By “destroying and slaying” their enemies, Mordechai and the Jews of Persia bring to light the debate on the merits of war.
Last Shabbat, “Shabbat Zachor,” a passage from Deuteronomy, was added to the weekly Torah reading. It exhorts the congregation to recall what the Amalekites did to the people of Israel in their flight from Egypt, and to wipe out the memory of Amalek.
This portion is added every year before Purim because Haman, the great Jew-hater of the Scroll of Esther, is a descendent of the Amalekite, King Agag. By connecting Haman to Agag, Esther encourages readers to perceive the persecution of Jews instigated by Haman as just another instance of a long tradition of hatred and persecution and to indicate how such persecution should be dealt with.
By “destroying and slaying” their enemies, Mordechai and the Jews of Persia, become, as it were, those who for the first time implemented the Mosaic commandment on a large scale.
Yet, surprisingly, Esther does not explicitly make this connection. In particular, the story does not seek to justify the killing of Haman and company by mentioning the fact that they are descendants of Agag. The reason that the Jews of Shushan attack Haman and his followers is not grounded in the biblical commandment to blot out the remembrance of Amalek, but in the existential threat posed by Haman.
In the view of the text, the war of the Jews was not a war of vengeance, visiting the iniquities of the old Amalekites upon their descendants, but a war of self-defense. Probably, in the eyes of the author, being descendants of Amalek is not in itself sufficient to make some group of people a legitimate target for attack. They need to behave like the ancient Amalekites to be such targets. They need to be “practicing” Amalekites, not only Amalekites by birth or by race.
This interpretation seems to contradict the fact that the war against Haman and his followers took place after the decree to annihilate the Jews had already been revoked by the king. Against this background, it would seem that the mass killing carried out by the Jews was an act of revenge, in line with the above biblical injunction, rather than an act of self-defense.
This, however, ignores an explicit verse in Esther, explaining that, according to Persian law, “the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.”
As a result, the crowds that had gathered to attack the Jews were still determined to do so, and the Jews were granted permission to defend themselves, “to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women.”
Mordechai and the other Persian Jews were not executing the biblical commandment to blot out the remembrance of Amalek, nor were they taking revenge from enemies who no longer posed a threat. Rather, they were literally fighting for their lives.
Jurists and philosophers make a distinction between two questions concerning the morality of war. The first is whether initiating some war is morally justified — whether it has “just cause”; the second is whether it is conducted in a just manner. We would argue that Mordechai had just cause for his war against Haman, that it was a war of self-defense. But was it also conducted in a decent way?
On the face of it, the answer is negative, because, in the verse above, the Jews are granted permission to attack all the forces of the people that would assault them, including “their little ones and women,” and to take the spoils. These are paradigmatic cases of behaviors that are morally and legally prohibited in war, namely, targeting the innocent and looting their goods.
Yet when one continues the story, it becomes clear that the Jews did not take advantage of the wide permission granted to them to kill and loot. The text repeatedly emphasizes that the Jews killed their enemies, their haters, and there is no indication that they also killed “the little ones and women.” Moreover, in spite of the explicit permission to take the spoil of their enemy, they consistently refrained from doing so: “On the spoil they laid not their hand.”
There is a different reading of the story, which holds that what Mordechai carried out was a kind of mass murder, the “Purim massacre,” as it is often referred to. This is a possible reading, supported mainly by the high numbers of casualties on the Persian side. But another reading, one that is moral, is just as plausible.
As with many other stories — true and fictional — that we find in the tradition, it is up to us to decide which lesson should be derived from them. Very often the lesson one favors teaches us more about the interpreter than about the story being interpreted.
Prof. Daniel Statman is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a member of the Institute’s iEngage Project.