On the day that the enemies of the Jews had expected to rule over them, the situation was reversed, and it was the Jews themselves who ruled over those who hated them. The Jews gathered themselves in their cities in all the provinces of Ahashverosh the king, to lay their hands on those who sought to harm them, and no man could stand before them, for fear of them had fallen on all the peoples. The king said to Esther the queen: “In Susa the capital the Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men, and the ten sons of Haman.”…The rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered together and fought for their lives, gaining respite from their enemies and killing 75,000 of those who hated them. But the spoils they did not touch.
s the book of Esther reaches its climax, the Jews of Persia have turned political defeat into political triumph. Esther, the young Jewish queen of Persia, has taken on the Hitler-like vizier, Haman, deploying political and sexual innuendo to drive a wedge between him and the king, Ahashverosh (whom the Greeks called Xerxes). It was Haman who had persuaded the king to order the extermination of every Jew in the Persian Empire, and this royal edict remains in force. But Esther’s attack on the vizier has brought about a dramatic shift in power. Esther succeeds in having Haman deposed and hanged, and she positions her cousin Mordecai as the new vizier in his place. And after two months of nail-biting tension, she is able to get the king to issue a second decree, which permits the Jews of Persia to raise up a military force with which to defend themselves.
When the day Haman had appointed for the massacre comes eight months later, the Jews use this strength to deal a deathblow to anti-Semitic power in the empire. They kill more than 75,000 men, lay waste to its leadership, and establish a deterrent against future threats to the Jewish communities of Persia. Perhaps most significant, the crushing of the anti-Semitic nemesis establishes the position of the new Jewish vizier with the king, ensuring that Ahashverosh’s authority will be wielded in such a way as to protect the Jewish interest for years to come.
The narrative in the Book of Esther only touches on these final stages of Mordecai and Esther’s efforts, but there is enough for us to understand what happened. After months of feverish diplomatic work, Mordecai had succeeded in parlaying the fact of the new decree’s existence and the feeble mumblings of Ahashverosh into a widespread belief that he in fact had the influence, authority, and power to make good on it: “The man Mordecai grew greater and greater,” “his reputation had gone out to all the provinces,” and with that “the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them.” By the opening of the actual war, the influence of the Jews in the empire had become overwhelming. The hard core of anti-Semitic power had been isolated, as “all the princes of the provinces, and the satraps, and the governors and those that conduct the king’s affairs supported the Jews.” Many of those who had been willing to support the anti-Semites had switched sides or disappeared into the woodwork, and it appeared that the Jews and their allies would score a terrifying victory. Thus the “fear of them had fallen on all the peoples,” and “none could stand before them.”
Some have suggested that Mordecai now had the option of restraining the fury of the promised Jewish onslaught: There was no longer much question of a real anti-Semitic assault, and if he feared there would be an anti-Semitic resurgence should he relent, he could have opted just to arrest or execute a few hundred gang leaders across the empire. Would this not have sufficed? Mordecai obviously did not believe such a minimalist response would have been enough, and his decisions are straight out of Machiavelli’s textbook of power politics:
For it must be noted, that men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance.
Moreover, a ruler or a prince
must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful; for, with a very few examples, he will be more merciful than those who, from excess of tenderness, allow disorders to arise, from whence spring bloodshed and rapine….And of all princes, it is impossible for a new prince to escape the reputation of cruelty.
In other words, a minimalistic response to a genuine threat all but ensures two undesired consequences, both of them deadly. First, the defeated enemy will nurture the hope of revenge, and continues to be an active threat as he seeks an opportunity to reassert his challenge. Second, the mildness of the response encourages others to take advantage of what can be perceived as hesitancy or weakness on the part of the ruler. The only hope to avoid future outrages is thus the assertion of overwhelming power in the first instance.
Strength attracts strength, and power attracts power. Thus the weak, to the degree they can make themselves seem strong, can attract the support of the strong, thereby becoming strong in reality.
Throughout the empire, the Jews enter into battle with the anti-Semitic forces, in most cases with the active assistance of the allies who have rallied to support Mordecai’s position. Abandoned by most of their former supporters among the people and in the government, the anti-Semitic inciters and those who had actively advanced their cause are brought low in province after province. The carnage is so great that (i) the anti-Semitic basilisk is in fact beheaded, its life and leadership burned out of the body politic; and (ii) the lesson is learned by all future challengers to the safety of the Jews and the power of Mordecai in the king’s court. Nowhere in all the vast reaches of the Persian Empire does there any longer exist a leader capable of inspiring the peoples to rise and harm the Jewish communities, nor can anyone imagine becoming one while Mordecai’s influence persists.
ut there is a third reason for the decision to go to war that perhaps even surpasses the others in importance: the position of the king himself toward the Jews, and toward Mordecai as their leader.
When, earlier in the story, Ahashverosh had expressed an opinion on the subject of saving the lives of the Jews of Persia, he had managed to leave no question as to how little the subject concerned him. Pressed by the queen, the best he had been able to do was to reply that he had already done something good for the Jews once (“Behold, I have given Haman’s house to Esther, and he himself has been hanged on the gallows”), and that although there was nothing else to be done (“an edict written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked”), Mordecai and Esther were free to try if they so chose (“And you, write concerning the Jews as seems good in your eyes”).
Ahashverosh is a scoundrel. Not only is there no reason to believe his present professions of sympathy for the Jews, but his original complicity in the plan to destroy them, especially when combined with his subsequent statements on the subject, suggests that there is every reason to fear for the future. Who is to say that some turn of events will not take the Jews out of favor and return Ahashverosh to the original course he and Haman had set? With these facts constantly before him, Mordecai has another, crucial reason to bring the war against the enemies of the Jews to its spectacular conclusion: Strength attracts strength, and power attracts power. Thus the weak, to the degree they can make themselves seem strong, can attract the support of the strong, thereby becoming strong in reality.
Ahashverosh has made it clear that he is not the slightest bit inclined to become the protector of the Jews so long as they are a diffuse and contrary minority, and therefore “it is of no benefit for the king to tolerate them.” If Mordecai is to make the reversal of the Jews’ fortunes complete—and if he is to lend this reversal a measure of stability and permanence—he has no choice but to make it perfectly obvious to Ahashverosh that the Jews are strong, and that it is in fact of very real benefit to tolerate them, to ally himself with them, and to protect them against future threats that may arise.
This, the final transformation in the king’s relationship with the Jews, is depicted in an exchange between Ahashverosh and his Jewish queen at the height of the tension on the day of the war between the Jews and their enemies. Reports from the provinces have not yet begun to arrive, but the dimensions of the catastrophe that has befallen the anti-Semites in Susa have already become known. For the first time in the narrative, we see Ahashverosh initiating a conversation with Esther, and telling her: “In Susa the capital the Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men, and the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king ’s provinces?” Immediately after this, there tumbles from the king’s lips a statement that one is tempted to mistake for a non sequitur. He says to Esther: “And whatever your wish, it will be given you, and whatever more you may request, it will be done.”
The change in the man is obvious when one considers what he has said on the three previous occasions on which he has used this expression in speaking to Esther: upon her first forbidden approach to him in the throne room, and at the two banquets of wine that she prepared for him. On all three previous occasions, the king responded to the queen’s approach with a variation of the formula: “Whatever your wish, it will be given you. Whatever your request, up to half the kingdom, it will be done.”
Ahashverosh’s largesse on this occasion differs from these earlier gestures. The king now seeks out Esther to find out what she wants in the absence of any initiative on her part. With visions of blood dancing before his eyes, and afraid as to what may happen next, Ahashverosh’s relationship with his Jewish queen undergoes a final, dramatic revision. It is Esther who now embodies power in the king’s eyes, and it is he who offers his favors—his service—in an effort to gain favor with her. Their relationship is finally and completely reversed: Esther, who had come into Ahashverosh’s bedchamber five years earlier in search of a way of winning him over so as to avoid the life of a discarded harem girl, now finds the king anxiously seeking to win her pleasure.
In this context, Ahashverosh demonstratively (or perhaps unconsciously) drops the hedge setting an upper bound on her request to “only” half the kingdom, the implication being that she can now ask for the entire kingdom if she so wishes. In practice, once it is the king who is seeking her favor, he does not even need to make this offer explicit, for it has already been granted. In fact, Esther asks for much less: “If it please the king, let the Jews in Susa do tomorrow according to the law for today, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.”
Like the king, Esther has no way of knowing what has happened in the rest of the empire, and news from the farthest provinces will not be available for weeks. In the best case, the war in the provinces will have come to an end that night, with the anti-Semitic menace eradicated. In the worst, the war will have to be extended by a decree from the palace. Her request is that the Jewish reign of arms in Susa be allowed to continue until there is news of what has happened at least in those neighboring cities from which reports can arrive after a day’s ride. The point is that in the capital, the initiative should remain in Mordecai’s hands until he is able to determine what should happen next. The Jews and their allies are therefore permitted to continue holding the streets of Susa at sword point for another 24 hours, flushing out of hiding another 300 of their enemies. Moreover, the bodies of Haman’s sons, in life the very symbol of continued anti-Semitic power and the possibility of revenge for Haman’s death, are transformed into a symbol of Jewish effectiveness when these grisly relics are put on display for potential opponents to consider.
By the time the streets of Susa have grown quiet after the second day’s battle, reports have begun to arrive from other cities and towns. Everywhere, the victory of the Jews has become a rout. Men have been hounded out and struck down, the specter of the massacre of which Haman had dreamed is dead, and the decree of death that has hung over the heads of the Jews for so long has been lifted. The day on which the enemies of the Jews had hoped to rule over them has been transformed, miraculously, into a day of honor and glory, with the Jews themselves achieving rule over those who hated them.
ll this is considered a triumph by the narrative itself and by later Jewish tradition. But contemporary readers who gather on the holiday of Purim to read the Book of Esther aloud, as Jews have for 2,000 years, often find it difficult to look upon the account of the Jews’ war against their enemies in this way. They tend to lose interest in the story after the death of Haman. Indeed, many synagogues in the United States and elsewhere end the reading of the Megillah right there. This is despite the fact that Haman is hanged well before the actual turning point in Mordecai and Esther’s struggle to save the Jews, and long before the actual war itself, which is the event that in fact brings the Jews redemption.
There is good reason why the account of the Jews’ bloody and overwhelming victory, which in other societies would be remembered and savored with pleasure, is often underemphasized, passed over in discussion, and even, in some cases, avoided as if it were an object of shame. The liberal societies of our time are founded on the principle of nonviolent resolution of disputes. The doctrines of the social compact, the rule of law, the voluntary division of labor, and the mutual benefits of contractual exchange—all these are the basis not only for our political order, but also for a prevailing consciousness, whose hold is all the stronger as one approaches the more educated populations within Western society. Individuals who have grown up in this culture have few life experiences to suggest to them that there is any real need for force, violence, and war; and their educators strain to inculcate in them the belief that it is a virtue to “outgrow” the use of force. On such a view, reason and appetite are the only familiar and appropriate springs of human action. And all that is sought by reason and appetite—food, possessions, sex, and knowledge—can be obtained in quantities by most members of an industrialized and free society without recourse to force, and even, it is thought, without the subjugation of any individual by any other.
For those who see the world this way, the functioning of the human spirit, which, for lack of understanding, they refer to using pejoratives such as the “lust for power,” is a mystery. They tend to deny the existence of a real need for power and control within themselves, and they sincerely profess incomprehension when such needs manifest themselves in others. Thus, a great many individuals, recognizing no need for power, force, and war in themselves, come to consider these things to be objectively undesirable. Then evil, to the extent that it continues to exist as a concept at all, comes to be associated with power, force, and war and with those who have recourse to them.
Among Jews, such disregard for power and force is always strongly present. It was the prophets of Israel who introduced into the world the ideal of an end to violence among nations, with Isaiah calling for swords and spears to be beaten into agricultural implements, and Jeremiah going so far as to call for a “new covenant” to be instilled in every breast at birth, so that men should no longer desire iniquity.
Jews have always been exposed to these ideas, and the history of the last centuries, in which they were largely cut off from the experience of armed conflict and high politics—and driven into ever-deeper familiarity with the realm of ideas—did much to refashion the Jews as a caste of dream-thinkers and idealists, for whom every step toward the establishment of societies based on the principle of nonviolent resolution of disputes has served to reconfirm the idea that power and violence are simply unnecessary.
For such readers, the story of Esther up until Haman’s demise seems quaint and harmless. Unable to understand the terrifying contest of spirit and rule that leads to Haman’s execution, they find in it nothing more than a dead coincidence: As it happens, the king’s wife turns out to be a Jew, and so Haman’s plot is foiled. The fact that Mordecai and Esther then go on to orchestrate a rampage that soaks the empire to its farthest reaches in blood is for them an embarrassment and a mystery. What need was there for this? What rejoicing and holiday could there be in this? What moral teaching could there be in this?
Yet the narrative itself is unambiguous in making the power and control that the Jews consolidated in the fighting a cause for celebration—and one of the book’s central moral themes. The summary that immediately precedes the account of the war therefore touts the fact that “on the day that the enemies of the Jews had expected to rule over them, the situation was reversed, and it was the Jews themselves who ruled over those who hated them.” The passage that caps the war footage speaks of the relief gained in “killing seventy-five thousand of those who hated them,” making the morrow “a day of feasting and gladness.” And the summary that accompanies Mordecai’s official interpretation of events underscores the fact that Haman’s “evil plan, which he had intended against the Jews, should be turned on its head, and they hanged him and his sons on the gallows”—where “turning the evil plan on its head” means the death of all those who had planned to perpetrate the massacre against the Jews.
The trouble with this account for the contemporary reader is that today we are not supposed to permit ourselves any kind of pride or satisfaction over a victory that involves wholesale bloodshed, even if we do recognize it as having been necessary. In our time and place, being good is thought to be closely allied with the revulsion we have learned toward killing, not only of noncombatants but even of those participating in the fighting against us. Our own moral sensibilities are in this sense “higher” than those that drove the wars of liquidation in the books of Joshua and Samuel, and even the ending to the book of Esther. On the other hand, one need only think of the foolishness of certain pacifists, ecologians, vegetarians, and abstentionist sectarians who insist that the use of force, the expansion of industry, the killing of animals, or sexual intimacy are inherently immoral in order to recognize the possibility of wandering lost in endless, false, and dangerous “higher” moralities—that is, moralities that are supposedly higher than our own—whose pursuit bears no fruit other than destruction. As the saying of Ecclesiastes has it: “Be not overly righteous, and strive not to be too clever, for why should you destroy yourself?”
But stop and ask yourself this: Is there not some terrific hypocrisy in taking such pride in the moral heights we believe ourselves to have attained in comparison with the past—and yet finding ourselves appalled and annoyed at the demands of so many of those who, in their sanctimoniousness, their naiveté, their utter irrelevance to the world and its doings, hawk their ever-more-suffocating formulas for what we must and must not do to remain decent members of society? Should we not, after all, be grateful when we come across someone who is willing and able to apply moral principle more seriously, more thoroughly, and more consistently than we are willing to do?
Our society presses relentlessly for us to believe this—for us to admit that our biblical forefathers really knew little about justice and goodness, and that we ourselves are no great shakes either. For us to admit that some future morality that is just coming into being holds the key to being truly good. But in fact, we should think that people who are constantly raising the moral bar in this way, insisting on an ever-steeper hierarchy of value systems extending from the “highest” moralities of our time down to the supposed non-moralities of previous eras, are gravely mistaken. We are repelled by certain standards of behavior that still pertained in the time of biblical Israel—standards with respect to warfare, for example, or polygamy or slavery. But at the same time, there is something equally repellent about the idea that because of such hard-won improvements in the moral standards according to which we live, we must now, as a logical consequence of this, agree to be judged today in accordance with a framework that asserts it is the more enlightened view from the future. The fact that each of these two poles repels suggests that there is not one ideal at work in circumscribing and prescribing our behaviors as human beings, but two—and that the truth lies in the balance between them.
an’s consciousness is challenged by objective conditions that prevent him from living in an inertial introspection and pull him, often against his will, toward action in the world. These conditions are essentially two: first, the needs and urges of his body; and second, the needs of others, of his family, his people, and his world. It takes little experience to discover that these two influences are fundamentally and irreconcilably contrary to each other, producing antithetical impulses within philosophy and religion. Each vies with the other and against it, and they must be kept distinct for religion and ethics to be able to speak coherently. These are the ideals of purity and morality.
Purity. The needs and urges of one’s body and spirit have always been seen as demanding that man pull away from ideas and truths to occupy himself with eating, digestion, infatuations and sex, clothing and shelter, natural and chemical intoxications, sleep, discomfort and illness of various kinds, honor and anger, phobias, depressions and other impairments of the spirit, and death. They are a bottomless pit, into which all life’s energies and abilities easily disappear without a trace. After a lifetime preoccupied with the pursuit of them, man finds that he has nothing to show for his efforts other than having worn out a body that had started its career fresh. It has therefore been considered a virtue to minimize one’s concern for the needs and urges of the body and of the spirit to whatever degree possible so as to free the mind for its confrontation with higher things. This virtue, when found in men, has been called purity or holiness—the Hebrew word for holiness being kedusha, meaning “separation,” from the body, the concerns of men and the world. And its most basic ethical form is the command of the books of Moses: “Holy shall you be.”
Morality. The needs of the world, on the other hand—the protection of innocent life, the dissemination of truth and the establishment of justice, the alleviation of suffering, the development of productive talents and capacities, the facilitation of happiness, and the attainment of peace—all these have been held to be the noblest of efforts, and the pursuit of them has been held to be a virtue. Yet if they are to be pursued to any worthy effect, they demand the greatest possible concentration of the individual’s worldly resources, the maximal use of his body and his spirit to attain high levels of experience and skill, reputation, respect and wealth, allies and power, in order to have a hope of achieving whatever betterment of the world can possibly be achieved. And this virtue has been called morality or justice—the Hebrew word for justice being tzedek, meaning “that which is right,” its purport being one of involvement with the concerns of men and of the world. And here, too, the books of Moses speak in the language of a command: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”
The saint makes a token effort toward power and leaves the rest to God, while the hero leaves nothing to God until he himself reaches exhaustion.
For a saint, a man of perfect study and prayer, power is essentially exorcised as a motive, and so the entire world of spiritual blemishes—the obsession with honor and wealth, tantrums and rages, depressions, competitiveness, cruelty—are not found in him. But power is lost to him as a tool: He may give charity from what he has, but the good he can do is of necessity circumscribed; he may wish to do right in the world, but he has few resources and does not really know how. For the hero, the man of great deeds, the endless game of accumulating power and the preoccupation with wielding it, of learning the rules and building alliances, of consolidating the wins and recovering from the losses, of gradually growing to the point where one is in fact able to move an immovable world—all this leaves him relatively little time for contemplation, for study and thought, for prayer. He may include such activities in his daily routine, but he finds it difficult to concentrate as the world presses in on him, demanding that he return to it. The saint and the hero may be religious men both. Yet the saint makes a token effort toward power and leaves the rest to God, while the hero leaves nothing to God until he himself reaches exhaustion.
Purity and morality are untranslatable ideals, a vertical axis against which man measures how inwardly removed he is from the world, and a horizontal one measuring the degree to which he outwardly affects it—so that it is forever difficult to advance in one direction without doing damage in the other, a dilemma that appears in Jewish tradition again and again. Thus David, Israel’s greatest king, was responsible for the moral achievement of uniting the fragmented Jewish tribes and leading them to victory against the enemies that had caused them such suffering. Yet the Bible held that these very acts disqualified him from building the Temple in Jerusalem because he had “shed much blood upon the earth”—so that the construction of the sanctuary was left to his son Solomon.
Even more difficult is the rabbinic story told of the arrest of the Rabbis Eleazar ben Parata and Hanina ben Teriadon who are to be brought to trial for their activities by the Roman authorities during the persecutions of the Emperor Hadrian in Judea in the 130s CE. Hanina was a well-known representation of saintliness, of whom it is said that his only sin was that he once allocated Purim alms as though they were regular charity, a mistake that he then corrected by replacing the misapportioned alms with money from his own pocket. Yet according to the Talmud, Hanina tells his cellmate: “Happy are you who have been arrested on five charges but will be delivered. Woe is unto me, who have been arrested on one charge but will be condemned. For you have occupied yourself with study of Torah as well as deeds of kindness, whereas I have occupied myself with Torah alone.” When Eleazar is brought before the tribunal and accused, this worldlier rabbi refuses to give a straight answer, dodging and maneuvering until he succeeds in confounding the court, eventually winning his release. But when Hanina is asked by the court why he occupies himself with Torah though it is against the law, he replies with words of purity: “Because I was commanded to do so by the Lord, my God.” Having confessed his guilt, he and his wife are put to death, and his daughter is consigned to serve the Romans in a brothel.
Lest the point somehow be missed, the Talmudic account refers in this context to the opinion of Rabbi Huna: “He who only occupies himself with the study of Torah is as if he had no God.” That is, even divine assistance depends on making sacrifices in purity in order to gather ability in the ways of tribunals and occupying armies.
From the earliest times, the response of the Jews to the conflict between the demands of purity and the moral need to achieve power in the world was for each individual to strike a balance between them. Jews were to seek power in the world for six days of the week and seek purity by withdrawing in the seventh; to seek worldly power through sexual relations and raising up heirs, yet maintain purity through the institution of marriage and periods of monthly abstinence; seek power through the consumption of meat, yet strive for purity in the choice of the livestock and the manner of their slaughter, as well as periodic fasts; and so forth. Yet to maintain an entire nation on course along this middle path, it was thought necessary to appoint individuals whose work would be the embodiment of each ideal, the possibility of embodying both at once apparently being intolerably remote. Thus, from the time of Moses, the Jews instituted what amounted to a division of labor between the judge and the priest, between the man of morality and the man of purity—and even between Judah and Joseph, the tribes responsible for the pursuit of justice and national well-being, and Levi, the tribe of purity. Similarly, when the Jews entered the land, rabbinic tradition suggests that three strategic necessities became incumbent upon them as a nation: that they appoint a king, build the Temple, and destroy the evil Amalek tribe—these representing the establishment of justice (the king, Amalek) and purity (the Temple) in Israel.
The idea that the political and military leader is essential to morality and religion—that he is, in other words, an important moral and religious figure in his own right—sits uneasily with our tendency to believe that politics is “immoral” or amoral, an opinion that has been handed down to us from antiquity. The last centuries have seen endless confusion on this score, as moral thought, which in the time of the prophets had been inseparable from human exploration of the political realm, has become the preserve of men who have removed themselves from the affairs of the world, the better to pursue “pure reason” and similar projects. Contrary to their own protestations, such individuals are not particularly adept at formulating moral systems, precisely because they have so little experience with what is required to achieve anything in practice. Kant, in particular, insisted on the equation of morality with the eradication of self-interest—that is, he insisted that morality was identical with purity—and thus was forced by his own reasoning to conclude that worldly actions are perhaps never actually moral. But this has not prevented generations of his disciples from applying this misguided standard to the actions of governments and politicians (all of which actions are “self-interested” in that they are taken to enhance the power, interests, and cause of that government or politician) and determining them all to be, for this reason, tainted and “immoral.”
The appearance of things associated with impurity break the spell of the higher being that we strive to be, and so such intrusions are proscribed and even deplored.
But this does not make it immoral. There are many activities that are impure in this sense: The modes of behavior accepted in the bedroom, the graveyard, the operating room, the slaughterhouse, the lavatory, and the battlefield are none of them activities suited to relations of family, synagogue, school, and business. This is not because any of them are inherently immoral, but because they are impure. They are activities that focus attention on the body, its various organs, their functioning and malfunctioning, their decay and mortality—whereas family, school, and business are relatively pure, allowing us to focus on the minds of those who are with us and the unique human relations in which we are engaged with them. The house of prayer is held to be purer still, and here even much of what takes place in the realm of business, school, or family life is held in abeyance for a time so that we may attend more carefully to God and to his teaching.
This ability to distinguish spheres of greater purity from other, lesser ones is what allows mankind to step into civilization, leaving behind the physical organs and bodily fluids, decay and illness, the corpse, and death itself, in order to enter into a “safe space,” a bubble that is “separated” from the world, in which it is possible to concentrate on things that are at once more essential and more personal. When we enter into such times and such places, the appearance of things associated with impurity break the spell of the higher being that we strive to be, and so such intrusions are proscribed and even deplored.
The same may be said concerning the accepted behaviors of politics. Here, too, many of the activities are brutal, and in fact they have often been referred to as “naked power,” verbal actions whose meaning is pure force, acts of the spirit that are in their essence violence, whether accompanied by physical blows or not. Yet in order to achieve power to do good, one must be experienced, talented, and expert in the ways in which power is in fact allocated and applied. One must know war as it is waged by others, and be able to wage such wars more effectively than they. One must know finance as it is waged by others, and be able to build an economy more effectively than they. One must be able to gain influence and wield it as it is wielded by others, but be able to use this influence more effectively than they. Power is a matter of beating one’s opponents at their own game and using the results for good. Participating in the ways of the political world as one finds it is not inherently immoral, any more than the activities of the lavatory are immoral. In neither case does a habitually pious person desire to behave in such ways. He does it neither for pleasure nor for some kind of personal gain, but because there is presumably no choice. And it would be absurd if each time an individual took it upon himself to achieve right and justice, even at the expense of his own personal purity, he would also have to be castigated for being immoral besides.
Indeed, the biblical narrative and subsequent rabbinic tradition reserved the appellation of tzadik, meaning “the righteous,” for precisely those figures whose lives are spent in outward political and moral action, immersed in power and evil, but who nonetheless manage to maintain a level of relative purity in these circumstances. This is the meaning of the oft-repeated Talmudic appellation “Joseph the righteous”: It is not that Joseph, while ruling amid the despotism and brutality of ancient Egypt, somehow manages to maintain an unparalleled standard of purity in the way he leads his life. Rather, the significance of his great act of self-discipline—the refusal of the Egyptian temptress that results in his being falsely accused of rape and thrown in a dungeon—is in the fact that he is able to maintain any standard of purity at all in the polluted realm in which he flourishes, and despite the ways in which he must accommodate this realm to attain success. Others referred to as “righteous” are of this sort as well. Noah saves mankind from the flood and is referred to as righteous in the books of Moses despite the fact that in his time “the evil of man was great upon the earth, and the whole nature of the thoughts of his mind was only to evil all day long.” Lot risks his life and that of his family to save perfect strangers from the mob and is referred to as righteous in the books of Moses despite living amid the depravity of Sodom. Jacob, who wrests control of his father’s inheritance from his powerful brother and makes a fortune at the hands of the Mesopotamian idolaters, is called righteous by the rabbis despite spending the best years of his life serving his father-in-law surrounded by immorality and idolatry. And Mordecai, who saves the Jews of Persia, is called righteous by the rabbis despite likewise living amid the iniquity of the Persian court.
f course, the fact that the political world is a sphere of lesser purity does not legitimize every means to any political end. One cannot make great sacrifices in one’s purity and humanity where the ends being pursued are immoral or unimportant. The political struggles of municipal zoning boards, for example, or the notorious politics internal to academia, cannot justify relinquishing civilized behavior. In high politics, on the other hand, it is, as Joseph says in Genesis, “the preservation of the multitude of men alive” that is in fact at stake, so that it can always be reasonably argued that departures from our accustomed standards of purity are justifiable, and even obligatory.
Left to the hands of others who would use the power of the state for their own gain, the law would serve the few, the country would engage in oppression and unjust wars, and thousands would die for nothing. Indeed, it is the political world, with all its impurity, that makes it possible for the civil world of daily life to exist as it does. It is politics that musters the ugly power necessary for higher society to live oblivious of the muck, just as the body marshals the resources needed for the mind to do its work, although most of the time the mind is unaware of what is taking place beneath it. If the political world should one day fail in its impure task when faced by malevolent challenges from outside society or within, the bubble of civilization in which we spend most of our adult lives would come crashing down into the lava of impurity below.
There is no point in attempting to count the strata of impurity upon which our world floats, and upon which it depends for its existence. But it bears emphasizing that the impure sphere of politics floats like a bubble on top of other, yet impurer worlds: The realm of wars, both foreign and domestic, is one such, in which even today nations use the most gruesome means in order to survive—means that would be unthinkable even in an arena such as that of domestic political life. And beneath this lies another, even fouler world, which exists now only in the farthest reaches: that of the idolaters, in which murderous violence was acceptable even within the family, and in which no safety truly existed anywhere. It was this realm in which the genocides of antiquity took place: in which Rome put all of Carthage to the sword and sowed the soil of its lands with salt so that no human being should ever be able to persist there again. And it was in this world, according to the hideous exigencies of its wars, that Joshua entered the land of Canaan, after 40 years in the desert, with an imperative to secure a stable Jewish nation and faith:
You will beat them and you will utterly destroy them, you will sign no treaties with them, nor will you show them any mercy. And you will not make marriages with them: You will not give your daughter to his son, nor will you take his daughter for your son. For they will turn your son away from following me, and they will serve other gods….You will destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their asherim, and burn their idols with fire….The idols of their gods will you burn with fire. Do not desire the silver and gold that is on them nor take it for yourself, lest you become ensnared by it, for it is a horror to the Lord, your God. You will not bring a horror into your house, lest you become accursed as it is, but you will loathe it and abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.
The point is all too clear: “They will turn your son away,” “lest you become ensnared,” “lest you become accursed as it is.” Without an end to the murderous Canaanite presence in the land, the moral life of the Jews, so we are told, cannot come into existence, for the Jews would rapidly become Canaanites themselves: perverse, murderous, idolatrous. Indeed, the subsequent narrative tells precisely this story. It tells of how the Jews, having failed to live up to the imperative of driving the Canaanites from the land, sank into a thousand years of assimilation following the ways of the idolaters.
It is the curse of politics that in certain cases such monstrous acts of impurity may be considered the most moral option given the paucity of alternatives.
That there may be a place in moral argumentation for such acts is not easily assimilated. Within the confines of our own world, the rules are different: One may not take the life of an innocent person to save one’s own life under any circumstance. When the individual violates this principle, it is rightly understood as the greatest of crimes. Yet most of us can glimpse our own descent into the realm in which our accepted norms of behavior dissolve in contemporary scenarios in which the free world is faced with annihilation, or in which the State of Israel stands to be destroyed in war with the Arabs or Iran. Would we refuse to order a nuclear strike in such a case? The harsh truth is that the immorality of such a strike, killing countless innocents to save a civilization, cannot be deduced from the immorality of murdering an innocent individual to save another.
From this, it is evident that the political arena is not merely “dirty.” In certain cases, it leads rapidly into a pollution in which man is transformed into a beast of the lowest grade: not merely killing individuals for his own survival, but destroying cities and bringing nations to ruin. This, at any rate, is what we find in the most horrifying of the biblical accounts of ancient warfare, which assume that there can be an imperative to wage war of this kind if the world has fallen into otherwise irreparable evil. It is the curse of politics that in certain cases such monstrous acts of impurity may be considered the most moral option given the paucity of alternatives. But, of course, it is always possible instead to preserve one’s own purity—and in doing so to allow the world to fall ever further.
IN THE BOOK OF ESTHER, Mordecai’s war is fought in the world of his time and place. It is fought by its rules because any other choice in that time and place would have been folly. Thus if one were to ask why so many men had to die on the day of the fighting if the results were by then practically assured, the answer is just that which we have read in Machiavelli’s politics. Without decisive action against an enemy that had been preparing to murder all the Jews, Mordecai would have guaranteed himself a reputation of hesitancy and mildness—a reputation that would have breathed new life into the anti-Semitism of the empire and left the king doubting the Jewish vizier’s abilities.
And if one were to ask why Haman’s 10 sons had to die, it is wishful thinking to argue that every one of them was active as a leader in the camp of the anti-Semites, although some of them were exactly that. Rather, their deaths are sought, as was accepted in the course of warfare and politics in antiquity, to prevent Haman’s enmity from leaving heirs, as well as to degrade his memory and emphasize the enormity of his defeat. The book of Daniel tells of Darius issuing a parallel order for the destruction of those who persecuted Daniel, along with their families: “And the king commanded, and they brought those men who had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the lion’s den, they, their children and their wives.” In Herodotus, Artabanus, uncle to Xerxes, similarly offers to wager his life and those of his children on the outcome of a war he opposes: “If things go well for the king, as you say they will, let me and my children be put to death. But if they fall out as I prophesy, let your children suffer, and you too, if you come back alive.”
And if one insists that Mordecai should have conducted the war without resorting to the impure norms of Persian politics, even though such a nod to purity might have jeopardized the endeavor, the first answer must be that of Ecclesiastes: “There are righteous men who perish through their righteousness, and there are the wicked who flourish by their wickedness. Be not overly righteous.”
Yet harsh as is Mordecai’s onslaught, he nevertheless does demand that the Jews carry on their war on a purer level than that which they expected to have waged against them. Thus Mordecai’s decree, copied more or less verbatim from Haman’s, speaks of the death of children and women, as well as the appropriation of all the property of their enemies, all with the intention of inspiring counterterror in the enemy camp. When the day itself is described in the narrative, however, there is no suggestion that the Jews followed through with these threats. No casualties are mentioned among the dependents, and indeed, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the Jews did not even touch their enemies’ property.
The issue of respecting the property rights of one’s enemies and their families is one that has its roots in the earlier stages of the plot, when Haman first approaches Ahashverosh with the hope of convincing him to destroy the Jews. In making his case, Haman seeks to engage every interest of the king’s to which he can appeal, including a possible financial interest: “If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed, and I will weigh out ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.” This is an outrageously large sum, in the range of what Herodotus reports to have been the income in silver of the entire Persian Empire for a year, and the only imaginable source for such a fortune would have been the plunder of the Jews’ property. Yet Ahashverosh, ever eager to demonstrate his power by wasting state moneys, assures Haman that “the silver is given to you, and the people, to do with them as you see fit,” thus clearing the way for the vizier to offer the Jews’ property as an incentive to the murderers. In so doing, he greatly expands the circle of those who will potentially be willing to do the work of annihilation, including not only those who hate Jews, but those who want their property.
All of this is in contrast to the wars against the Canaanites and Amalek, in which plundering was proscribed. In the case of the Canaanites, the fear was principally that in claiming the property of the idolaters, the Jews would end up with idols in their homes to which they would be inevitably drawn. But in the case of Saul’s effort to destroy Amalek, there is no mention of idols, and the issue, once the plundering takes place, seems to be completely different: “But Saul and the people took pity on Agag, and on the best of the sheep, and the oxen, and the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and did not destroy them, but everything that was of little value and poor, they destroyed.” When confronted by the prophet Samuel, Saul explains: “I have transgressed the instruction of the Lord and your words, for I feared the people and listened to their words.” For this crime, of giving in to the desire of the people for plunder, Saul is stripped of his kingdom.
At stake in the argument over the right to plunder is the motive for destroying Amalek. In Samuel’s eyes, Amalek’s history of unlimited terror, bloodshed, and evildoing justify what is otherwise a horrendous act. But if the Jews begin claiming Amalekite cattle for themselves, the war will turn out to have been fought, in fact, for another reason altogether. Far from engaging in an act whose purpose is to make the world safe from Amalek’s predations, they are in that case just engaging in an act of murder for the sake of stealing, itself a very great evil. Samuel instructs Saul to kill, horribly, so that a better life may become possible for mankind, but his fighting men want to kill for plunder. In Samuel’s eyes, the choice is between right and evil, and Saul chooses the latter.
The distinction between just war and murder is today referred to in Israel as the “purity of arms.” And this is what is at issue, too, in the story of Esther, in which Mordecai’s war against the Persian anti-Semites is recounted as a revisiting of the Amalekite war in the book of Samuel. Here, the emphasis on not touching the property of the anti-Semites is intended to indicate the purity of the cause. Men are killed because they had been planning to murder the Jews, and as a preemption against future threats. The fact that this is understood by the Jews to be the sole motive raises their warfare to a level of purity much higher than that of Haman, and higher too than that which had been practiced by their forebears in the time of Saul.
It is for this reason that rabbinic tradition refers to Mordecai as “the righteous”: because in successfully raising Jewish military action to a higher level of purity relative to the fearsome acts required by the politics and warfare of his place and time, he provided the kind of political leadership for which the Jews should hope in every generation.