Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday March 3, was powerful and enthusiastically received. It exemplified leadership in a way that Americans have not seen for years. The elected leadership of the US conspicuously displayed their awesome delight from the speech; somehow it restored their own dignity and faith in the role of America today. As a result of the Jewish Prime Minister of a tiny country speaking his mind with unwavering resolve, moral clarity and historical dignity, all those present in the gallery felt better about themselves and their own duties in a confused and bloody world.
The Case for Genocide
In the biblical book of Esther, Haman, the viceroy and second in command in the large and powerful Persian Empire, and whose defeat we celebrate on the holiday of Purim (this year Thursday, March 5th), makes a short but powerful presentation to the Persian king, Ahasuerus, attempting to persuade him to embrace his plan of Jewish genocide.
"There is a certain people," Haman says to Ahasuerus (1), "scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from all the other nations, and they do not observe the King's laws. Therefore it is not befitting the King to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let it be recorded that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand silver talents… for deposit in the King's treasuries."
Haman's argument is straightforward and clear: Jews are different. They are alien, outsiders, an obstruction to normal society. They don't fit into the rest of the human family. They have their own faith and their own laws, which they feel are superior to the king's laws. They are a nuisance, a thereat, a growth in an otherwise harmonious and integrated society. They ought to be disposed of.
The Talmud (2) records an oral tradition describing Haman's presentation in some more detail. "They don't eat from our food," Haman lamented to Ahasuerus; “they do not marry our women, and they do not marry their women to us (ironically, at this point they were both unaware that the King's wife was Jewish). They waste the whole year, avoiding the King's work, with the excuse: Today is the Sabbath, or today is Passover."
Haman also discusses bad Jewish habits: "They eat, they drink and they mock the throne. Even if a fly falls in a glass of wine of one of them, he casts away the fly and drinks the wine. But if my master, the King, touches a glass of wine of one of them, that person throws it to the ground and does not drink it (3)."
The Jews, Haman argues, see themselves as superior to us; they will forever stand out. They are a threat to the throne. Who needs them?
Repeating Haman's Words
Some six centuries after Haman, these same words are repeated by Philostratus, a third-century teacher and resident of Athens and Rome, who summarizes the pagan world's perception of the Jews.
"The Jews," Philostratus wrote, "have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table, nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Sura or Bactra of the more distant Indies (4)."
The same argument, in one form or another, would be repeated thousands of times throughout history. The greatest Roman historian, Tacitus, living in the first century CE, had this to say about the Jews:
"The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that which we abhor… toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity, they sit apart at meals and they sleep apart, and although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women."
One example he mentions to describe the moral conflicts between the Romans and the Jews is worthy of note. "The Jews," Tacitus writes, "regard it as a crime to kill any newborn infant." The Romans, as the Greeks before them, killed mentally and physically handicapped infants. In their minds, keeping such children alive was pointless and unaesthetic (5).
First Lady Intervenes
Back to the Haman story of Purim. The viceroy's arguments persuade the King. A decree is issued from the Persian throne. Every Jewish man, woman and child living under Persian dominance would be exterminated on a particular date.
Then, in a delightful turn of events, the First Lady, the Jewish queen Esther, invites her husband and Haman to a drinking feast. As we recall, Esther, from all the thousands of young women who were brought from across the Empire as potential candidates for the role of queen, succeeded in gaining the affection and grace of the King. "The King loved Esther more than all the women, and she won more of his favor and grace than all other women; he set the royal crown upon her head (6)." Years later, during this wine feast, the King makes a pledge to Esther that he would fulfill every request and petition. She utilizes the opportunity to make the fateful pitch.
"If I have won Your Majesty's favor and if it pleases the King," Esther tells Ahasuerus (7), "let my life be granted to me as my request and my people as my petition. For we — I and my people — have been sold to be destroyed, slain and exterminated. Had we been sold as slaves and servant-girls, I would have kept quiet. The compensation our adversary [Haman] offers cannot be compared with the loss the king would suffer [by exterminating us, rather than selling us as slaves]."
Clearly, Esther is attempting to approach the issue from two sides, a personal one and an economical one. First, she exposes her Jewish identity. The queen is a member of the people condemned to death. Esther knows, however, that this alone may not do the trick, so she continues to discuss dollars and cents (Haman too, as recorded above, used a two-point approach in persuading the King: logic and money). By selling the Jews as slaves, Esther argued, Ahasuerus would be profiting far more than by exterminating them. The money Haman offered him is miniscule vs. the potential profit from their sale into slavery.
The King, who never realized that Esther was Jewish, is outraged at Haman. He has his minister executed and his decree subverted. In subsequent conversations with Esther, Ahasuerus grants the Jews the right to self-defense against anybody who would dare to harm them. The entire climate in the Persian Empire toward the Jew is radically transformed. Esther's first cousin, a Jewish sage, Mordechai, is appointed viceroy, replacing Haman.
Yet, one question remains. Haman did not argue the case for Jewish extermination on the basis of senseless venomous passion. He presented what was to the King a sound and persuasive argument. The Jews, Haman argued, were an alien growth, a bizarre people, a separatist nation that would not accept the King's ultimate authority and even considered their law superior to the King's. A leader could not tolerate such a "superior group" in his empire.
This is a strong accusation. The King accepts it and as a result issues a decree demanding his subjects dispose of all the Jews — men, women and children. Yet nowhere in her entire dialogue with the King does Esther refute this argument. Why did Ahasuerus consent to the abolishment of his original plan if he believed Haman's outcry to be valid?
One might argue that Esther's charm and grace were the exclusive factors for the King's change of heart. Yet, as proved above, it is clear that Esther does not rely on this alone. That is why she presents a logical argument for slavery vs. genocide. She refutes the economic offer made by Haman by demonstrating that the king would lose money. How, then, could she ignore the powerful argument of Haman advocating a "Judenrein" society?
When False Notions Face Reality
Some questions are canceled out via answers; some arguments refuted by counter-arguments. But there are those beliefs or notions that require neither debate nor dialogue to disprove them. Reality does the job. When reality is exposed, they dissolve into nothingness.
Haman's argument fell into this category. Esther responded to Haman's argument for Jewish genocide not by dialogue, but by her sheer presence. The moment she identified herself as a member of the Jewish people and as a product of the Jewish faith, Haman's previously attractive "thesis" vanished.
Ahasuerus knew Esther intimately. She was his wife. He sensed her soul, he touched her grace, he cherished her personality. He adored her body, her glow, her charm, and would do almost anything for her (as he explicitly told her). He knew that Esther's character and values were noble, dignified and pure. He chose her from thousands upon thousands of young women, all of them not Jewish. Yet the king never realized that she was Jewish—a daughter of the Jewish people and a product of the Jewish faith.
When Ahasuerus suddenly discovered that she was a proud member of the Jewish people, an adherent of the Jewish faith, he immediately realized the falsehood of Haman’s arguments—not through dialogue and debate, but there Esther’s very living presence. Esther’s day-to-day life demonstrated, louder than any argument could achieve, the absurdity of Haman’s arguments that the Jews threatened society. Looking at Esther, seeing her refinement and inner beauty, the King understood that this alien Nation who lived by another code, ought not to be loathed, but respected. They may be very different, but it is an otherness that elevates other nations rather than threatens them. (Leo Tolstoy wrote: "The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world (8).") The Jew may be very different, but it is this "otherness" that has the power to inspire all of the nations of the world to live and love deeper, to encounter their individual path to G-d.
When the Persian King learnt that the royalty of Esther was a symptom of her Jewishness, he did not need to hear anything more. He got it. The last thing he needs to worry about is the Jewish people and their faith. If anything, they will prove to become the greatest blessing for his Empire. The decree was annulled.
Should We Hide?
The lesson for our times is clear. Sometimes Jews think that by hiding the “otherness” of Judaism and the Jewish people they will gain the approval of the world. Yet the facts prove otherwise: Assimilation, the eclipsing the otherness of the Jewish people, has never assuaged anti-Semitism. Tradition tells us (9) that the Jews of Shushan (the capital of the Persian Empire at the time of the Purim story) were quite assimilated. Yet, this did not deter the Persian viceroy and king from believing that despite all of the Jews' compromises and attempts not to be "too Jewish," they were still strange, distinct and different.
This pattern has repeated itself in every milieu since. Never in history, has assimilation solved the problem of Jew hatred. Jews in Germany were the most assimilated and integrated in mainstream society, yet it was in that very country where the worst Jew hatred in history sprouted.
Scores of great non-Jewish thinkers, sympathetic to Jews as well as to anti-Semites, saw in Jews and Judaism something different, bizarre and extraordinary. In Tolstoy's letter above he continues: "The Jew is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions." John Adams wrote that "the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation (8)." Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that the Jews introduced to the world the "slave virtues" like "pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness," designated "for the weak and envious (10)." Hitler blamed the Jews for inventing the life-denying reality called conscience. Today, many academics and laymen believe that the Jews are responsible for the great conflict in today’s world.
As much as we attempt to run from our identity as Jews, the non-Jewish world reminds us of who we are and where we came from. The non-Jew senses that since the day the Jew stood at Sinai, he or she has been different.
The solution for the Jewish people is therefore not to deny its otherness. That will never work. Rather, the Jew ought to embrace his or her Jewishness, and just like Esther, be proud with the lifestyle and moral ethic of Torah. When we learn how to embrace our otherness with love and grace, rather than with shame and guilt, it will become a source of admiration and inspiration for all of humanity.
Just like Esther, the presence of a Jew who is permeated by the love and dignity of Torah and Mitzvos—speaks for itself. The grace of a true Torah Jew, the integrity, the innocence, the discipline, the modesty, the moral code, the sensitivity to all that is noble and dignified in life, the love for man and G-d which Torah inculcates in the Jew—all these refute the argument of Haman more than debate can ever hope to achieve.
The great Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin once remarked: "If a Jew doesn't make Kiddush (to sanctify himself by maintaining a distinctly Jewish lifestyle), then the non-Jew will make Havdalah for him (by making the Jew realize he is truly different)."
Israel, for example, will never succeed portraying itself to the world as “a regular country.” Its choice is either to run from its destiny or to embrace it, and thus become a source of pride for the entire world.
Craving for Clarity
In this sense, Netanyahu’s address to Congress was a mesmerizing tour-de-force. The Prime Minister made, in my opinion, only one mistake. He completed his speech with these beautiful words: “Before the people of Israel entered the land of Israel, Moses gave us a message that has steeled our resolve for thousands of years. I leave you with his message today: “Chizku ve'imtzu, al tiru ve'al te'artzu m'pneihem,” “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them” (Deuteronomy 36:6). The Prime Minister received a strong applauds.
Netanyahu should have added the conclusion of the verse: “ki A-donay Elokeycha hu haholech imach lo yarpecha velo yaazveka,” “because G-d your Lord is the One who is going with you, and He will not fail you or forsake you.” Had he included with that verse, his impact would have been double fold and the applauds thundering. America is a faith-based country; its founding fathers were inspired by the Hebrew Bible. As much as the US leaders cherished every word that came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, they would have been deeply effected by a Jew who would inspire in them the core and root of American values and its resolve to protect innocent people everywhere from opression and murder. They would have been comforted by a Jewish leader expressing what lay in each of their hearts. Netanyahu himself did not realize how much more power and admiration he would have gained had he spoke as an ambassador of the people who had carried for millennia the torch of G-d, a G-d who cares first and foremost about how we treat each other.
The world admires Jews who admire their heritage and faith. The free world is craving for this type of Jewish leadership—one that can allow humanity to unite with passion and resolve around a G-d that inspires life, liberty and happiness, rather than a god who evokes death, oppression and misery. (11)
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2) Megilah 13b.
3) Wine poured in idolatrous service is according to Torah law forbidden to the Jew. The rabbis decreed that wine touched or poured by an idolator, even if not in service to his
deity, be prohibited for a Jew to drink (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 123:1).
4) Quoted in Why The Jews? (By Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, NY, 1983) p. 83.
5) Ibid. pp. 86-88.
6) Esther .
7) Ibid. 7:3-4. The translation of the last clause of the verse follows Rashi's interpretation.
8) Quoted in Radican Then, Radical Now (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, London 2000) p. 3 with reference noted there.
9) See Talmud Meggilah 12a; Shir Hashirim Rabah 7:8. Introduction to Manos Halevi. Sicah, Purim 1941.
10) Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Harmondsworth, 1978) p. 178.
11) This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Purim 5729, March 4, 1969, published in Sichos Kodesh 5729 vol. 1 pp. 401-414.