Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Purim: The political playbook

Purim is one of Judaism’s festive observances that has occupied a more marginal position within the Jewish calendar. In recent years, Purim has taken on an added dimension, as contemporary Jewish political conduct is increasingly aligned with the key actors in this drama.  Numerous writers have paid particular attention to both Esther and Mordecai’s actions as essential guides toward informing and shaping Jewish political activism.[1]

Along with Chanukah this festival represents a celebratory moment, absent any reference to God. The rabbis noted that there would be times in the experience of the Jewish people, when the community would need to act on its own in preserving Judaism. This concept of self-reliance has become a central theme in connection with modern Jewish history, as our people would sadly learn that there would be times when we would stand-alone against some of history’s most brutal tyrants. In those moments Jews would experience the silence of the “good people” who would fail to act on behalf of our collective welfare.

We are reminded, especially during this pandemic, that we are all required to wear face masks, and indeed we find the same scenario as we play our respective Purim roles:[2]

On Purim, we hide our faces wearing masks because, in a way, everyone in the Purim story was wearing a mask. King Ahasuerus hid his authority and gave it to Haman. Esther hid her background and even changed her name from Hadassah to hide her religion. Mordecai hid the fact that he was Esther’s uncle, and Haman hid his plot to kill the Jews. But the most significant “hidden character” in the Purim story is G-d.

Beyond the political masks that define us, this holiday also frames a set of political principles, according to Yoram Hazony:

“Some of the sober principles of political survival in the diaspora that we learn from Mordecai and Esther remind us of Machiavelli’s advice to princes. For example, the political maneuvering to gain favor in the Persian court, as practiced by Mordecai and Esther, is straight out of the politician’s playbook. We see such political investment when Mordecai risks his own position to save the king’s life, and in his advice to Esther to hide her Jewish identity so that she can rise more easily among the courtiers.”[3]

The meaning of Purim may take on added meaning in our own times. At a moment in time when our community faces serious threats to its security and well-being, we are reminded of the heroic leadership of Esther and of the sage counsel she would receive from Mordecai, her uncle. When learning of the assault that was scheduled to take place against her people, Esther would at first resist taking action. Mordecai pleads with her that she will be no safer in the palace than any other Jew in the country. If she keeps silent, Mordecai reminds her: “You and your house will perish.” In the end, she would elect to fast and pray for three days and then approach the king to seek his intervention, despite the law prohibiting her to appear before him, lest he call for her. She would conclude: “if I perish, I perish.” In this moment, Esther achieves a level of political integrity and historical prominence that she so appropriately deserves!

The encounter with Haman will remind us of how “false news” can be destructive as this royal viceroy will seek to discredit the Jewish people: And Haman said unto King Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. (Esther 3:8)

Further, we come to learn from the Megillah reading the importance of securing access to the halls of power. Queen Esther’s willingness to test her relationship with King Ahasuerus would confirm the essential importance of “Chutzpah” to expand the political boundaries. We would come to realize that political elites, in this case the royal crown, would respect her savvy in first tricking and later accusing Haman of being a threat to the nation and more directly, to the Jewish people.

Mordecai’s active resistance against Haman would play an essential role in ultimately leading to the evil Haman’s demise. Later, we would read that when the King learns of the meritorious role performed by Mordecai in saving his life, Ahasuerus would honor him. Here we are reminded of the importance of being proactive in defense of what is right.

No statement is more powerful in the Book of Esther than the one that appears below. In reaffirming the political status and rights of a community, a people acquire a level of respect and integrity:

The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt: and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people (Esther 9:2)

The requirement that the Book of Esther be read aloud is itself instructive, as the rabbis wanted to publicly call out the importance of this accounting to the community as an essential reminder of its core political messages. Tradition calls for the community whenever hearing the recitation of Haman’s name to blot it out with noise or by stamping of one’s feet, so it cannot be heard. Further, we need to take special note that the reader is expected to pronounce the names of the ten sons of Haman in one breath to indicate their simultaneous death (Esther 9: 7-10). This act would come to remind us that as a people we continue to face oppressors. Yet, at each turn, while never forgetting these atrocities, we seek to move past the efforts of those who have sought to destroy us, reaffirming our place in history and our celebration of life.

The Book of Esther also prescribes “the sending of portions one person to another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22) As with other Jewish festivals one is required to complete several other mitzvot beyond the public reading of the Megillah. These acts of providing gifts of food to one’s friends (mishloach manot) and the responsibility for giving charity (matanot la’evyonim) reaffirm another set of political principles that as a community we are obligated to care for others by setting an example for our children of the dignity with which we honor our fellow human beings.

Closing:

Indeed, the Purim story is rich in Jewish political tradition. We are reminded of the leadership and wisdom of Esther and the courage of Mordecai. We take note of the political messages that can be extracted from this tale that offer meaning for us as they did for generations past.

And we are sadly reminded that the threats to the Jewish people were not limited to Shushan but remain with us, even at this point in time.

[1] An earlier version of this essay appeared in eJewishphilanthropy, March 9, 2017

[2] https://www.hadassahmagazine.org/israel-diaspora/

[3] https://www.hadassahmagazine.org/2016/02/03/in-gods-absence-politics-in-the-purim-story/

 

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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