This week, Donald Trump elevated Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, to the position of Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President. Former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, welcomed the appointment as “excellent” and said it indicated that Trump intended to follow through on the promises he made during his campaign.
And yet, self-proclaimed “America’s Rabbi” Shmuely Boteach raced to Bannon’s defense, declaring him a friend of the Jews; Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America declared Bannon “’an American patriot who defends Israel and has deep empathy for the Jewish people,” and Alan Dershowitz took to the airwaves to defend Bannon from the charge of anti-Semitism. The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a press release declaring it “could not be happier with the election of Donald Trump” and said nothing about his elevation of Bannon.
How can we possibly explain this sloppy embrace by prominent members of the Jewish political and religious establishment of an incoming administration revered by actual Nazis?
I would suggest that the answer lies in the powerful hold the Purim tale still has over large portions of the Jewish community: In that story, the great empire of Persia is ruled by the buffoonish King Ahashverosh, a pig of a man, who parties incessantly, humiliates his own wife, flies into rages when she fails to meekly obey his abuses, and seems to care, above all, about his reputation. In his distraction and pettiness, Ahashverosh also advances sinister advisers with agendas of their own. One such adviser, whom he “promotes and advances above all the ministers in his court” is Haman. Haman, it turns out, is a vicious anti-Semite: a thin-skinned, vindictive man who would take revenge on an entire people for a perceived slight committed by one of them. No sooner does Haman come to power than he asks leave of the king to order the murder every Jew in his kingdom, since “it profits not the king to tolerate them.” Ahashverosh needs no further convincing. The order goes forth.
Famously, the Jews are only saved in this story because, unbeknownst to the king and Haman, one of the king’s wives, Esther (née Hadassah) was herself a Jewess. After considerable prompting by her uncle and a fair amount of foot-dragging, Esther reveals to the king her own stake in Haman’s genocidal plans, gambling that his affection for her will be enough to turn the tide in the Jews’ favor. Never does Esther confront the king for his stupidity, his cruelty, his injustice or sheer indifference to human life. Instead, she addresses him obsequiously, begging him to spare the life of his favorite wife and her people.
The chief lesson we have drawn from this dark story is: Every king is a potential Ahashverosh, every nation might empower a Haman — so let’s make sure we have an Esther in every court. We can see even today many of our number say again and again of Trump: Don’t worry— his much-beloved daughter is a Jew-by-choice, married to the Modern Orthodox Jared Kushner. Bannon may indeed be a Haman — but we have our Esther.
Jews have not been wrong to approach our often-precarious position in the political order through the lens of the Book of Esther. Again and again in our history, as the Passover Haggadah says, men like Pharaoh and Haman, who sought to destroy us, have come to power. One way to assure that we are saved from their hands is to have a seat at the table.
But the Esther paradigm offers only limited guidance for how to approach potentially genocidal power, and it is emphatically the wrong one for our present moment. The various Hamans of history do not always begin by targeting Jews; they go after the most vulnerable, the immigrant, the stranger, whoever that might be. A more robust and relevant model for Jewish resistance occurs in the section from Genesis that Jews all over the world will read this week. There we learn of God’s potential for massive and indiscriminate destruction — and the way a Jew ought to respond to it. In our story, God — our God, the author of the universe — confides in Abraham that He plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or at the least, that’s how Abraham understands God. It is safe to say he does not take a “wait-and-see” approach.
How Abraham responds is perhaps the greatest moment of chutzpah in recorded history. “Do you intend to annihilate the innocent along with the wicked?” he demands of the Master of the Universe. And before God has a chance to answer, Abraham rails on: “Far be it from You to do a thing like this, to kill the innocent along with the wicked, to make the innocent like the wicked! Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice!?” (Gen. 18:23, 25)
What provoked this astoundingly brave act of speaking out? And more importantly — what justified it? After all, Abraham didn’t stand to lose personally through the act of divine violence and injustice he anticipated. If it was his family in Sodom he feared for (Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his family made their home there) — well, Abraham could have begged leave of God to shuttle his family out before the rain of hellfire began. Why, then, does Abraham speak up, risking God’s fury, and why does he speak so peremptorily, so implacably, even insubordinately against the most powerful force in the universe? Why did he not confine himself to the obsequious petition of Queen Esther?
Abraham was compelled to speak up, and to speak as he did, for two reasons.
First, precisely because the threat emanated not from some local king but from the God of all the universe. A lawless and immoral God of boundless power represents an unfathomable menace to the world. Abraham understood himself to be duty bound, as a representative of humanity and humane values, to intervene — even against an act of God.
When only Jews’ lives are on the line, the Esther approach may very well be most prudent. But when others’ lives are threatened, we are obligated to learn from our father Abraham: We must stand before the power that threatens them and demand that justice be done in the most forceful terms possible, even if that entails personal danger. And the more powerful the force that threatens the rights and lives of others, the more urgent our intervention becomes. As God remarks before sharing His destructive plans with Abraham, the whole reason God singled out Abraham was “so that Abraham might instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord” namely, “to do righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19) To do righteousness and justice, and demand it of the most powerful force in the world — that is entire mission of the Jewish people.
Now, if Abraham understood himself called to challenge God with such ferocity — God, to whom all honor is due and all of whose ways are justice (Ps. 145:17) — how much more is it our place to intervene with a president of flesh and blood, a man of no moral distinction who has cavalierly threatened mass deportations, torture and the abandonment of the civilized west, who courts the support of the most repugnant elements in our society? Psalm 8 declares: “You have made the human being only a little lower than gods and have crowned him with glory and honour. You made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet.” Of no human being is this encomium truer than of the President of the United States, who wields more power and destructive force than any king or Pharaoh in history. Americans alone may vote for the president, but our president indeed “has all things under his feet.” With an acquiescent congress at his disposal and having inherited an ongoing War on Terror that has profoundly expanded the prerogatives of his office and curtailed the rights of American citizens and those under American control, Trump, stands to be, perhaps, the most powerful president in history — a little lower than the gods indeed, with all things under his feet.
Now nothing in the story of Abraham teaches us how to confront power. Abraham, after all, had earned a private audience with God and that position of trust to reprove Him. We may challenge power in private or in public, depending on which approach seems to us most prudent and most likely to achieve the ends of justice. But we are forbidden — forbidden — from forgetting our foundational obligation to act first and foremost as students of Avraham Avinu, our father, Abraham, to confront and to challenge power and demand not only our own safety but righteousness and justice for all. In this crucial moment, Donald Trump is not Ahashverosh, and we may not look to our Esther. The incoming American president has promised to wield the God-like power of his office lawlessly, capriciously, immorally, against our fellow citizens, against our neighbors, against fellow human beings. We must be like Abraham and demand that that man who will become, for all intents and purposes, the Judge of all the World, do justice.