Friday, March 18, 2016

Cruel Intentions

"Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate" is a refrain so often voiced by hardliners, you might think it's a verse in the Torah. Not quite.
Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, “And Saul and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle” (I Sam. 15:9), and it is written (Ibid. 22:19) “And Nob, the city of priests, he smote with the edge of a sword.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Metzora 1)
Jews worldwide will read the story this weekend. King Saul is commanded by the Prophet Samuel to eradicate the nation of Amalek, as you may have seen horribly portrayed in Of Kings and Prophets. (They missed this part, 14:48: "And he gathered an army and attacked the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them.")
Regardless, people seem to forget that this line is a criticism of Saul's decision not to execute Agag, king of Amalek, whose crimes are many and, of course, cruel -- as Samuel declares, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women” (15:33). Indeed, some versions of the Tanhuma make this even clearer by speaking of "the cruel one," putting it in singular, unlike the plural "compassionate ones," a reference to the people of the priestly city of Nob, wiped out decades later for aiding David in his flight from the by-then mad king.

So was Saul bothered by the initial command? The Talmud (Yoma 22b) explains that Saul was bothered by the fact that the Torah requires that in the case of a unsolved murder, a heifer must be taken to make atonement for the nearest city:
And he strove in the valley” (I Sam. 15:5)--R. Mani said: Because of what happens ‘in the valley’: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more so for all these persons! And if humans sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? A divine voice came forth and said: Be not righteous overmuch. And when Saul said to Doeg: Turn you and fall upon the priests, a heavenly voice came forth to say: Be not overmuch wicked.
Now, this is a bit perplexing. If Saul is such a bleeding heart, we would expect him to spare the innocents; instead he (and the people) spare the finest of the animals and the cruelest of the men!
Rabbeinu Hananel (ad loc.) offers an explanation:
This means that the decree of heaven bore heavily upon him, as he said, "A corpse found in the camp requires a broken heifer--all of these souls we kill, all the more so we must bring offerings to atone for ourselves!" That is why he left the finest animals.
In other words, Saul was not troubled by the bloodshed, but by the bloodguilt. It may seem strange to us, but tribal societies in the Middle East have for millennia believed in this concept. Even the Torah speaks of the blood-redeemer. Saul is clearly adopting a mechanistic view of sacrifices: it's fine to spill the blood of Amalek, but atonement must be made, by offering the finest animals. But more than that, there needs to be a party to whom this blood-ransom is paid--and none is more fitting for this role than King Agag himself. This is why Samuel, to whom altars are not exactly foreign, denounces the choice of sacrifice over justice in the strongest terms (Ibid. 22): "Has the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, to heed than the fat of rams."
Saul is an intriguing figure: powerful enough to unite the tribes of Israel, but constantly beset by depression and doubt. On the one hand, he carefully tells the Kenites to evacuate before waging war against their Amalekite neighbors. On the other hand, his genocide of the Gibeonites -- collateral damage of the Nob massacre according to Talmud Yevamot 78b -- leads to a devastating three-year famine "because of Saul and the House of Blood, because he killed the Gibeonites.” Indeed, the awkward phrasing "made compassionate" and "made cruel" may indicate that Saul himself was not motivated by these emotions, but by the need to appear empathetic or emphatic in the eyes of the people.
Israel cannot afford to be motivated by insecurity and crises of confidence. The stakes are too high to sacrifice justice on the altar of avarice and tribalism.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

In self-defense of Purim

I eagerly dread this time of year.
On the one hand, Purim, now just two weeks away, is a carnival of costumes, comedy and conviviality. Oh, and cocktails. So, fun for kids and adults.
On the other hand, its central text becomes more troubling the more you hear it. And we read Esther a lot: two times, four times, infinite times if your son happens to celebrate his bar mitzva on Purim.
Now, I hear you shaking your head (yes, I bugged your house). After all, isn't the story of Esther one of of self-defense? Haman's decree allows Jews to be attacked; Mordecai's decree allows them to defend themselves, right? We assume so, but even at its inception the second decree seems a little ominous, echoing Haman's language of killing, annihilating and destroying, including women and children. Does this sound like self-defense? "A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies" (Book of Esther, 8:13).
Perhaps it's all just a scare tactic? If so, it works:
And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them. (8:17)
No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful. (9:2-4)
Aye, there's the rub. If it was all about self-defense, and everyone was terrified of them, all those "other nationalities" needed to do was NOT stride into the Jewish Quarter brandishing axes on the 13th of Adar. Just go to work or school or the movies (Iranian cinema is delightful) on that day! Instead, they circumcised themselves and jumped in the mikveh?
Now, let's turn to Shushan, center of the action. On the 13th of Adar, 500 people are killed in the citadel, as well as Haman's ten sons (75,000 empire-wide), without any mention of self-defense. And then (9:13):
“If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Shushan permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.”
That would be the 14th of Adar. A day on which no one is allowed to attack Jews. And, as per another decree from Xerxes, "The Jews in Shushan came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Shushan three hundred people" (9:15). And that is why we have Shushan Purim.
So if it wasn't self-defense, what makes these people the enemies, haters, ill-wishers and adversaries of the Jews? It's not like they were writing nasty posts in which they spun conspiracy theories of Jews bent on taking over the Holy Land, inducing government officials to adopt antisemitic policies!
Actually, it's exactly that, as we learn from The Book of Ezra, which is set during the return to Zion following the horrors of Babylonian captivity:
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes... wrote a letter to Artaxerxes... "The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city." (4:4-7, 12)
Esther is, essentially, a revenge epic. It's a story of the powerless Jews in exile finally getting a chance to turn the tables on their tormentors. It is the Persian version of Inglourious Basterds.
There seems to be quite a hunger in the Jewish community for that sort of material right now. After all, we do face legions of haters and ill-wishers. But the question we have to ask is whether we think transferring this revenge epic from parchment to pavement is really the way to go. This time, there are actual attackers with blades in their hands. Isn't it time we focus on that reality, not the fantasy of eradicating all the haters?
At the very least, it's a sobering thought for Purim.