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.          


1 comment:

  1. Sorry, but I'm going to have to disagree with this one. The complaint that Haman makes in 3:8 is specifically that the Jewish people practice different laws from everyone else, and that they don't follow the king's laws. That's a classic Anti-Semitic trope, though Haman is really the first one to use it. Moreover, it doesn't seem to be a complaint of the rest of the people; note the end of the perek, where the people of Shushan are baffled by the decree.

    The other significant difference between Haman and others is the use of the term "Yehudim" throughout the book. Melachim Bet uses it twice, Nehemiah 7 times, Yirmiyah 9 times, and Esther 23 times (that's a quick Bar Ilan search, so I may be missing a few). The phrase really describes the people left after Nebuchadnezzar's conquest, and by the time of Esther, it's clearly an identity of its own. Other than Amalek, Haman is the first person (entity?) to attack the Jews for no particular reason, other than, as you've pointed out, a hatred that might stem from his interactions with Mordechai. Paroh is upset about their numbers, the Assyrians about Israelite/Judahite rebellion, and the Canaanites about land. Only Haman, however, is upset about Jews for being effectively different- what we would think of as Anti-Semitic. And that's only possible because they're now Jews, rather than Israelites.

    Now, you can say that this was stoked by Mordechai...but wouldn't that fit just as easily with any number of Anti-Semites, who held a grudge against the Jews for being foreign and then attacked after some particularly bad interaction with a single one?