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The Enduring Power of Purim

Since colonial times, the Book of Esther has proved a powerful metaphor in American politics

Stuart Halpern
March 21, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Twenty-three years before her sister Harriet would publish a novel about a Black slave named Tom that would supercharge the abolitionist cause, Catharine Beecher authored a letter in Boston. Her 1829 missive, “Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States,” urged the protection of another oppressed minority—Native Americans—and it drew from a rather unlikely source.

“The present crisis in the affairs of the Indian Nations in the United States,” the letter began, “demands the immediate and interested attention of all who make any claims to benevolence or humanity. The calamities now hanging over them, threaten not only these relics of an interesting race, but if there is a Being who avenges the wrongs of the oppressed, are causes of alarm to our whole country.”

The model for Beecher’s righteous cause was an ancient Persian Jew: Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story.

Beecher’s letter continued:

It may be, that female petitioners can lawfully be heard, even by the highest rulers of our land … still we remember the Jewish princess, who being sent to supplicate for a nation’s life, was thus reproved for hesitating even when death stared her in the way. “If thou altogether hold thy peace at this time, then shall deliverance arise from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” To woman, it is given to administer the sweet charities of life, and to sway the empire of affection; and to her it may also be said, “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a cause as this?”

Citing her admiration for Esther’s advocating on behalf of her people in the court of Ahasuerus (conventionally understood to be Xerxes) after being stirred by her wise cousin Mordechai’s call to action, Beecher had taken some poetic license. Esther was a queen, not a princess, and Mordechai said “… for such a time as this,” not “cause.”

Fudged details aside, Beecher saw a character of courage and conviction. In her view, Esther was a model for all women who would speak moral truth to male power. Inspired by this ancient exemplar, Beecher launched the first mass political action by women in the United States. Congress received over 200 petitions urging it not to pass the Indian Removal Act, though the legislature tragically was not swayed by the women’s pleas.

This was not the first time the Scroll of Esther and its characters had been evoked in American politics, and would be far from the final instance. Though many who would cite the text had never participated in a Purim celebration, never shook a grogger nor took a bite from a prune-filled hamantashen, they saw in Esther’s story the elements of a timeless but relatable epic. In her tale, there were no appearances of angels, no thunderbolt-laden revelations on a mountaintop, no horse-drawn chariots lifting long-bearded prophets to heaven. A humble young woman thrust onto a stage she never expected to step on to, a scheming and irredeemably wicked antagonist, and a society hoping that by virtue of its faith it might merit heavenly favor have served as the concocted elements of countless American moments.

Fêted by Democrats and Republicans, Jews and gentiles, pundits and presidents from the founding to today, the phenomenon of the Book of Esther in America shows no signs of slowing down.

On May 17, 1776, the Continental Congress, mirroring the moment in which Queen Esther entered Ahasuerus’ throne room to intercede on behalf of her nation, declared a public fast day “to supplicate [God’s] interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.” The hope was “to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence.” John Witherspoon, then president of what would later become Princeton University, took the occasion to make explicit the connection between the Americans seeking to foil the British forces and the biblical precedent:

The scripture abounds with instances, in which the designs of oppressors were either wholly disappointed, or in execution fell far short of the malice of their intention, and in some they turned out to the honor and happiness of the persons or the people, whom they were intended to destroy. … We have also an instance in Esther in which the most mischievous designs of Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, against Mordecai the Jew, and the nation from which he sprung, turned out at last to his own destruction, the honor of Mordecai, and the salvation and peace of his people.

By partaking in a fast, then, Americans, like the Jews of ancient Persia, sought divine intervention in the effort to defeat their dastardly foes. The Purim story provided a popular metaphor in the war against the British.

Amid the American Revolution, a frustrated General George Washington, furious at war profiteers at Valley Forge, raged: “I would to God that some one of the most atrocious of each state was hung in gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared for Haman. No punishment, in my opinion, is too great for the man, who can build his greatness upon his country’s ruin.”

Abigail Adams, writing to her husband—John Adams—took to the gallows, too, in wishing for her enemy’s downfall. In a May 4, 1775, letter, she wrote of the “wretched” former royal governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Hutchinson, on whom she wished “the fate of Mordecai,” mistakenly swapping in the hero of the Purim story for his villainous foil.

The Founding Fathers’ fascination with the Book of Esther extended to Thomas Jefferson. In an October 1786 love letter to his Parisian fling, the painter and musician Maria Cosway, the widowed Jefferson evoked American passion as having keyed its survival, avoiding a Haman-like hanging.

If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s. You began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country: justifying at the same time the ways of Providence, whose precept is to do always what is right, and leave the issue to him.

To these Founding Fathers and Mothers, Haman’s hanging was the ultimate comeuppance. The nature of the executionary method was a sign to all observers that the offender had been punished, publicly.

As a nascent nation, the United States in its early decades was often embroiled in arguments over slavery. Here too, Esther continued to emerge as a shining beacon.

In her 1836 pamphlet, “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” Angelina Grimké advocated for abolition.

Is there no Esther among you, who will plead for the poor devoted slave? Read the history of this Persian queen, it is full of instruction; she at first refused to plead for the Jews; but, hear the words of Mordecai, “Think not within thyself, that thou shalt escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews, for if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shalt there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place: but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” Listen, too, to her magnanimous reply to this powerful appeal; “I will go in unto the king, which is not according to law, and if I perish, I perish.” Yes! if there were but one Esther at the South, she might save her country from ruin.

Just as Esther had adorned herself with queenly clothing before her fateful encounter in the palace, Grimké charged her compatriots to “arise and gird yourselves for this great moral conflict, with the whole armour of righteousness upon the right hand and on the left.”

Maria Stewart, a Black freedwoman and abolitionist, also sensed Esther by her side. In her Sept. 21, 1832, “Farewell Address to Her Friends in the City of Boston,” Stewart proclaimed:

What if I am a woman? Is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days? Did he not raise up Deborah, to be a mother, and a judge in Israel? Did not Queen Esther save the lives of the Jews? ... that God at this eventful period should raise up your own females to strive by their example, both in public and private, to assist those who are endeavoring to stop the strong current of prejudice that flows so profusely against us at present.

To these advocates for liberty, Esther was a reminder that for centuries, women have found the courage to save their countrymen from ruin, despite the patriarchal control of the political machine.

From the lofty language of liberty to laments over political infighting, Purim’s heroine continued to be present.

John Quincy Adams recounted in his diary of having attended “public worship in the hall of the House of Representatives” in July 1840. There the preacher, a Mr. Cookman, cited “the hanging of Haman upon the gallows, 50 feet high, which he had erected for Mordecai the Jew” as an example that “the battle is not always to the strong.” “The chief exhortation of the preacher,” Adams wrote, “was to mutual forbearance and forgiveness, of which there is great need and little hope.”

Andrew Jackson is purported to have referenced the story of Purim weeks before his death in 1845. When asked what he would have done had South Carolina, led by Jackson’s former Vice President John C. Calhoun, continued to resist federal laws in 1832, Jackson supposedly replied, “Hanged them, sir, as high as Haman. They should have been a terror to traitors to all time, and posterity would have pronounced it the best act of my life.”

Roughly a decade later, in an Aug. 24, 1855, letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln said of his own political opponents, slavery backers in Kansas: “If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.” Later, Lincoln, as president, revoked General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11, which had expelled the Jews “as a class” from territory under military command. As historian Jonathan Sarna has noted, when Grant himself later ran for president, it “sparked passionate debates between those Jews who extolled him as a hero and those who reviled him as a latter-day Haman.”

During the 20th century, Esther spanned beauty contests and the battlefield. On Purim day, March 11, 1933, Katherine Spector was crowned ​“Prettiest U.S. Jewess” in front of a crowd of 22,000 people in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. The annual ​“Queen Esther” showcase, sponsored by the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, had been launched as a Jewish response to Atlantic City’s Miss America contest. Over in Europe, with the Holocaust looming, German Jews couldn’t have felt farther from the high-spirited festivities in New York. As recounted by Joachim Prinz, a German-born Reform rabbi, after 1933, “people came by the thousands to the synagogue to listen to the story of Haman and Esther.” Prinz, upon immigrating to America, would join the fight for civil rights. At 1963’s March on Washington, he spoke immediately before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Recalling those nightmarish days back in his homeland, Prinz said Purim “became the story of our lives … Every time we read Haman the people heard Hitler, and the noise was deafening.”

The Nazis themselves were aware of the analogy, and took a perverse pride in it. In a Jan. 30, 1944, radio address that wrongly identified Esther’s husband, the Persian king, as Jewish, the Fuehrer said that if Nazi Germany did not prevail, “the devastating Jewish Ahasuerus could celebrate the destruction of Europe in a second triumphant Purim festival.” Julius Streicher, founder and editor of Der Stürmer, had written in a 1939 essay: “when they mention ‘Haman’ in the synagogues, they think of ‘Hitler.’”

The 21st century’s own geopolitics has also been viewed through the lens of Purim, particularly in the Middle East. In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was interviewed about the United States’ sanctions of Iran. “Could it be,” the interviewer asked, “that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, like Queen Esther, to help Jewish people from an Iranian menace?” Pompeo answered, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.” To this, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted: “Even the Torah is distorted to serve Iranophobia. What it actually says: Persian king saved Jews from captivity in Babylon. Another Persian king saved Jews from genocide. Genocide plotter hailed from the Negev, not Persia. Persian king is the only foreigner referred to as MESSIAH.” In an attachment to the tweet, Zarif explained his references: “The Book of Esther tells of how Xerxes I saved Jews from a plot hatched by Haman the Agagite, which is marked on this very day; again, during the time of Cyrus the Great, an Iranian king saved the Jews.”

Pompeo was hardly alone in the Trump administration’s encounters with Esther. His last press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, titled her memoir For Such a Time as This: My Faith Journey Through the White House and Beyond. When serving as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley visited Israel and prayed at the Western Wall. In response, the Christian Broadcasting Network cited the same scriptural passage from Mordechai’s words to Esther, stating, “Clearly God is using Nikki Haley for such a time as this.”

Under President Joe Biden, Esther has continued roaming the halls of power. Amid the COVID-19 relief efforts, The Nation ran as an op-ed an open letter to the vice president written by two pastors, arguing for raising the minimum wage. “Vice President Kamala Harris,” it began, “we write today in the spirit of our ancestor Mordecai, after much prayer and with great hope for you and for America’s marginalized people.” It concluded, “Know you are not alone. We and 140 million poor and low-income Americans stand with you in solidarity, and we are urging the president, Democrats, and every justice organization to undergird you as Mordecai did Queen Esther in support of the work that must be done.” The Democratic mayor of New York, Eric Adams, both on the campaign trail and in office, has seen his role as a quasi-religious one. “I feel like Esther—God made me for such a time like this,” he has remarked on many occasions.

Across the aisle, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik nominated Jim Jordan as speaker of the House. In her remarks from the floor, and a subsequent tweet, she urged, “As this body convenes for the sacred responsibility to elect the next Speaker of the People’s House, I am reminded of The Book of Esther: ‘for such a time as this.’ Jim Jordan will be America’s Speaker ‘for such a time as this.’” Jordan, alas, lost. Stefanik, though, later found herself in her own Esther moment, rising to the defense of the Jewish people in her congressional questioning of the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT about their poor record in combating antisemitism. Referring to the testimony of the presidents months later, the writer Dara Horn evoked the Purim story and imagined Shushan’s Jews under Haman’s destructive decree being “confused, confounded … They were probably asking themselves what so many of us are asking ourselves today, ‘What the hell is happening here?! Those people can’t possibly mean what they are saying, right? Sure it sounds bad to call for the genocide of Jews, but maybe it depends on the context.’”

Esther has also found her way into college basketball. During 2022’s March Madness tournament, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl mentioned Mordechai. In response to a press conference question about a player’s pledge to donate money in support of Ukraine in its war against Russia, Pearl replied that Jews had just recently finished celebrating Purim:

Haman was a very close adviser to that King, and he was advising the King that maybe it was time to get rid of all the Jews. Queen Esther’s uncle was Mordechai. My Hebrew name is Mordechai, and I think my family gave me that name for this reason. Mordechai talked to Esther the queen and said, ‘Look, Esther, you might survive this for a little while, but you won’t survive this. He’s really going to kill all the Jewish people and your family.’ And he gave Esther the courage to try to see if she could turn the King’s heart, and she did. And saved the nation.

“You asked the question about Ukraine,” Pearl continued. “We say never again … So if Tara VanDerveer wants money for three-pointers, I’ll up whatever they’re offering. I’m in. I’m all in. Help the Ukrainian people survive that.”

From colonial times to the basketball court to contemporary politics, the prism of the Purim story continues to chart the course for countless individuals seeing in their circumstances the spark of salvation. Esther’s story, bereft of the miracles that mark so much of the rest of the Bible, has reminded admirers that in their too-human struggles against immoral forces, they might just yet galvanize others in shared purpose and ultimate victory. As the text is read once more this year, Esther’s courage on behalf of her people will undoubtedly continue its endless scroll through the ages.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.