A Purim Drained of Laughter

Posted on Mar 04, 2020

I’ll be celebrating Purim with a lot less enthusiasm than usual this year. The holiday will as always involve fun and laughter for kids and grownups, too: food and drink aplenty, festive meals in costume, raucous noise-making to drown out the sound of the wicked Haman’s name, and—the part I like best—satirical performances of the Purim story that make pointed reference to contemporary characters and events. (Jared and Ivanka will no doubt loom large this Purim as the successors to the powerful court Jews Mordecai and Esther, with President Trump standing in for King Ahashuerus.) It’s a remarkable holiday in many ways, not least because the book of Esther is truly funny at certain points. But the story it tells is not for me, not this year. In times as dark as these, even humor as dark as Purim’s falls flat.  

Perhaps that is why the author of the book of Esther took pains to command Jewish readers to recall the events he narrates “throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city.” He probably knew that observance of the holiday would sometimes prove difficult. The rabbinic sages, too, recognized that the funniest book they included in the scriptural canon was also among the most serious;  indeed, they  went so far as to compare Purim to the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, known in Hebrew as Yom HaKippurim, which they described as “The Day Like Purim.” The book of Esther received more midrashic attention from the rabbis than any other in the Bible. So if you, like me, find it especially hard to laugh at the Purim story this year, know that we are in very good company.

Strike one against the book comes in its very first chapter. The self-satisfied (and drunken) king orders Queen Vashti to appear before him and his equally besotted guests (all men, we imagine) “to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was fair to look on.” Vashti refuses to obey—and Ahashuerus immediately sends an edict throughout the empire designed to prevent women from following Vashti’s example in “making their husbands contemptible in their eyes.” From now on, “every man shall rule in his own house.” Vashti is summarily deposed as queen, and the search for her replacement begins. The king will have his way with as many of the contestants—all virgins, of course—as often as he pleases, until he finds the one he wants to be queen. Those not selected will await his further pleasure in the harem.

Funny, right? I confess that in this #MeToo era I had trouble laughing at the recent Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. It was hard to watch Henry Higgins verbally abusing Eliza without cringing or turning away in disgust. The problem is redoubled in the case of Esther, who is ordered by her cousin and guardian Mordecai to enter the contest for queen. Pious interpreters can and do ascribe his decision to divine providence:  God—never once mentioned in the Book of Esther—is at work behind the scenes from the start to save Israel from Haman’s wicked design.    Salvation of the Jews requires Esther to have the king’s ear and share his bed. The text is rather more circumspect, even evasive: “So it came to pass when the king’s commandment and his decree were heard . . . that Esther was brought also to the king’s house.” Mordecai took pains to warn Esther, even before Haman had hatched his plot, not to tell anyone that she was a Jew, and made sure to “walk every day before the court of the women’s house” to check on Esther’s well-being. The harem was no place for a nice Jewish girl, or any other girl for that matter.  

But really: Is this the sort of behavior we want to praise in a parent, guardian, or cousin? Do we want our sons and daughters to lie about their identity? Could God find no other way to operate—if indeed it is God that is at work here, rather than Mordecai—than to use women in the way that some men have used and abused them for centuries—and still do,  in all too many cases, today?

Strike two against the story comes when Haman, angered by Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him, determines not only to kill that one Jew but to murder every Jew he can. “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed amongst all the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom,” he tells Ahashuerus, “and their laws are different from every other people; nor do they keep the king’s laws; therefore it is of no benefit to the king tolerate them. It if please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed, and I will weigh out ten thousand talents of silver, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.” A letter goes out from the palace that fixes the 13th day of Adar as the one on which people in every province are encouraged to rise up “to destroy, kill, and annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women . . . and to take the spoil of them for plunder.”

This darkly serious turn of the plot is especially painful to read this year.  Two friends of mine have explained to me in recent weeks why they found the film JoJo Rabbit hard to watch. They worry that a few years from now, and perhaps even today, the film would not be seen as a cautionary tale about how otherwise good people can be caught up in the ethnic cleansing of their neighbors, but rather as a how-to guide for doing precisely that. I have a similar feeling about the Purim story.  Anti-Semitic violence in Europe and America has dramatically increased in the past two years. Armed guards are now posted at synagogues and schools. Other minority groups, too, face constant threats to life and property and—more and more, it seems—are the targets of actual attacks. Hate speech has been loosed upon the land, adding to anxieties caused or exacerbated by global warming, fast-moving technological and demographic change, political upheaval, and—in recent days—the coronavirus.

Like you, perhaps, I feel a greater need than ever for comic relief.  Please: bring on the laughter. But I just can’t find it in the book of Esther, even when Haman—“hoist on his own petard”—is ordered to walk before Mordecai’s horse as the Jew is honored by the king, and meets his doom when he pleads his case beside (or on) Esther’s couch and is believed by the king to be making sexual advances on the queen or attempting rape. “So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai.” All’s well that ends well, we shrug. Or, as the old saw about Jewish holidays goes, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

Well, maybe—but only if the noisemakers inside your head this year are loud enough to drown out the persecution of strangers that is happening before our eyes around the world—mistreatment that is often justified by words similar or identical to the ones uttered by Haman. “They” are different from us, they follow their own laws, there is no benefit in having them in our midst, let’s get rid of them. Recent developments make it harder to laugh at the Purim story, even as one feels greater appreciation for its prescient foreshadowing of the way Jews and other minorities would be singled out for abuse over the centuries.    

Strike three for me is not the Jews’ revenge killing against their enemies, described in the final chapters of the book of Esther.   (Imagine that the Jews destined for death at Auschwitz were suddenly armed, made strong, and given license to kill their SS tormentors.  Would we weep at that outcome—or cheer on the Jews and celebrate their victory?) What bothers me more is the fact that the Jews’ enemies in Ahashuerus’s empire were so numerous (over 75,000, we are told!). To the author (and probably many of the Jews who read and chanted this book on Purim over the millennia) the humor of the account lay in how utterly implausible it was. Jews, given the chance to defend themselves, turn the tables on those who hated them, and cause Gentiles to be so afraid of the perennial victims, now victorious, that they ran to become Jews! What could me more improbable?

JTS, backed by the bulk of modern scholarship, has always maintained that Jewish history was not one long chain of persecution, discrimination, expulsion, and pogroms. There are many stories which can and should be told about tolerance, cooperation, cultural synergy, and Jewish-Gentile relationships of amity and trust, both financial and personal. In 2020 it seems more important than ever—with antisemitism and other forms of bigotry on the rise, and some American Jewish men covering their kippot with baseball caps when they walk the streets lest they face attack by haters of Jews—that we not surrender our hope for and trust in America. As I read the Purim story this year, I will take it as a cautionary tale about what can happen when exclusion of and disdain toward minorities and strangers escalates to actual persecution. That is not the America we know, and certainly not the America we want to see. 

The reality is complex. Antisemitic incidents have risen sharply—but recent surveys confirm that Jews remain the group most liked and respected by others in the United States today. Attacks upon Jews and other minorities have elicited widespread outpourings of support. A century and more ago, Jewish socialists were regularly attacked by right-wing antisemites, and Jewish capitalists by antisemites on the left.  As I write, one of each stands proudly among the contenders in the race for president. That is a more reliable guide than the book of Esther to the future of our cultural mosaic. The custom of giving charity and sharing food with the poor at Purim is one that I hope all of us will honor. Let’s resolve at Purim to drown out the voices of bigotry and hate with words—and deeds—that transform this moment “from grief and morning to one of festive joy.”