Did Haman Have a Point?

Der Triumph des Mordechai; oil on panel (1624) Museum het Rembrandthuis via Wikipedia.

By Andrés Spokoiny

Maybe what Haman wanted wasn’t so bad after all. He yearned for a homogeneous society, one in which people think the same thoughts, obey the same ruler, respect the same law, and march together towards glory and prosperity. If a small group stands in the way of a bright utopia, isn’t it justified to eliminate them?

If you know the ‘80s, you probably remember the movie “Platoon,” which was part of the “Vietnam War soul searching” genre so popular in those days. The movie tells the story of a platoon that is torn between allegiance to Sergeant Barnes – an intolerant, cruel, and sadistic NCO – and Sergeant Elias, an aptly named semi-prophetic figure: compassionate, tolerant, fun-loving, yet courageous. The main character, Chris Taylor, played by a young Charlie Sheen, is obviously in Sergeant Elias’ camp. At the end of the movie, however, a more sober and grave Taylor admits that both Elias and Barnes are permanently fighting for his soul. He tells us that he feels like “a child born of these two fathers.”

Reading the story of Purim, we obviously identify with Mordechai and Esther – never with the wicked Haman. But can we be so sure that nothing of the hated Agagite lodges comfortably inside our hearts?

Like every Jewish book, the story of Megilat Esther admits many interpretations. I’ve always seen it as, among other things, a cosmic, never-ending struggle between those who tolerate differences and those who wish to suppress them at all costs, between those who accept diversity and those who believe in uniformity.

Don’t take my word for it; let’s hear from the bad guy himself: “There is one people scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom,” he says to the king, “and their laws are different from those of every people, and it is not fitting for the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). Yes, on one level, what bothers Haman is that the stubborn Jewish Mordechai won’t bow to him, but, in a deeper sense, his real problem with the Jews is that they are different. And, on the face of it, he was right: Jews were different. For starters, they were monotheistic in a polytheistic world. Imagine how ludicrous it must have sounded to the average Persian: a community that believes in one universal deity (even the Zoroastrians couldn’t get it down further than two). Imagine how ridiculous they must have found the custom of circumcision or halting work one day a week (and, indeed, some people still scoff at these notions today). Imagine how disruptive their religious restrictions and their thoughts about social justice must have seemed, including their strict limitations on slavery, which was firmly entrenched in the ancient economy. If you think about it, they weren’t just neutrally different; many of their ideas really might have been subversive to the Empire.

Maybe what Haman wanted wasn’t so bad after all. He yearned for a homogeneous society, one in which people think the same thoughts, obey the same ruler, respect the same law, and march together towards glory and prosperity. If a small group stands in the way of a bright utopia, isn’t it justified to eliminate them?

Haman himself dies at the end of the Megillah but those ideas, which we can call Hamanism, remained. In fact, every totalitarian regime in history has shared Haman’s dreams of uniformity; every autocracy tries to mold society into a single block, homogeneous and powerful.

One can see the appeal of uniformity: a diverse community is messy, argumentative, and slow. In the 1930s there was a literary genre of American visitors to Europe fawning over totalitarian regimes. They would, naively, admire the “focus,” “unity,” and “strength” of fascism and Stalinism, in contrast to the inefficiency and “wastefulness” of democratic life. They would marvel at how effectively Mussolini drained the swamps of southern Italy; how quickly Hitler rebuilt the German economy; or how rapidly Stalin built the Moscow subway. They weren’t totally blind to the atrocities of those regimes, but they thought of them as “excesses” or “necessary evils.” They failed to see that persecution and oppression, and even violence, were not bugs but features – unavoidable and intended conclusions to the Hamanistic logic. All those Hamanistic regimes were different (and even at war with each other), but they shared a basic desire to engineer a new society: uniform, united, and strong. Not in vain was the 1933 slogan of the Nazi party “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fhurer.”

Hamanism is not always as blunt as in the 1930s. It can hide in mild-mannered political pundits who fret about the loss of the “national character,” or in those who rile against “other people’s babies.” It can be concealed under blacklists, boycotts, social exclusion, or subtle ways of suppressing or intimidating dissent.

And Hamanism lives, paradoxically, inside the heart of its first victims: us. I venture to say that the main fracture in the Jewish community is not between left and right, religious and secular; Orthodox and Reform, but between those who are willing to accept diversity and those who, like Haman, have no place for the “other.” Lately, voices from the right of the religious and political spectrum say that “liberal Jews don’t count” because “they are going to disappear anyway.” Voices from the left refer to the right and the Orthodox as some sort of medieval relic that, sooner or later, will be obliterated by the light of reason. Everybody is busy compiling blacklists of those who should be “outside the tent” or whose opinions should be ignored. Thought police are working overtime. Interestingly, consistency is never applied. Lately, for example, a stream of Jewish leaders who have frequently demonized anybody who spoke to J Street discovered that it was completely kosher to meet the Emir of Qatar, the main sponsor of Hamas, to ‘hear what they have to say.’ Ridiculously, it seems easier to speak to a recognized supporter of terrorism than to a fellow Jew with a dissenting opinion. Conversely, some folks on the far left find it easier to engage with Israel-demonizers than with fellow Jews who disagree. Needless to say, the echo-chambers of social media and self-selecting groups of like-minded people reinforce our illusions that we can have uniformity of opinions. Oh, how nice and easy would it be if all the (fill in the blanks) just disappeared, or if they saw how obviously mistaken they are and how right I (always) am…

I have some disturbing news for Jewish Hamanists: nobody is disappearing. Not the Orthodox, not the secular, not the lefties, and not the righties. We are stuck with each other. The only question, then, is whether we are going to try to forcefully exclude others and engineer a community in our own narrow image (all liberal, all Orthodox, all lefty, all righty) or if we are going to do it the Jewish way instead of the Hamanic way: accepting the Jewish People as it is, not as we would like for it to be – with all its messiness and its complexity, with all the ambiguity and the permanent argument. Jews have always believed that the word of God is to be found amid the clatter and noise of debate. The secret of our creativity and our very survival is to be the anti-Haman – the people that is not afraid of differences; that embraces diversity as the ultimate source of richness; that believes that no human can have the total truth and that we need one another like pieces of a magnificent puzzle.

For the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, the essence of Judaism can be seen in our relation to “l’altérité,” “otherness.” While Jean Paul Sartre, from his regular table at “Les Deux Magots” mused that “l’enfer c’est les autres” (hell is the others), Levinas, far from the fancy cafes of St. Germain and steeped in Jewish texts, proposed that we can only find truth and meaning when we confront ‘the otherness of the other’ – when we open up to transforming and being transformed by the encounter with the different. This, he surmised, is the essence of the encounter between Man and God. There is no religious experience without opening oneself to “the one who is essentially other than us” and there’s no human experience without realizing that the otherness of the one who disagrees with me is another face of God.

Of course, accepting differences doesn’t mean a free-for-all; even a big tent has flaps. But only when we accept what Rabbi Lord Sacks has called “the dignity of difference” can we set red lines; only when we are deep in the Jewish logic of respectful dissent and cleansed of our Hamanistic tendencies we can find cohesion in our diversity and unity in our plurality.

It took a lot maturity and self-awareness for Chris Taylor to admit that both Elias and Barnes lived in him. And only then he could free himself from the ghost of the evil sergeant and build a meaningful and productive life. This Purim, we need the courage to recognize that we have something of Haman in us. We need to confront the ghosts of our intolerance and create a community, a People, that sees the face of God in the wonderful kaleidoscope of our diversity.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.