Tradition Today: Shushan and Gaza

The book of Esther portrays killing not as mere vengeance or vindictiveness toward an innocent population, but as an act of self-defense.

Gaza Smoke 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gaza Smoke 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The recent Gaza operation is not the first instance of Jews being accused of using excessive force in combating their enemies. The story of Persian Jewry told in the book of Esther that we read this week aroused the same accusation on the part of many non-Jews, including some biblical scholars, and indeed has often been used in anti-Semitic polemics. It has also been the source of discomfort for some Jews. The entire Book of Esther was sometimes reviled as a bloody book, filled with vengeance rather than justice, hardly worthy of being included in the canon of sacred Jewish literature. The problem centers on Chapter 9, which describes the way in which the Jews of Persia slaughtered their enemies. According to Esther 9:5, "the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying." Five hundred men were killed in Shushan (9:6), as were the 10 sons of Haman (9:7). In addition, on the next day the Jews of Shushan killed another 300 men (9:15) (the extra day accounts for Shushan Purim, since their celebration was a day later than that of others). According to 9:16, the Jews in the provinces killed 75,000 of their foes. The number seems staggering, surely a case of overkill! Of course, many scholars believe this is all fiction; it never happened. Would a king of Persia, no matter how foolish and stupid (as this one is indeed portrayed), really have permitted a group of Jewish exiles from Judea to arm and kill his native Persian citizens? But that, of course, is not the point. It doesn't matter whether it happened or not. What matters is that this book of sacred scripture approves of such killing. In defense of the book - and I do not think this is mere apologetics - one must realize that the killing is not portrayed as mere vengeance or vindictiveness toward an innocent population, but as an act of self-defense. Critics ignore the fact that the book clearly portrays a situation in which instructions had been given throughout the provinces in the king's name "to destroy, massacre and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women… and to plunder their possessions" (3:13). In other words, there was a huge population of people armed and ready to commit mass murder - genocide against the Jews of Persia. The only way the massacre of the Jews could be stopped was by Jews arming themselves and fighting those enemies. When the plot against the Jews was revealed, Esther asked the king to revoke that decree (8:5), but he replied that once issued, a king's edict could not be rescinded (8:8). Therefore, new orders were written permitting the Jews "to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions" (8:11). Clearly then, this was an act of self-defense. Only if their enemies attacked them were the Jews given permission to destroy them. If the enemies did not attack, the Jews had no permission to fight at all. It should furthermore be pointed out that whereas the Jews were told they could also exterminate women and children and take plunder, the description of what happened mentions extermination of men but says nothing of women and children, and goes out of its way time and again to specify that - following the ancient example of Abraham - "they did not lay hands on the spoil" (9:11, 15, 16). In sum, the Jews first asked that the permission given to their enemies to slay Jews be revoked. When that could not be done, they asked for the right of self-defense. They fought only when their enemies actually attacked them. Had their enemies not raised a hand against them, they would not have been slain. In their battle, the Jews exercised restraint and took no plunder. If any of this sounds familiar and seems to have some resemblance to events of recent times, so be it. The criticisms made against Israel's actions in Gaza are as untenable as those made against the Jews of Persia. Hamas openly declared its intentions of destroying Israel and killing Jews, as explicitly as did Haman. Furthermore, unlike Haman, Hamas acted against Israel and its citizens, taking many lives over a period of years both through suicide bombers and through rocket attacks. All Israel's enemies in Gaza had to do to prevent an Israeli attack was to stop attacking Israel. That they refused to do. To the contrary, they deliberately took innocent lives of women and children and would have taken more had they been more successful in their attacks. Without defending every single action, it can be said that at least Israel, by contrast, did what could be done to avoid taking innocent lives and never deliberately did so. It is nevertheless unfortunate that there have been some Jews, few in number, who have taken the story of Esther as an indication that they could slay anyone they considered an enemy. Baruch Goldstein is a prime example. Whatever his reasons may have been, they were not good enough, and anyone who seeks to defend his actions or those of others like him does so contrary to the teachings of the Book of Esther and to the ethical stance it takes. When we read that book, interpret it and teach it to our youth, it is vital that we make it clear that license is not being given for indiscriminate killing, that we fight only in self-defense and that, even then, we do so with restraint and in strict adherence to a code of high morality inherent in Judaism. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.