What shall we do with Haman?
By Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
JVP Rabbinical Council
Turn it and turn it. Purim is coming round again. Poppyseed fillings will be spooned into hamentaschen, gender bending costumes created and grogers tested for noise level.
Yet, as we prepare to read the megillah, Jewish Palestine solidarity advocates will ponder what to do with the parts of the Purim tale that describe Jews killing their enemies as an act of revenge and celebrating their death with feasting.
In the book of Esther, chapter 9 we read, “In the month of Adar, on the 13th day…the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did whatever they wanted to those that hated them…Then Esther said, ‘If it pleases the king…let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.”
During the rabbinic period, Purim’s prominent revenge fantasy was linked to the genocidal biblical mitzvah ‘to blot out the name of Amalek’. Since Amalek is a fore bearer of Haman, the mitzvah to blot out Amalek’s name was applied to Purim’s villain, albeit in a typically rabbinic way-by ordering everybody to yell at once. In addition, people used to burn effigies of Haman.
We can understand how a revenge fantasy might offer comfort to beleaguered people and appreciate the move to interpret blotting out the name through raucous speech (and not actual killing). However, since the establishment of the state of Israel and Israel’s history of carrying out actual military actions against Palestinians, both the Purim revenge tale and the mitzvah associated with it have become deeply problematic.
In deed, during the first Fellowship of Reconciliation Interfaith Peace Builder’s delegation to Palestine which I co-led with Doug Hostetter in 1998, we sat in the rubble of a destroyed home of a Palestinian Muslim family whose relatives were murdered by Dr. Baruch Goldstein.
On Purim of 1994, Goldstein entered the Tomb of Abraham to fulfill the mitzvah to blot out the name of Amalek. He massacred 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others before he was overcome and killed by his victims. On top of the tragedy of the massacre carried out during Muslim prayers, Israeli military forces destroyed homes of Palestinian survivors and Jewish Kiryat Arba residents put up a memorial to Goldstein in the town square.
Jewish settler and state violence against Palestinians has only increased since those terrible days. What do we do with Haman and Purim in light of this history?
The rabbinic tradition offers a second nonviolent mitzvah to temper the genocidal biblical command to blot out the name of Amalek. In addition to making noise to drown out Haman’s name, the rabbis instituted the practice to become so drunk you can’t distinguish between Mordecai and Haman as a way to fulfill the mitzvah of ‘blotting out’.
That is, drunkenness is meant to help us attain a transcendent mental state where polarities dissolve and we are able to behold the shared divinity within every person.
This explanation is lost on most kids, and in the age of addiction, getting plastered is not a great platform for channeling conflict transformation. Nor does the ‘get so drunk you can’t distinguish differences’ mitzvah solve the basic challenge of the ‘us and them’ polarities and subsequent revenge fantasy which are inherent aspects of the story.
Telling stories that demonize and kill off your enemy is not a welcome contribution to Jewish life. We have to protest this version of our own story. What does that look like? There’s a precedent.
In the past several decades the Purim story has undergone two major narrative revisions in line with the satirical stance the story takes regarding patriarchal power. Jewish feminists have emphasized the pro-active agency of Vashti and Esther and used their stories to protest the objectification of women as sexual objects.
In addition, gender bending Purim schpiels are being created to celebrate transgendered people. Jews have always transformed and updated sacred stories so they accord with contemporary values.
How do we transform the telling of the Purim tale so it is in alignment with the nonviolent social change strategies and tactics, like BDS, that have come to be associated with JVP?
To what can this be compared? Every year my community in Albuquerque New Mexico adorned themselves in costume and participated in a partly improvisational, partly scripted madcap Purim tale. We used this occasion to make fun of US politics, pop culture and sexism.
When we came to the part in the schpiel when Haman’s infamy is revealed, I would ask, “What shall we do with the wicked Haman?” Every year someone would yells out the traditional solution, “Hang Haman from the gallows!” And each year, in spontaneous resistance, my beloved New Mexico community would yell in one voice, “NO! Don’t hang him!!” Don’t hang him!” Clearly, nobody in the room supported capital punishment, or revenge killing, even in satiric jest. By asking the question, however, a space for different solutions opened up.
“Well, what should we do with Haman?” I ask again?
Restorative justice ideas stream forth. Haman should intern with Albert the local Jewish baker and learn how to feed Jewish people; Haman and his sons should take lessons in cultural sensitivity and prejudice reduction with Tanya C (an expert educator on this topic in our community); instead of jail time, Haman should work at an interfaith center so he can pay reparations to those injured by his edict.
The kids always suggest he attend Cheder and study for Bar Mitzvah. They figure by exposing Haman to their favorite Cheder activities, he would come to love the Jews of Shushan. “I can teach him Hebrew!” volunteers Simon.
By opening the story to improvisation, the community found it’s own responses to the violence of the story which transformed the intent of the story altogether. They rooted their responses to Haman’s behavior in restorative justice and conflict transformation models. They rejected the revenge fantasy altogether.
So may it be for us. We have to be willing to unmask incitements to violence in the stories we tell, find ways of satirizing violence and reveal its true face, and change the way the story resolves so that nonviolent conflict transformation is expected, enacted and celebrated.
That is the force more powerful. By placing the story into a theater of the oppressed framework, we can try out different scenarios, come up with a variety of responses and transform the way we transmit the story so it does not celebrate or condone violence. I’m sure BDS has a role in the story!
After all, the story of Esther is a story we made up in the first place. The power to change narratives and evoke new strategies for resisting violence is in our sacred play book, along with the recipe for chocolate chip hamentaschen.