Prothero’s take on Purim

A student wrote me: “I’m curious to hear your take on this “

This is a blog posting by Stephen Prothero in which he suggests, in essense, that a gift Netanyahu gave to Obama is easy enough to read as a request for a green light to kill 75,000 Iranians. I read the blog with interest. After the paragraph in which Prothero suggests that Netanyahu wanted Obama to read the Scroll of Esther as indicating that Israel kill 75,000 Iranians, I could only think about the essay as one-sided—and as reminding me of, say, some gift recipient who overthinks the meaning of a gift which is, in the end, just a gift. I could, perhaps, compare this to (forgive me for the stereotype) a woman who wonders about a gift from a male friend far more than the absent-minded male ever intended. And I think that Prothero does just that at the beginning of the essay, overthinking Netanyahu’s gift, and applying pre-conceived notions to boot.  

What is less clear to me is whether the rest of the essay redeems him in my mind. In the end, the conclusion that it would be best to remember the common humanity of all men, is a given, and I think Prothero could do better; it is just as one sided as those—including perhaps Netanyahu himself, who too-quickly identify Ahmadinejad or the Ayatullah with Haman.

Prothero could easily have said 75,800 Iranians; if we are to engage in too-easy consideration of whom Netanyahu wants to see killed, we might as well wonder why his figure does not include the number given in the Scroll of Esther for residents of Shushan who sought to kill Jews and were themselves killed. And we might as well consider the Israeli track record of surgical strikes in Iraq and Syria, in which targets were taken out with precision.

For that matter, the Esther story has the Jews earning the right to fight and kill those who sought to destroy them, albeit only for one day. They had to ask for a second day in Shushan; presumably the city in which Haman organized his plot was the apparent heartland of the anti-Jewish movement.  Even if Prothero’s first reading is correct, Netanyahu’s public comments are a lot closer to assertion of the Jewish right to respond to those who are dead-set to kill them, than a threat of or desire for mass killing. I hardly think that Netanyahu was seeking a green light from Obama. Rather–as the Megillah famously says venahafokh hu “and it was turned around” that is, the opposite is the case—Obama was asking Netanyahu to rely on the U.S. and on diplomatic rather than military gestures.

The Rabbi Prothero heard in Jerusalem may have had good intentions—based on his sermon, Prothero suggests Obama should use Purim to see the common humanity of all humans. This is probably correct regarding the Jerusalem Rabbi and Jerusalem Arabs, and of course as a general principle it is always correct.  The idea that Obama should look to the common humanity of Iranians and Israelis is based on the Talmudic statement one should drink until one does not distinguish between “Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai.”

But the situation in Iran was clarified by the elections last Friday. Parliamentary elections appear to have repudiated Ahmadinejad—but favored the political parties more loyal to the Supreme Leader—who has been even more adamant than Ahmadinejad about the destruction of the Jewish state. Perhaps this is because Ayatullah Khamenei is somewhat distanced from political situations: none of his functionaries has to explain his remarks in ways that seem less militaristic as Ahmadinijad’s appointees have sometimes had to do. Regardless, Netanyahu has every right to worry that the Iranians are bluffing when they deny development of nuclear bombs, and not bluffing when they call for the liquidation of the Jewish State, rather than the other way around, and as the Head of Government of Israel, it is his job to do so.

I have often suggested that “Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai” are already equivalent statements—a traditional argument for this is that gematria (numerical value of the letters) is the same—and it is interesting that it is considered to require drinking to determine that Haman should be cursed just as Mordechai is blessed. In this reading, though, both the Rabbi and Prothero are mistaken: as a default, we recognize the common humanity of all human beings, but it takes the loosening of our ethical stance on this point to see that Haman is indeed cursed for taking revenge on an entire people for the slight suffered from a single individual, and Mordechai is blessed for his resistance.

In the end, Prothero’s essay provides him an opportunity to draw some sermonic material from the Book of Esther, but Netanyahu’s gift of a Scroll is probably not to be “overthought.” And if it is, and Netanyahu is Mordechai, then one might suggest that the scroll does not depict Mordechai confronting the King (only as saving the King early on in the story). Instead, he confronts Esther, telling her that she should accept her responsibility: she should not be passive but must step up to what may well be her destiny—he tells her that if she does not, “you and your father’s house will perish.” This message, and the messages about Jewish self-reliance and recognition that sometimes enemies must be recognized as being enemies, are far more likely meanings to be drawn from Netanyahu’s gift of the Scroll.

Seth Ward

From: Jacob Benson
Sent: Thursday, March 08, 2012 11:39 AM
To: Seth Ward
Subject: Prothero’s take on Purim

I’m curious to hear your take on this

– Jacob Benson

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