We are on the dark side of Purim, American rabbis say

NEW YORK — Purim celebrates the ancient Jewish victory over evil in Persia, but this year it also signaled war against Iraq. Few Jewish leaders and thinkers failed to hear the historic echoes.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a tough critic of the war against Iraq, pointed to the Fast of Esther, which precedes the holiday and falls on the 13th of Adar on the Jewish calendar, which this year came on Monday.

"We are on the 13th of Adar, we are on the dark side of Purim," Schorsch said. "It will take some time before we reach the light side."

Schorsch, who called Iraq "a paper tiger that we have turned into a mortal enemy" despite greater threats from countries such as North Korea, was not alone in drawing historic parallels between Purim and the Iraq war.

Others drew very different lessons.

Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox feminist leader based in New York, supports the Bush administration's campaign against Iraq as a "preventive war," much as the ancient Jews defended themselves against Haman's plot to destroy them.

Watching President Bush's speech to the nation Monday, Greenberg said she was struck by the similarities between the talmudic principle that "if someone comes to kill you, you should rise up and kill them first," trying not to harm innocents.

While she remains ambivalent about the war and would have preferred a diplomatic solution, "this seems to be a war of self-defense in the long-range scheme of things."

Though some Jews criticize the intensity with which the ancient Jews fought back against Haman and his kin, "to me it's always mind-boggling that when someone comes to kill you and you defend yourself, you're accused of being bloodthirsty," Greenberg said.

Like the Purim story in the Book of Esther, there is no mention of God in this conflict either, she added.

Iraqi dictator "Saddam Hussein is not an Islamic leader," Greenberg said. "God is hidden, but one still has to have the hope and optimism that the ruler of the universe will shape this chapter so that good, not evil, will prevail."

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, posted an online d'var Torah, or interpretation of the Torah, linking Purim and the war.

Diamond, a former rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, timed his writing for Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim, when Jews are told not to forget their ancient enemy Amalek.

Explaining the apparent redundancy of the commandment, Diamond said we should remember Amalek's "sneak attack" against the oldest and sickest Jews during their exodus from Egyptian slavery, and we should "confront" such evil yet not abuse our power in doing so.

"There are times like now when we may not have a choice but to go to war," he said, "but even in war, that's the most difficult test of one's compassion."

Jewish sages have interpreted Amalek as a source of evil that reappears in different form from generation to generation.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of the modern Orthodox Congregation B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles, agreed that while war against Iraq may be "morally and legally justified," Jews shouldn't welcome it.

"Our role as Jews is to really reject the mood and attitude that seems to be enveloping much of the pro-war camp," Kanefsky said.

"There's a degree of barely repressed excitement at the prospect of pounding Baghdad into submission," he said. "But even when war is a mitzvah," as Maimonides said, "you should see it as a failure of humankind."

Like others, Kanefsky also found it hard to ignore Purim's messages, particularly since the 1991 Gulf War also ended on Purim.

"On Purim, the Jews gathered and put their enemies to the sword. At the same time, they did not take the booty of war," Kanefsky said. "That is the Megillah's way of saying war is not about personal gain or plundering, but about saving our lives and our children's lives."

Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, outgoing president of the Reform movement's rabbinical union, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, used Shabbat Zachor to draw a line from Amalek to Hitler to Saddam.

A modern-day Amalek, Saddam has attacked four of his neighbors, gassed tens of thousands of his own people, and pays stipends to suicide bombers, Weiner said, so "it's terribly important to remove him."

Last September, Weiner was among those who backed a resolution from the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations urging a pre-emptive strike against Iraq if Congress supported it and the U.N. backing was sought.

But for Reform Rabbi Don Rossoff, of Temple B'nai Or in Morristown, N.J., Amalek casts a very different shadow.

Rossoff said he had refrained from publicly sermonizing this Purim about the war, which he opposes, because he is "haunted by Baruch Goldstein, who called the Arabs Amalek."

Goldstein, a doctor in an Israeli settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron, shot to death 29 Palestinians praying in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarch on Purim Day in 1994.

Saddam is "a tyrannical, murderous dictator" who "would probably wipe out Israel if he could," Rossoff added. "But he's not the only one around. His name just starts with 'H,'" like Haman.

Yet Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the New York-based Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said war has made it open season for anti-Semitic attacks in the form of slander — just as Jewish tradition holds that Amalek represented cynicism, and Haman symbolized evil speech.

Shafran pointed to conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, who accused Jews of egging on the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has made similar comments this time around, and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who has blamed Jews in the Bush administration for pushing the United States toward war.

"Once again, everything is focused on the Jews," Shafran said. "If we're not baking Christians into our matzah, we must be war-mongering."

For Rabbi Mordecai Finley, of the unaffiliated Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Los Angeles, whose son Kayitz is in the Marines and stationed in Kuwait, Purim has taken on new meaning.

Last Purim, Finley recalled, he sensed a wave of anti-Semitism coming from Europe and left-wing groups in the United States.

Now he is "heartened" that Bush is "willing to draw a line" against evil, he said.

"Last year it felt like the 12th of Adar," Finley said, referring to the day before the Jews began fighting back against their enemies. "This year I feel like it's the 13th of Adar. The battle has begun.''