THOUGHTS ON PURIM
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
This essay is sponsored by Sisterhood in honor of the birth of Oriyah Danielle Miller, granddaughter of Terry & Ted Miller, great-granddaughter of Lenore Levin.
Mordecai’s Refusal to Bow
Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews was triggered by Mordecai’s refusal to show obeisance to the newly installed Persian vizier. “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 Mordecai would not kneel or bow low (Esther 3:2).” Knowing Mordecai’s reason for violating royal orders and thereby exposing himself to grave danger would seem to be essential for a proper understanding of the larger narrative. And yet, Scripture is largely silent on the matter, leaving much room for speculation.
One approach is to suggest that Mordecai did not have a good reason for his obstinate refusal to bow. In this view, Mordecai acted arrogantly and recklessly. In antiquity there must have been some people who posited such a reading of Esther 3:2, because the Septuagint bothers to expressly reject that calumny against Mordecai. In the Additions to Esther, Mordecai pleads to God, “You know all things, you know, O Lord, that it was not in insolence or pride or for any love of glory that I did this and refused to bow down to this proud Haman (Greek Esther 13:12).” Even among rabbinic Jews, the reception history of Esther was not smooth (as I outlined in my 2015 essay “Purim and the Struggle between Nationalists and Moderates”). In one Talmudic passage, King David is taken to task for his failure to execute Mordecai’s ancestor Shimei. Mordecai is there characterized as a villain for having aroused Haman’s ire (Megillah 12b).
Some 19th century Christian Bible scholars held a dim view of the Book of Esther and, specifically, of Mordecai’s character. Lewis Bayles Paton regarded Mordecai’s refusal to bow as “inexplicable and unreasonable.” But his reading of Esther, animated by anti-Jewish sentiment, is misguided. The author of Esther clearly regarded Mordecai as a wise and heroic figure dedicated to the wellbeing of his kinsmen. The Megillah concludes with high praise: “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the god of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred (Esther 10:3).”
Another suggestion is that Mordecai and Haman knew each other from an unpleasant previous encounter. The Midrash tells a story of Mordecai and Haman both being sent by the king on a military expedition. Mordecai rationed his legion’s foodstuffs while Haman did not. Desperate for Mordecai to supply him with victuals, Haman agreed to enslave himself to Mordecai. When Haman was later elevated to the highest position in the royal court, Mordecai could not bring himself to accord respect to a man who was actually his slave (Yalkut Shimoni Esther 1056). In the Septuagint, Haman harbored ill will toward Mordecai even before his elevation to the position of vizier. After Mordecai saved the king’s life by exposing the assassination plot hatched by the eunuchs Gabatha and Tharra, “Haman was determined to injure Mordecai and his people (Greek Esther 12:6).” [Mordecai may have sensed that Haman took part in the regicidal conspiracy.] Plot embellishments such as these, whether in rabbinic or external literature, are attempts to resolve problems in the core narrative. Yet for the serious student of Scripture, these contrived explanations necessarily fall flat.
The only indication in the Masoretic Text why Mordecai refused to bow is his response to the importuning of colleagues at the palace gate: “For he had explained to them that he was a Jew (Esther 3:4).” The sages and traditional commentators understood this to mean that Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman was because of Jewish religious scruples. At first blush, such an answer seems unsustainable. Granted, the Decalogue forbids bowing down to graven images or foreign deities (Exodus 20:5). However, Scripture is replete with examples of Israelite heroes who bowed down before fellow humans as a sign of respect. Abraham bowed down to the Hittite Assemblymen at Hebron (Genesis 23:7); Jacob bowed seven times to Esau (33:3); Joseph’s brothers bowed down to Zaphenath-paneah (43:28); Moses bowed down to his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18:7); David bowed down to Saul (I Samuel 24:8); and Nathan the Prophet bowed down to David (I Kings 1:23).
To justify Mordecai’s behavior on religious grounds the Targum Rishon, Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:6), and Ibn Ezra all assert that Haman wore an idol on his clothing. This fanciful interpretation has no basis in the text. Alternatively, the Talmud (Megillah 19a, Sanhedrin 61b), Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8), and Rashi all claim that Haman regarded himself as a deity to be worshipped. Some scholars find support for this view by citing an Apocryphal work in which Holofernes mandates that all “worship only Nebuchadnezzar and pray to him as a god (Judith 3:8).” The fatal weakness of this interpretation, however, is that Haman is merely the vizier and not the king. Even if Ahasuerus were to deify himself – something Persian kings did not do – he certainly would not have ordered the deification and popular worship of his subordinate.
The Septuagint, Targum Sheni, and Midrash posit yet another type of religious objection on Mordecai’s part. “But I did so that I might not set human glory above the glory of God, and I will not bow down to anyone but You, Who are my Lord (Greek Esther 13:14).” In this view, Mordecai regarded it as an affront to God’s dignity for man to bow down to a fellow mortal. Prostration is reserved exclusively for the worship of God. The Midrash then has Mordecai’s colleagues at the palace gate question him by recalling Israelite heroes of yore who did bow down to fellow mortals, including Jacob, Mordecai’s ancestor, who bowed down before Esau, Haman’s ancestor. Mordecai responded that his forebear Benjamin had not yet been born at the time of the Jacob-Esau encounter and that no Benjaminite, in whose territory the Divine Presence rests, would ever prostrate himself before someone of flesh and blood (Genesis Rabbati Vayishlach 151, Yalkut Shimoni Esther 1054).
Elias Bickerman understood Mordecai’s behavior as a refusal to perform proskynesis. The Greek term refers to the act of obeisance done before Persian monarchs. The gesture ranged from a slightly bowed head and kiss on the hand to full prostration. The Greeks regarded it as undemocratic and indicative of Persian despotism. Spartan emissaries to the east refused to perform the rite before Xerxes (Herodotus 7.136). Alexander the Great unsuccessfully attempted to introduce proskynesis into Hellenic culture after his conquest of Persia. He was rebuffed by Callisthenes with these words: “I declare that there is no honor fitting to man that Alexander does not deserve. But a distinction has been drawn by men between honors fit for mortals and honors fit for gods, for example in the matter of building temples, and setting up cult statues, and making sacrifices and libations to them, and offering hymns to the gods but eulogies to men. Most important is the distinction drawn in the matter of obeisance (Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis 4.11.2.).” Callisthenes’ objection bears a striking resemblance to arguments attributed to Mordecai by the Midrash.
The weakness of the above theory is that Mordecai not only refused to bow, he later would “not rise or even stir on account of Haman (Esther 5:9).” Concern for God’s dignity could not possibly be the basis for that extreme level of insolence. Moreover, Esther lowered herself before Ahasuerus (Esther 8:3). And as for Mordecai, he is later appointed vizier and would have had to physically show obeisance to Ahasuerus. Carey Moore (Anchor Bible) notes that there is no textual evidence Mordecai ever refused to do so.
More broadly, it difficult to accept that religious scruples undergirded Mordecai’s refusal to bow. The Book of Esther is very secular in nature. The Name of God is not mentioned. Jewish religious observances are completely absent. The heroine is in an exogamous marriage. That the various Jewish expositors of the Hellenistic and Roman periods chose to emphasize the religious aspect of Mordecai’s refusal is, as noted by Adele Berlin, consistent with the fact that in those periods “religious distinctions between Jews and other peoples became more important.” But it does not prove that the author of the Masoretic Text intended it so to be read.
Many scholars assume that Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, a manifestation of the mutual ill will between the two men, stemmed from the historical national enmity between the Jews and the Amalekites. The Pentateuch speaks of a long multi-generational war between God’s people and Amalek (Exodus 17:16), and requires that the heinous deeds of the Amalekites not be forgotten (Deuteronomy 25:19). Haman is repeatedly identified in the Megillah as an Agagite. Agag was the Amalekite king who waged war against Saul and who was hacked to death by Samuel (I Samuel 15:8). The advantage of this interpretation is that it takes into account Esther 3:4 without the need to fabricate narrative details or to superimpose on the story unsubstantiated religious concerns. Furthermore, it explains why Haman so quickly escalated the matter from a private feud into a plan for mass murder (Esther 3:6). The doctors of the Jewish liturgical calendar may have favored this interpretation, as they fixed the reading of Parshat Zakhor on the Sabbath preceding Purim. Josephus likely accepted this viewpoint as well. Although he wrote that Mordecai refused to bow because he was “so observant of his own country’s laws that he would not worship man,” Josephus added that “Haman was naturally an enemy of the Jews, because the nation of the Amalekites, of which he was, had been destroyed by them (Antiquities 11.6.5).” ]Interestingly, this line of thinking is absent from the two Greek translations, where Haman is never called an Agagite. The Septuagint identifies Haman as a Bougean (3:1), while the Alpha-Text identifies him as a Macedonian (A:17).]
Over the centuries, several of the traditional rabbinic writers questioned Mordecai’s behavior in light of the danger it brought upon Jewry. Maharal of Prague wondered why Mordecai did not simply recuse himself from the palace gate. He answered that Mordecai was right to pick a fight with Haman. Scripture teaches: “Those who forsake instruction praise the wicked, but those who heed instruction fight them (Proverbs 28:4).” Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai derived from the verse that pietists have license to antagonize the wicked and to initial verbal conflict with them (Berakhot 7b). Yet Maharal’s answer appears to be undermined be the conclusion of the very Talmudic passage he cites. The Amoraim distinguished between the ordinary times and the hour when fortune smiles down upon the wicked. Mordecai aggravated Haman at the apex of Haman’s rise to political power.
Rabbi David ibn Zimra, noting that Haman was at the height of fortune, too, questioned why Mordecai did not simply run away. He theorized that Mordecai was willing to sacrifice himself for the national cause, just as Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego had done. Mordecai did not anticipate that Haman would escalate the conflict and so he did not regard his refusal to bow as in any way endangering the community. Only after the proclamations were made in Susa did Mordecai realize the grave significance of his private act of defiance (Shu”t Radbaz 1:284).
There is a critically important lesson to be learned from Esther 3:2 as interpreted by Radbaz. When a Jew antagonizes a well-placed gentile, especially one known for harboring anti-Semitic tendencies or, by dint of his or her background, likely to harbor such feelings, that Jew puts the entire Jewish community at risk. It does not matter whether the Jew was motivated by personal vanity, religious scruples, or patriotic fervor; danger lurks all the same. Yet sometimes the need to defy our adversaries is felt so intensely that all caution is thrown to the wind. At those times, conflict is inevitable and the Jew relies upon the vouchsafed eternality of our people in his fight to survive.
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