this time" (4:14).

As a Jewish historian, Horowitz felt that he could no longer hold his peace and not speak up about the connection between the legacy of Jewish violence and the current actions of "Jews in the Holy Land [who] are still avenging the 'old and new quarrel' against those they consider to be 'Amalekites,' [while] their malice is hardly as impotent as it was in the distant days of Theodosius II."

Horowitz quotes rabbis and settler leaders who equate the Palestinians with Amalek. He describes the Purim processions in Hebron that are becoming more violent from year to year, ever since a group of Jews moved into the Beit Hadassah neighborhood to "renew" Jewish settlement in the city in 1981 - and chose to do so, significantly, on Purim.

Toward the end of his sweeping study, Horowitz returns to his breaking point - the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs - and concludes with sadness: "The continued celebration of Purim in the streets of central Jerusalem after the news broke of the bloody massacre in Hebron [is] one particular instance in which I would agree with [Samuel Hugo] Bergman's prophetic assertion that the holiday's continued observance is best understood as a consequence of the 'deep decay of our people.'"



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