Purim’s call for unity that Israel should take to heart

Israel’s rabbinate should make conversion easier for Russians and national service should be compulsory for all including the Charedi community


Sarah Lightman's cover for the new Izzun Megillah, translated by Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet with commentary by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon. Available from

The Book of Esther is an account of Haman’s personal vendetta against the Jewish people. The ruse he employed to win the king over has provided a paradigm for antisemites throughout the ages: “There is a people, scattered and dispersed among the nations in your kingdom, whose laws (dateihem) are different from those of all other people, and the king’s laws (datei hamelech) they do not observe” (Esther 3:8).

A wicked canard, it goes without saying. Yet also a clever psychological ploy on Haman’s part, to paint the Jews as subversive elements guilty of undermining the cohesion of the state. The king felt that he had no choice, therefore, but to accede to his chief minister’s call for their destruction.

Haman also knew how to use language to his advantage. He tellingly employed the identical word, dat (a Persian loan word), in order to convey the sense of two clashing legal systems. This notion of conflict was, of course, a falsification, for, although the Jews did possess their own dat, in the sense of a code of religious law and practice, this would never have constituted a threat to state law.

Indeed, Judaism’s ethical, moral, and behavioural imperatives were sufficient to guarantee smooth social integration on the part of its adherents, and its legal system was sufficiently malleable as to enable it to identify with the principles governing any other enlightened society.

This characteristic was articulated by the great talmudist, Shemuel, in just three words which established forever the basis for harmonious diaspora living: dina d’malchuta dina, “the (civil) law of the land is your law’”(Talmud Gittin10b; Nedarim 28a). Significantly, though his talmudic colleagues expressed differing views on most other matters, Shemuel’s principle was never contested.

Haman’s allegation was also a non-sequitur. For, just because Jews might have possessed their own religious code, it did not follow that they could “not be subject to the king’s law” .This was because there was no Persian law restricting the religious life of minority religions. Quite the contrary.

Although Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the empire from the sixth century BCE, Persia nevertheless welcomed and supported a host of other religions.

Thus, the mission of Ezra the Scribe to Judea (around 457 BCE), to reorganise and galvanizs religious life there following the Babylonian exile, was under the patronage of the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes 1 - the same monarch (if the scholarly identification is correct) who elevated Mordecai to the position of chief minister. They would hardly have been appointed to such positions had their co-religionists been under any suspicion of “not observing the king’s laws”.

The demands of Judaism’s religious code have never conflicted with those of any enlightened state system, a fact reinforced by the term “the Judeo-Christian tradition”. Haman’s big lie was also exposed, ironically, by the fact that it was the later development of talmudic law in Babylon — a diaspora community under neo-Persian rule – that became the basis for the codification of Jewish law, rather than the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael.

In ancient Babylon, halachah made room for state law. In contemporary Israel, however, there is a powerful and uncompromising religious lobby committed to the insular view that it need take no account of secular reality, that the sensitivities of the irreligious may be disregarded and religious practice imposed upon them without a thought for the consequences.

It is a dangerous view because Israel’s secular society’s resentment of Judaism has largely morphed into what has been described as a hatred of those who adhere to it. This situation has been exacerbated by the younger generation of Russian immigrants who, though possessing Israeli citizenship, having served in the army, and having become fully integrated into Jewish society, have yet been denied recognition as Jews by the rabbinate.

“For who is like Your people, Israel, a unified nation in the land” (II Samuel 7:23). The situation we have described risks destroying that unity by compartmentalizing its citizens into those who are viewed as intrinsic members of dateihem – the Jewish fraternity – and those who are merely “Israeli” and subject exclusively to datei hamelech, state law.

It is time for this class division to be swept away and for the Chief Rabbinate to give practical recognition to the immense sacrifice made by Russian Israelis toward the defence of the land, and especially during the current traumatic period of the war against Hamas. This would be in line with the Hillelite approach of “welcoming under the wings of the Shechinah” all who desire conversion, and can only be achieved by making the process as expeditious as possible and by compromising on some unnecessarily rigorous requirements.

A further step toward cementing that unity would be for national service to be made compulsory for all. In the words of the Talmud, “Who says that your blood is redder than your fellows. Perhaps his is redder than yours?’ (Sanhedrin 74a). Hence, one may not save one’s own life at the expense of that of another. A brave step in that direction has been made by the large number of Chabad members who enlist, as well as by some 3,000 other Charedim who constitute the Netzach Yehudah Charedi track of the army. Their numbers will have been boosted by the urgency of the Gaza war.

It is to be hoped that Israel’s current tragic experience will become a catalyst for a change of attitude and a coming together of all branches of Israeli society, irrespective of religious or political affiliations. The future of both Israel and the diaspora rests on that realizsation that the unity of our people must not be a mere slogan or ideal, but a practical philosophy as enunciated by our ancient sages: kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh : “All Jews are obliged to cultivate a sense of responsibility, one for the other (Sanhedrin 27b).

Rabbi Cohen’s books include The Book of Esther: a Poetic Reading for Purim available from

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