Several weeks ago, I met a man with a Jewish wife. Though he was not religious himself, they were raising their young daughter to be Jewish. A year ago, he went with his family to a children's service for the festival of Purim at an Orthodox synagogue in Mexico. The rabbi there spoke briefly to the children about the events that Purim celebrates. "Many years ago in Persia," he gruffly explained, "They tried to kill the Jews. But we killed all of them instead. Ha ha!"
This is not exactly the Purim story that most Jewish children learn in the U.S. Most Sunday school teachers focus on the brave, beautiful Queen Esther and her clever cousin Mordechai as they outwit an evil official named Haman and foil his plot to slaughter the Jews of Persia.
At the end of the story, the children do learn that Haman hangs for his crimes. Some teachers might mention that Haman's ten sons hang as well. Few relate the last part of the story--how the Jews take up arms and slaughter some 75,000 of their Persian enemies.
Scripture is full of such horrific tales. Every year on Passover, we celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. In order to persuade the Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery, God kills the first-born son of every Egyptian family and every first-born animal to boot. Talk about collateral damage. In another lesser known story, eleven tribes of Israel avenge the murder of one man's concubine by waging holy war on the twelfth tribe and slaughtering everyone they can find--men, women, children and animals.
In modern society, we Jews have developed techniques for downplaying these stories. We omit the cruel bits, especially when we tell them to children. We recite the texts in Hebrew words that we do not understand and don't trouble ourselves with the translations. We remove a few drops of Passover wine from our glasses in sympathy for the Egyptian victims of Gods wrath, imagining that this symbolic action whitewashes the celebration of death. We dismiss the offending verses as metaphors, not to be taken literally.
Yet many Jews still take the Torah as a whole to reveal profound ethical truths. In weekly homilies, rabbis exhort their congregations to submit themselves to its wisdom and guidance, ignoring the easy nonchalance with which the same Torah so often glorifies the execution of innocents.
But perhaps the old savage stories of the ancient Israelites do have something to reveal to us modern men and women. Much as we sugarcoat and repress the naked brutality of scripture, perhaps we also live in denial of our own suppressed bloodlust.
When social violence occasionally emerges among modern societies in moments of fear or chaos, we express shock and outrage, wondering aloud how human beings can do such things...as if to persuade ourselves that we could never do such things.
When we people of developed nations argue for war, few of us invoke divine justice or celebrate violence against foreigners. We speak instead of "national security" and "surgical strikes" designed to protect ourselves from danger and nothing more.
Sometimes our fears may be warranted, and war may at last become necessary. But when we call for violence against our enemies, be they Persian or any other tribe, we should pay close attention to whether our enthusiasm represents nothing more than reluctant necessity...or whether that ancient howling for blood, now camouflaged by words of caution and restraint, still murmurs in our ears.