The Ghosts of Purim Past

The holiday’s violent beginnings—and what they mean for the Jewish future.

Much like Halloween, the Jewish holiday of Purim carries a veneer of boisterous and innocuous fun overlaid on some ghoulish history. Of all the “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim has been the most responsible for shaping the Jewish view of other nations—and the theology behind that worldview has rung many alarm bells over the potential for Jewish violence.

Anyone familiar with the Bible can joke about the seemingly endless array of tribes with peculiar-sounding names, from Jebusites to Hittites. * But one tribe’s spiritual legacy is very much alive today and embodies the most controversial commandment in the Bible: Amalek is the nation that attacked Israel at its weakest point during the Exodus story, and God’s quest for revenge is total—commanding King Saul’s army to slay every man, woman, child, and even animal, sparing nothing and no one. That singular military order recalls the broader commandment given to all the Hebrews in Deuteronomy, to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek.”

That Jews today must grapple with their predecessors’ engagement in divine genocide is troublesome enough for many theologians. What makes it even more difficult is that many think the war with Amalek isn’t over.

Amalek yet lives, according to the Talmud’s claim that Amalek’s King Agag conceived a child while imprisoned during a reprieve from execution at the hands of Saul. Purim became the next major confrontation with Amalek, as the antagonist of the Book of Esther, Haman, is called an “Agagite,” and commentaries declared Haman the true heir of the legacy of Agag and thus Amalek. For many centuries after the closing of the Bible, rabbis sought to identify the descendants of Amalek, with a variety of rabbis naming Armenians as the true descendants of Amalek (which probably doesn’t help today’s testy Jewish-Armenian relations). Other identifications included Josephus’ assertion in the first century that Amalekites were the “nomadic Arabs of Eastern Idumea.”

But the idea of finding Amalek’s true descendants eventually lost its pull. Instead, rabbis began to allegorize the Amalekites, identifying them as various groups seen as committed to Jewish destruction. For much of the past 2,000 years, this was Christianity. Muslims became the more frequent target following the birth of the state of Israel: In 1956, one of the first major statements of religious Zionism justified support for Israel in part by declaring Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem as heirs to Amalek, and future Muslim combatants with Israel, like Yasser Arafat, would occasionally be declared “Amalek” by religious leaders. Combining the innovation of allegorizing Amalek with the commandment to destroy the nation naturally raises concerns—and with Amalekites now seen frequently as those fighting Israel, concerns about the commandment involve potential criminal consequences as well as geopolitical ramifications. While there are no political implications for asserting Hitler was a literal or spiritual descendant of Haman, a few far-right rabbis and settlers have declared that the Palestinians are Amalek. In one of the scariest and stupidest statements any Israeli official has ever made, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of strategy regarding Iran, “Think Amalek.”

And yet, despite millennia of Jews pointing the finger at this or that Amalek, very little violence has resulted from Purim, when Jews are reminded of the commandment to “blot out” Amalek and engage in various rituals to do so. Bar Ilan University’s professor Elliott Horowitz gathered many anecdotes about Amalek in a 2006 book carrying the somewhat alarmist subtitle Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (a timeline for which I assembled here), but that legacy is short on actual violence. Reviewing Horowitz’s book in Commentary, Hillel Halkin noted that despite more than 2,000 years of rabbis calling various groups Amalek and whipping up anti-Amalek frenzy on Purim, Horowitz uncovered only about three dozen examples of Purim-related violence. Of these, many were simple vandalism, and but a few involved killing: There were only “[t]hree reported Christian deaths at the hands of Jews in the course of history, one of which took place in a private quarrel.”

It’s easy to jump on any keywords for Jewish violence uttered by rabbis and make it into a big story—such as when one Conservative rabbi declared Islamic fundamentalists to be Amalek. But such statements don’t seem to incite believers into action, at least when it comes to targeting non-Jews: After the rabbi pointed his finger accusatorily, no hordes of middle-of-the-road Jews prepared to mow down madrassas.

Instead, the compelling angle in examining Jewish interpretations of Amalek might be to find out why—as one of many religions that demands violence against one or another enemy—Jews have been able to avoid violent outbreaks as a result of the philosophy surrounding Amalek. It’s not because Jews aren’t violent: The history of internecine Jewish violence over the past few decades in just one Hasidic sect is significant, and Yigal Amir cited Jewish legal principles after assassinating Yitzhak Rabin. And it’s not because Jews don’t understand the gory implications of the Amalek commandment: An old Purim tradition to erect a mock gallows and hang Haman and his 10 sons in effigy survives in some Orthodox neighborhoods today.

The most obvious answer is that Jews were rarely in a position of power relative to whoever the “Amalekites” were: Christians, Germans, or the residents of the short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic, as one Jewish poet allegorized in 1931, according to Horowitz.

There’s some evidence that the arrival of Zionism and the state of Israel brought more reason for concern over Amalek theology. Hand-wringing over this new idea of Jews in a position of power is common in the Jewish community, helped along by early Zionist writings following a German nationalist model in declaring Diaspora Jews untermenschenand Zionists the über-Jews. Baruch Goldstein’s Purim-day massacre in 1994 carried overtones of Amalek to many, and sporadic Jewish violence against Palestinians by Orthodox settlers suggests that theology is in part to blame.

But even this record of violence seems relatively small—particularly given the bold and unambiguous implications of the Amalek commandment. Even when in power, Jews aren’t using the religious ammunition of Amalek to engage in much killing. And while the Netanyahu adviser’s “Think Amalek” quote is shocking, it would be far more surprising to see the secular Netanyahu use religious sentiment to guide his actions.

Another reason why Jews don’t kill various Amalek-identified groups en masse is that Jews are Pharisees. Yes, the commandment to kill Amalek is real, but most Jewish legal minds have asserted that it’s only considered operative when Jews are living under a monarch as part of a messianic era. That might seem an extreme technicality, but it’s sustained a mostly peaceful Jewish outlook for millennia.

The Purim traditions regarding Amalek demonstrate that problematic religious concepts don’t have to lead to violence, if religious leaders find appropriate ways to contextualize them. The most prominent evidence of the success of context in minimizing religious violence is The Passion of the Christ; prior to its release, a great many Jews worried that it could promote violence, particularly in Christian fundamentalist areas. Recollections of Easter Passion Plays past made many Jews scared. At an academic conference shortly before its release, one respected Jewish studies professor shouted to me with fear in her eyes, “But they’re going to screen it in churches!” As it happened, churches were exactly the place where context could be provided to keep Mel Gibson’s movie from resulting in violence, and striped-pajamas-wearing protesters looked foolish in retrospect.

Perhaps the historical lack of violence can also be attributed to one of Purim’s most famous traditions: getting drunk. The Talmud instructs Jews to drink on Purim until they cannot differentiate between the statements “wicked is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai,” the Book of Esther’s Jewish protagonist. As countless slurred sermons have reminded us, little separates good from evil, and any one of us can easily fail.

And the tradition of drinking itself offers plenty of opportunity to see up-close just how bad things can get; every yeshiva boy has an anecdote or two about something shameful a classmate did at the rabbi’s house on Purim.

Taking one’s shirt off and hitting on the rebbitzenmight not be the simplest way to avoid religious violence, but it goes a long way toward instilling some basic humility.

Correction, March 1, 2010: This article originally misspelled Jebusites. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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