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Immoral Esther?

Examining the ethics of the Purim story

Tyler Samuels
March 04, 2015

Each day this week, the Scroll will be featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.

Purim is not my favorite holiday.

The only joyful experience I get from it is the hamantaschen. For years I’ve questioned why I have such disregard for what’s supposed to be such a joyous holiday.

I put Purim in my “Near Death Trilogy”—they tried to kill us, we survived impending doom, so let’s eat!

But even this explanation bothered me, and it just didn’t resolve my general dislike for the holiday. It wasn’t until I attended a Maimonides Leaders Fellowship lecture on challenging medical ethics that I discovered that the book of Purim is not a sweet tale based upon our deliverance, but a unethical story that we, as a community, have carefully redacted for literary consumption.

How a young Jewish girl becoming queen and saving her people from destruction could be construed as an unethical story is a completely valid question. Nevertheless, if we closely examine the text, it becomes obvious to me that it is certainly not ethical.

The main source of contention I have with the tale is Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman.

The question I have is why didn’t Mordechai bow down to Haman? Pikuach nefesh, the principle that preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious considerations, gives us an insight. In fact it gives Mordechai a break, since committing idolatry is not permitted, even to save a life. According to rabbinic sources Mordechai bowing to Haman would be an act of idolatry, but I wonder, is it fair to supply Mordechai an excuse due to religious obligation? Those who would advocate for Mordechai could say, ‘how could Mordechai possibly know Haman would take out his anger on the Jewish community?’ Haman made no previous anti-Jewish comments before his interactions with Mordechai, however, according to tradition Haman hated Jews.

Targum Sheni ties Haman’s lineage to Amalek, natural enemy of Jews (which is why many Jews refer to Hitler as Amalek), so again I ask, how does this make Mordechai responsible? Even if he had no idea of Haman’s lineage (though the Book of Esther calls Haman the foe of Jews early on), his refusal to bow down to an important advisor of the kingdom was a sign of disrespect. In this case Mordechai states the reason was due to his Jewish beliefs; that a Jew must not bow down to anyone but Hashem. The argument could be made that Haman saw this as a threat. If Mordechai the Jew refuses to bow than perhaps the entire community might be just as treasonous.

This theory would show that Mordechai’s actions not only placed his own life in danger but put the entire Jewish community at risk. Of course looking at this from a 21st century lens, in retrospect Mordechai should have bowed down as an act of preservation of his life and the Jewish people. The religious lens would strongly disagree, however, stating that we must stick to our religious principles even in the face of utter torment and destruction.

This is unquestionably one of the problems I have with this story. If Mordechai decided not to honour Hashem and commit idolatry, would he really be punished for saving his own life? Pikuach nefesh makes it clear: you commit a transgression only to save your own life. But what about for situations where you unknowingly save a life by committing a transgression that is not excusable?

The Talmud explains if one violates Jewish law to save a life because they believe the situation is life-threatening, but later learns it wasn’t, they have not sinned and must not feel guilty over having made such a mistake. By this reasoning, the opposite would seem to make Mordechai responsible for many innocent deaths, even if he had no idea what Haman’s response would be to his refusal of bowing.

It’s evident that Mordechai did not anticipate the consequences of his actions, because when Mordechai learns of Haman’s plan, he bursts into tears, tears his clothes, and begins acting as if he’s observing shiva.

Is this guilt due to his actions or general fear for his community?

Both could be argued. Certainly Mordechai would not commit a sin or a chillul Hashem, as it is within human nature to obey the law of the land to avoid the danger that comes with disrespecting said law. In my eyes, Mordechai can be viewed as selfish, not because he wanted to disobey, but because he was cavalier, risking provocation in a society that had a neutral view on its Jewish minority. A situation that could change with a minor incident. It even seems inconsistent for this man, who purportedly knew 74 languages and constantly reminded Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity due to fear. Thus, I doubt he was blindly ignorant to his mistake.

Esther, meanwhile is portrayed in contrast with Mordechai. She didn’t even want to take the risk of saving her own people at first, although she ultimately changes her mind. However I find her hesitation questionable.

In context of ethical choices, this is slap to any moral ethics. Esther makes excuses as to why she cannot act—she fears for her life even though pikuach nefesh indicates that in a life threatening situation it is necessary that the most qualified individuals available provide all assistance necessary during every moment of the situation. Was Esther not a qualified person to aid the Jewish people? As the queen she had the ear of the king, even if, as she argues, she could be killed. She changed her tune as soon as Mordechai made it clear Esther’s fate was not secure and she could end up like the rest of her people.

On this point many would argue that Esther realized the danger her people faced—the usual narrative presented. However Esther is selfish like any natural human, as well as Mordechai. To prevent her own life from being taken she at first refused to act and then later joined the plan to foil Haman’s plot.

If self-preservation was her motive, why do we honor this woman? She could have simply said no and continue on with her life, which she was close to doing. Our human nature is distinctly created for self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes argues in the Leviathan. Is this a bad quality trait? In some circles, yes, and in others, no.

Esther is portrayed as a savior of the Jewish people in the Book of Esther, and in some places her uncle is as well. Esther is inherently flawed, flawed to the point where she stood by and allowed the killing of Haman’s children and the murder of the wives and children of those who attacked Jews on the day of Haman’s pogrom. Our morals would indicate that only those who participated in or planned the attempted pogrom deserved to die, not all those innocents.

I know my critics will argue that I have taken a 21st century moralist view on Esther, setting impossible standards for a biblical narrative. I accept that criticism completely but the problem remains that Jewish society has portrayed this holiday in such a way that we forget that Esther and Mordechai are not these perfect human beings. After all, not even Moses or David are portrayed in such a way. We must take a more critical look at what Purim is celebrating, perhaps even applying this critical view to other holiday narratives like Hanukkah.

Holidays where we only celebrate our salvation, including the fact that we had to murder others to survive: are they not unethical or immoral?

In Judaism it is very clear we should celebrate the defeat of our enemies or those who plot against the Jewish people. The Talmud explains that the verse in Proverbs which says we must not rejoice in the death of enemies only refers to a fellow Jew. Or that although Hashem rebuked the angels who celebrated the death of the Egyptians, there were other Jewish characters in the oral tradition who Hashem rebuked for not celebrating the deaths of their enemies.

Despite these justifications, I disagree with this reasoning because we are not angels, but human. And do we not have morals and ethics? What is there, ethically, to be celebrating? Shouldn’t we only celebrate our deliverance from evil in Purim and not the death of women and children or even Haman? Yes, we can hate individuals who do evil things to the Jewish people but when we do it back, have we not simply dehumanized them in the way they had dehumanized us?

Tyler Samuels is a liberal traditionalist Sephardic Jew, political science and history student at the University of Toronto, and religious director of the University of Toronto Scarborough Jew Student Life. A small-time writer and poet, Tyler runs Bipolar Reb, a blog about Judaism, politics, and mental illness.

Tyler Samuels is a liberal traditionalist Sephardic Jew, political science and history student at the University of Toronto, and religious director of the University of Toronto Scarborough Jew Student Life. A small-time writer and poet, Tyler runs Bipolar Reb, a blog about Judaism, politics, and mental illness.