Analysis from Israel

Like any literary work, the Bible demands close attention to human psychology, politics and language.

This isn’t a topic I ever imagined myself writing about. But the unusual volume of mail I received questioning my interpretation of the Book of Esther shows that many readers, religious and secular alike, are keenly interested in traditional Jewish texts. And since my readers’ questions bear on two issues I care about – Israel and Biblical interpretation – I’d like to expand on last week’s cursory analysis by addressing them at greater length.

Readers raised three main objections to my claim that Esther culminates not in a massacre by Jews, but in a Jewish war of self-defense: The text doesn’t mention any fighting or Jewish casualties; war would have been unnecessary, because once Haman’s edict ordering the Jews’ annihilation had been balanced by Mordecai’s edict authorizing the Jews to kill their enemies, mutual deterrence was created; and Mordecai’s edict explicitly ordered the Jews to kill women and children.

Regarding the first issue, remember that the Jew-haters (as the text calls them) were prepared to execute Haman’s edict; these are people willing to kill. Moreover, Haman’s edict predated Mordecai’s by two months, during which they’d at least have started arming and training. And since Haman’s edict remained valid, killing Jews would entail no legal repercussions. Under these circumstances, it beggars belief to think they would let themselves be slaughtered without even raising a sword in self-defense. Even if the Jews attacked unprovoked, their enemies would have fought back.

So why no mention of battles or Jewish casualties? For the same reason you never hear about Israeli casualties in the Six-Day War or American casualties in World War II: After winning a sweeping victory in a war perceived as just, it’s human nature to celebrate the triumph and downplay the casualties. And like any great work of literature – which, until very recently, the Bible was widely acknowledged to be – Biblical texts usually strive for psychological realism.

American deaths were seven times higher in World War II than in the Vietnam War. Similarly, the 1967 Six-Day War killed more Israelis than the 1982 Lebanon War. Yet while remembrances of Vietnam and Lebanon usually highlight the casualties, remembrances of World War II and 1967 generally focus on the victories. Why? Because the first two were perceived as both unsuccessful and unjust, while the latter two were both successful and just: America defeated the genocidal Nazis; Israel vanquished three Arab armies that openly sought its eradication.

Purim, too, was a decisive victory over enemies who had threatened the Jews with annihilation. And therefore, what the text recalls is the victory – not the inevitable casualties of war.

Yet why was any fighting even necessary? After all, as the text tells us, the new edict allowing Jews to defend themselves, coupled with Mordecai’s appointment as vizier, made the Jews rejoice and other Persians fear them. In that situation, wouldn’t deterrence have sufficed?

Perhaps. But as Israel’s experience amply shows, deterrence doesn’t always work. If it did, two Arab armies wouldn’t have attacked Israel in 1973, just six years after it decisively demonstrated its military superiority. Nor would low-intensity conflict have persisted for decades.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian casualties from Israeli retaliatory strikes far outnumber Israeli casualties from rocket launches – inevitably, given the parties’ relative firepower. And every Palestinian knows it. Yet this hasn’t deterred Palestinian terrorists from launching almost daily rocket attacks for most of the last decade.

Esther doesn’t tell us exactly what happened 2,500 years ago. Perhaps the Jews simply attacked unprovoked. Perhaps they feared a devastating attack by the Jew-haters (rightly or wrongly) and attacked preemptively, as Israel did when Arab armies massed on its borders in 1967. Perhaps the Jew-haters attacked, because, like the Arabs in 1967 and 1973, they mistakenly thought they could win. Or perhaps, like the Palestinian rocket-launchers, they knew they would lose, and didn’t care. Based on the text, any of these is possible.

But based on 65 years of Israeli history, I find the first the least plausible. Human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,500 years, and neither has the nature of Jew-hatred. Thus there’s no reason to think Persia’s Jew-haters behaved much differently from those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Finally, there’s Mordecai’s edict explicitly ordering the Jews to kill not only armed men, but also “children and women.” The language of this edict was copied word for word from Haman’s edict against the Jews – possibly in order to sow fear among the Jew-haters, or possibly (as the commentator Ibn Ezra argues) because the parallelism was legally necessary to counter Haman’s edict. But today, threatening to kill women and children for any reason is unacceptable; so in this, Esther indeed violates modern moral standards.

Nevertheless, it’s far from clear that the Jews actually slaughtered women and children. The text doesn’t identify the casualties, but it does give some clues.

First, Mordecai’s edict definitely wasn’t followed to the letter: The edict also told the Jews to plunder their enemies’ property, yet the text explicitly tells us they didn’t. This also implies that the slain had families left alive to inherit.

Moreover, the word the text repeatedly uses to describe the casualties is ish. In Shushan, the capital, for instance, Jews killed 500 ish, plus another 300 ish the next day. Ish is ambiguous; it can mean either “men” or “people.” But usually, the Bible uses ish to describe conflicts between armies, while broader terms are employed to describe massacres of noncombatants. Thus when God orders King Saul to kill every Amalekite man, woman and child, the text reports that Saul’s army killed “kol ha’am” – “all the people” (I Samuel 15:8) Similarly, when Jews massacre the entire household of the (Jewish) Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, the text says they killed Gedaliah and “all the Jews that were with him” (Jeremiah 41:1-3).

Readers can disagree with my specific interpretations, but the larger point remains valid: Divinely authored or not, the Bible resembles any other great work of literature in that reading it requires close attention to the nuances of human psychology, history, politics and language. Otherwise, you’ll miss half of what it says.

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

Read more