Purim's violent beginnings—and what they mean for the Jewish future.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Feb. 26 2010 10:52 AM

The Ghosts of Purim Past

The holiday's violent beginnings—and what they mean for the Jewish future.

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But even this record of violence seems relatively small—particularly given the bold and unambiguous implications of the Amalek commandment. Even when in power, Jews aren't using the religious ammunition of Amalek to engage in much killing. And while the Netanyahu adviser's "Think Amalek" quote is shocking, it would be far more surprising to see the secular Netanyahu use religious sentiment to guide his actions.

Another reason why Jews don't kill various Amalek-identified groups en masse is that Jews are Pharisees. Yes, the commandment to kill Amalek is real, but most Jewish legal minds have asserted that it's only considered operative when Jews are living under a monarch as part of a messianic era. That might seem an extreme technicality, but it's sustained a mostly peaceful Jewish outlook for millennia.

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The Purim traditions regarding Amalek demonstrate that problematic religious concepts don't have to lead to violence, if religious leaders find appropriate ways to contextualize them. The most prominent evidence of the success of context in minimizing religious violence is The Passion of the Christ; prior to its release, a great many Jews worried that it could promote violence, particularly in Christian fundamentalist areas. Recollections of Easter Passion Plays past made many Jews scared. At an academic conference shortly before its release, one respected Jewish studies professor shouted to me with fear in her eyes, "But they're going to screen it in churches!" As it happened, churches were exactly the place where context could be provided to keep Mel Gibson's movie from resulting in violence, and striped-pajamas-wearing protesters looked foolish in retrospect.

Perhaps the historical lack of violence can also be attributed to one of Purim's most famous traditions: getting drunk. The Talmud instructs Jews to drink on Purim until they cannot differentiate between the statements "wicked is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai," the Book of Esther's Jewish protagonist. As countless slurred sermons have reminded us, little separates good from evil, and any one of us can easily fail.

And the tradition of drinking itself offers plenty of opportunity to see up-close just how bad things can get; every yeshiva boy has an anecdote or two about something shameful a classmate did at the rabbi's house on Purim.

Taking one's shirt off and hitting on the rebbitzenmight not be the simplest way to avoid religious violence, but it goes a long way toward instilling some basic humility.

Correction, March 1, 2010: This article originally misspelled Jebusites. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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Steven I. Weiss is an award-winning religion journalist and director of original programming and new media at the Jewish Channel.