Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Was Haman An Antisemite?

"Sometime afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.  All the king's courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king's order concerning him; but Mordechai would not kneel or bow low.  Then the king's courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordechai, 'Why do you disobey the king's order?'  When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordechai's resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.  When Haman saw that Mordechai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage.  But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone; having been told who Mordechai's people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordechai's people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus." (Megillat Esther, JPS Translation)

This week, we will read Parshat Zachor, commanding us to erase the memory of Amalek, the evil nation who attacked the Jewish people (women, children, elderly) from the rear on their way out of Egypt.  That specific reading is read on the Shabbat before Purim specifically because Haman is described as a descendant of Agag, an Amalekite leader.  It is for this reason that the custom has developed to blot out the name of Haman during the reading of Megillat Esther with groggers, bullhorns, and a whole host of other sound producing machines.  As might be expected, the noisemaking aspect of this imperative has been seized excitedly by children, who listen eagerly for the name of Haman, waiting eagerly for the hint of Haman's name.

Conceptually, Haman is understood not only to be a genetic descendant of the Amalekites, but a ideological one as well.  He is presumed an anti-semite, and often cited as a paradigmatic example of anti-semitism throughout the ages.  In fact, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik felt that it was Haman's anti-semitism, not his descent from Agag, that established him as a bona fide Amaleki.  "Amalek is not purely a genealogical halacha but rather an ideological one." It is in this vein that Adolf Hitler and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others.

Now, Amalek is often said to have had a deeply ingrained hatred for the mission of the Jewish people, opposing the notion that a loving God runs the universe and the events therein.  In fact, it is often told that the gematria of Amalek and "safek" (the Hebrew word for doubt) are equivalent.  When we look at the description of Haman, this is not an adequate description of his motives and behavior.

There is nothing in Megillat Esther that would suggest that Haman hated the Jewish people because of some inherent quality of ours.  Rather, Haman was a power-hungry adviser who likely wanted the kingship for himself.  He had illusions of grandeur, which is likely the reason he demanded everyone bow-down to him in the first instance.   When Mordechai refused to comply, he stood in opposition to Haman's egomania, and was targeted for punishment, as were his people.  The Jewish people were inconvenient and in the way, though the reader gets the sense that it didn't really matter that it was the Jews.  In fact, the Jews are described as "Mordechai's" people specifically to emphasize that this has more to do with Mordechai than the Jews per se.  To bolster the point, ask yourself the following simple question; would Haman have hated the Jewish people if he never met Mordechai?  Since the answer is no, it stands to reason that Haman did not have a deep prior hatred of the Jewish people.

Truthfully, Haman's "anti-semitism" has much more in common with many modern enemies of the Jewish state, and as such, the lessons are even more important.  Many (though obviously not all) enemies of the Jewish people or the Jewish state use the Jewish people as a convenient distraction from the social, economic, and ethnic problems that plague their countries.  The Jewish people are an effective weapon in the arsenal used by modern day power-hungry rulers to prop themselves up throughout the mideast and the world.

Esther was able to deal with Haman by explicitly exploiting his worst character traits and the flaws of her husband, the king.  I encourage my readers to look through Megillat Esther this year and to suggest (in the comments?) ways in which Esther did just this.  We should all learn from her perception and tact.          


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Even More Unfair . . .

Hi All.  My last post discussed my thoughts on the situation at the Kotel plaza, and what I believe to be unfair and counterproductive policies there.  This post will continue to discuss the same geographic area from a completely different angle.  

As some readers accurately pointed out, there are much bigger injustices occurring at the Temple Mount.  While I chose to focus on the internal issue, as its generally better to focus on internal improvement rather than outside castigation, I've decided that the points raised by several readers deserve to be heard as well. 

And now, onto the substance.  Jews tend to focus on the Kotel, the Western or Wailing Wall.  In fact, when one visits the Kotel, it's not uncommon to see Jews kissing the wall, placing notes containing prayers in the cracks of the wall, and other such gestures of veneration.  The prayers of the world's Jews are directed towards Kotel, or so many think.  In reality, our prayers are directed (or supposed to be directed) towards the location of the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, which was located somewhere near the center of the Temple Mount, and represented the resting place for no less than God's presence on Earth.  Many decisors of Jewish law are actually of the opinion that someone who prays at the Kotel should direct their prayers towards the center of the mount (on an angle to the left of the wall) rather than at the wall, as is the common custom.  All of this to say that we've mistakenly elevated the value of the Western Wall in our mind above the immensely significant heritage of our two past Temples and the true import of the site.  

Now, on the Temple Mount itself.  The Dome of the Rock (constructed as a political monument in the year 692 c.e.) rests on the most important spot in the national and religious heritage of Israel and the Jewish people.  In addition, the comparatively smaller and more recent Al-Aqsa mosque sits oblique to the Dome as a place of Muslim and only Muslim prayer.  

Though there are many complaints one could fairly lodge (such as truth about the actual importance of the site in Muslim theology and history), I'll focus on the main one.  Though Jews and other non-Muslims can tour the Temple Mount under the close watch of Israeli authorities at designated times, they cannot pray there.  This is strictly enforced by the Israeli authorities, as part of an agreement they voluntarily entered into with the WAQF, the Muslim authorities who control the site.  When tour groups go up, they watch closely to make sure no one talks or so much as dares to pray or do something that would offend the Muslims.  This is true not just for Jews but for all non-Muslims.  Imagine, for a moment, all non-Jews being banned from Jewish holy places, and a unit of armed officers watching closely to enforce the ban.  We would never do such a thing, as we believe that our God is the only God, and therefore everyone's.  He cares about all people, and desires their heartfelt prayer.  In fact, we earnestly pray for the day when all nations will come to our Temple to pray to the one God.  "[M]y house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isiah 56:7).  It's with this thought that we conclude prayers on Yom HaKippurim and other holy days, representing our sublime yearning for unity in the face of our human condition and the existence of one omnibenevolent God.    

As Abraham Joshua Heschel eloquently stated at a 1963 conference on race and religion, "What is an idol?  Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol."

The Islamic rule stands in sharp and shocking contrast.  This highlights an important general point about religion.  Some faiths use religion and God generally as ideas to belittle others and promote themselves.  This is the creed of many outside of our faith, and though it is not our creed, manifests itself too often within the Jewish community.  True faith enhances all of our lives and allows us to work together.

Now, the thought that Israeli authorities would enforce such a blatantly racist and unfair agreement on behalf of the Muslim authorities is quite disturbing in its own right, and seems to represent the worst violation of the the Rabbinic idea that one should not sin, nor aide in the commission of one.  The Israelis are guilty as accomplices.  That we can actively enforce a ban on prayer for all non-Muslims is a violation of the most basic ideals of the Jewish faith, yet also of western democractic ideals.  

Unless the issue is brought to light and people make their voices heard, the status-quo will remain.  Frankly, Muslims will make more noise and will be more upset about a change to the current standard than Jews and others are currently, and so they will continue to "win" for fear of the consequences.  It's long past time Israel made some fairness one of its mainstream political demands, and certainly time for Jews, believers in God, and others who value democracy to make their voices heard.