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Responding to Hatred, On Purim and Today

Haman’s persecution awakened in the Jews a spark of defiance, a motivation not to hide their Judaism, but to celebrate it.

The Jews are different. The Jews don’t follow the laws of the land. The Jews should be eliminated. 

This formula, with only minor variation, could describe the situation of Jews in ancient Persia, whose deliverance we celebrate this weekend on Purim. But it arguably also describes the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the long history of the “Jewish question” in medieval and modern Europe, or even some of the events of the last few months. 

This troubling phenomenon has been much discussed and studied. An entire subfield is now dedicated to understanding the nature and causes of antisemitism, as well as how it might be rooted out. These are important questions, but I want to ask a different one: How do Jews respond to these acute outbreaks of discrimination and hatred?

Obviously, the first and most immediate response is self-preservation — typically fighting back (when feasible) or fleeing. Jewish history has a long history of the latter, and a shorter history of the former. But what happens after a Jewish community preserves itself physically? How does it change in response to the persecution it endured?  

There would seem to be two possible models. One is to burrow one’s identity further underground — subduing Jewish practice, maybe moving to a new place and finding new friends and a new identity in the hopes the next wave of Jewish persecution will pass you by. This was the approach taken by the conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted and maintained their Jewish identity under cover. Many other Jews presumably tried a similar approach over the generations, but we lack any account of their story precisely because they were so successful in expunging their Judaism. 

The Purim story highlights a different approach. Rather than responding to Jew hatred by running or hiding from one’s Jewish identity, the Jews of Persia leaned into it. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai and Esther do this by creating a holiday to commemorate their miraculous victory over Haman and those who sought to kill the Jews. They ordained that Jews in every generation, wherever they are in the world, should not fail to observe the holiday in perpetuity, commemorating not only their Jewishness but its very precarity, the risks of living as a Jew. 

This was by no means the safe option, as it highlighted the tensions between Jews and non-Jews and provided a playbook of sorts for how to marginalize and attack Jews.  Leaning in to one’s Judaism following an attack on Jews is not an act of prudence, but an expression of Jewish identity reawakened, of the will to stand defiantly in the face of attack rather than hiding.

The ancient rabbis extended this reassertion of Jewish identity in the Purim story well beyond the creation of a single holiday commemorating Jewish survival. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) entertains the view that the Jews accepted the Torah at Sinai only under coercion, to which one sage responds that even if that is so, during the time of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews accepted the Torah willingly. As proof, he cites the passage in the Book of Esther describing how the Jews chose to make Purim an enduring holiday. 

This reading suggests that the reaffirmation of Jewish identity following persecution wasn’t simply about one holiday, but about the full and willing acceptance of the Torah. Haman’s persecution awakened in the Jews a spark of defiance, a motivation not to hide their Judaism but to feature it in their lives. This constitutes the greatest acceptance of the Torah — not acquiescing to the Torah in order to safely avoid a threat, but rather choosing the Torah despite the risks that being Jewish may entail. 

There has been a similar response in the face of more recent attacks on Jews, both physical and verbal.  Increased synagogue attendance and a greater willingness to publicly identify as Jewish (even among non-Jews!) reflects a similar commitment not to be cowered in the face of attack, but to live proudly and loudly as a Jew. 

As we celebrate Purim, let us remember how the Jews of Shushan responded to persecution — not only by ensuring their physical survival, but also by embracing and reaccepting their Judaism in the face of those threats.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on March 23, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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