Purim 2024/5784

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Purim 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, donning an IDF uniform, walked into a room in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire on a group of Muslims worshipping there during Ramadan. Twenty-nine worshippers were killed with more than one hundred and twenty-five injured.

We cannot know for certain what was in Goldstein’s mind as he committed this atrocity. (He was killed during the attack.) But it seems certain that it was no accident he chose Purim as the date on which to carry it out. The massacres described in chapter 9 of the book of Esther were undoubtedly a source of inspiration to him. But there are crucial differences between the real actions of Goldstein and the fictional story retold in the book of Esther.

For starters, the book of Esther is just that – a work of fiction. No accounts from any other source in antiquity corroborate the events of the book of Esther. No serious Bible scholar or historian accepts the historicity of Esther. The story is simply not a recounting of actual historical events.

The lessons we might learn from it, therefore, are highly dependent on how we read the story. Is it revenge fantasy or farce? Panto or horror? What is clear to me as a Bible scholar and rabbi, who has taught this text for more than a decade, is that the violence at the end of the book is not, and was never meant to be, real. Think of the book of Esther more like Inglorious Basterds and you get the idea.

But for Goldstein and other extremists who shared and continue to share his world view, the fantasy violence was read as a road map for real life.

At this moment in history, when so many of us in the Jewish community feel a sense of existential threat, the story of Esther may feel in equal measure both especially potent and dangerous. But we must read it with the words of Carleen Mandolfo ringing in our ears:

… the choices we make about reading have political consequences as significant as those we make in the voting booth or with our checkbook. Our reading practices, in part, construct the symbolic world we inhabit and serve to motivate and justify our actions. Because words, particularly biblical words, possess the power to muster armies, we must approach the text with a certain ethical consciousness.[1]

As we approach Purim 2024, ethical consciousness must be at the forefront of our reading of Esther and the Purim celebrations that surround it, now more than ever.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris


[1] Carleen Mandolfo 2007 Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations, SBL: Atlanta, p 27.