Purim’s Violent Side

Arie Hasit – Haaretz Feb 21, 2013

I’ve recently had to accept a fact of Judaism: many of our holidays include celebrations of violence. Hanukkah celebrates the military victory over the Greeks; Passover includes praise for God for killing the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and the modern Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, treated by many as not only a national holiday, but a Jewish holiday, celebrates the military victory of the Israeli forces over the neighboring Arab forces.

Yet, despite the inherent pain caused to others in these holidays, I celebrate every one of them, and I celebrate them unapologetically. I celebrate the freedom associated with Passover, the triumph of light of Hanukkah, and the existence of an independent state of Israel. My celebration of these holidays does not need to diminish my awareness of the pain associated with them, and, in fact, the opposite is true: I make sure that as happy as I am, I remain aware of the suffering of others, particularly when that suffering exists today in my own backyard.

Purim, however, feels different. Purim has no shortage of violence toward others. Megilat Esther describes the Jews killing tens of thousands of “enemies” as a way of preventing their own genocide. While these killings disturb me, they appear as a necessary evil. Indeed, the celebration of Purim occurs on the day in which the Jews rest from their defense. While it certainly makes sense that the Jews could only celebrate their victory on the day following the fighting, I take comfort in the juxtaposition of the text, in which the celebration looks like a result of the rest. In this exegetical reading, the true celebration was not in the slaying of enemies, as the text describes them, but in the ability to rest. In short, the Jews only celebrated once their survival was no longer dependent upon harming others.

If the killing of others were the only problematic aspect of the Esther text, this explanation might suffice for me. However, the Jews’ redemption is based not only their defensive killings of others, but also on a series of acts of violence toward women. First, Queen Vashti is banished from the kingdom not only for refusing to perform sexually before the king and his guests, but because of the poor example she would set by allowing women to refuse their husbands’ commands. Then Esther is sent to the king’s harem by no choice of her own, where, even after becoming queen, the most favored of all of the king’s wives and concubines, she understands that approaching him of her own volition means risking death.

I cannot simply accept that these acts were necessary in order to secure the Jewish people’s redemption, and I am not ready to celebrate Purim without acknowledging that there is no place for glorifying violence toward women in my celebration. And that is precisely why I do not celebrate Purim in a vacuum; I also observe its corollary, with the fast of Esther.

The sages considered the fast of Esther such an integral part of Purim that they decreed that the fast would be held even in the messianic era, when all of the fasts related to the destruction of the Temple are to become days of celebration. While there are a number of explanations for why Jews fast on the day before Purim, all of the reasons include the need for a day of reflection before the unbridled celebration of the Purim holiday.

It is time the Jewish people start to view Purim as a two-day holiday. Whether or not one chooses to fast, or observe the Fast of Esther in a different way, all who celebrate Purim should devote a day to thinking about how the joy in our lives might be a result of actions or circumstances which we would rather do without. We cannot have our day of fun, dressing up in costumes, and eating and drinking to our heart’s content, without some time for reflection first.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem

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