Confronting Jewish Violence

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Today is Shushan Purim, the day Purim is celebrated in cities that were “walled” at the time of Joshua. Most importantly, it’s the day Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem, and it commemorates the extra day of war that the Jews requested from Ahashverosh (Esther 9:13).

Of course, many of us are disturbed by the violence (and extra violence) celebrated in the Book of Esther, but it’s also important to remember that Esther is something of a farce, a literary satire, with absurdist twists throughout. Meaning, there’s a lot that’s cartoonish about the Book of Esther and no doubt the extreme violence at the end must be seen, at least partially, in this light.

But none of this negates, the fact that Purim is the holiday most associated with visceral hatred. Though Pharaoh enslaved generations of Israelites, Haman is the Jewish tradition’s paradigmatic villain. And, then of course, there’s Parshat Zachor, the Torah portion about our obligation to destroy Amalek, which was read this past Shabbat.

In the Bible, Amalek is the nation that attacked the Israelites after they fled Egypt, and the Torah demands that they be wiped out. This week on MJL, Shmuly Yanklowitz examines this tradition and its relevancy today.

While there are many commentators who believe the obligation to wipe out Amalek no longer applies, this is by no means unanimous. Most importantly, there are still Jews who invoke the name of Amalek when discussing specific groups (Yanklowitz mentions Rabbi Jack Reimer’s reference to Islamic fundamentalism and Benzi Lieberman’s reference to the Palestinians). Yanklowitz correctly admonishes us to have perspective on the potential ramifications of this:

For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have lacked political sovereignty. With the return to the land of Israel, however, this is no longer the case. Invoking Amalek during the centuries of military impotency was one thing. Today, when there is a Jewish state with an army — and armed citizenry — it is quite another. (MORE)

Indeed, last year, Bar-Ilan professsor Elliott Horowitz published Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, a book that analyzes the real-life cases of Purim/Amalek-related aggression (the most famous being Baruch Goldstein‘s 1994 Purim-day massacre).

Which isn’t to say that Amalek-language (or violence) is always unacceptable today. But when we confront difficult texts and traditions like these, we need to be honest with ourselves about their potential power. Is it time to confront these darker sides of our tradition as a community? One thing is certain: If we don’t, we relinquish our right to be surprised if and when — God forbid — the next Baruch Goldstein rolls around.

Posted on March 5, 2007

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