By Rabbi Neal Borovitz
An old Jewish joke holds that the essential message of every Jewish holiday is, “Our enemy tried to destroy us! We survived! Now, let’s eat!” The two most joyous festivals on the Jewish calendar, Chanukah and Purim, certainly prove this statement. Both stories are about the successful salvation of the Jewish People from an enemy who threatened our bodies and soul.
As we approach Purim and prepare to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, I find myself this year reflecting upon the question: Why was the Book of Esther, with its questionable historical origin, included in the Hebrew Bible? Conversely, why were the Books of the Maccabees 1 & 2, which contain the history of Chanukah, deliberately excluded from the canonization of the Hebrew Bible – even though they appear in the Greek Septuagint. From there, they made it into the Latin Bible that became the accepted text of the Catholic “Old Testament.”
The rabbis of the late 1st and early 2nd century of the Common Era, who made the canonization decisions for the Hebrew Bible, are silent on their choice. However, as the great medieval scholar Maimonides teaches in his codification of Jewish law (Mishna Torah), the mitzvah of reading the Megillat Esther on Purim is comparable to lighting the Chanukah lights. Through these specific mitzvot, we mark these festivals, both of which commemorate Jews being saved from communal annihilation.
Based upon my understanding of Maimonides’s correlation between the reading of Megillat Esther and lighting the Chanukah menorah, I find solid evidence backing the broadly-held opinion that the rabbis excluded the Books of the Maccabees precisely because of their historical accuracy. In contrast, they included Megillat Esther as a celebration of liberation precisely because they understood it was fiction.
The celebration of Purim described in Megillat Esther is comedic and fanciful. The chance of it inspiring a national uprising is far less likely than the story of Chanukah portrayed in the Books of the Maccabees. In discussions found in the Talmudic tractate MegIillah, the rabbis do two things:
- They intentionally read God’s presence into the story of Esther, although the name of God is never mentioned
- They intentionally read out much of the internecine Jew-against-Jew references in the Books of the Maccabees.
The Talmudic tradition refers to such internecine strife as “sinat chinam,” (groundless hatred), which, for the rabbis, was the root cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent dispersion of the Jewish People
What is sinat chinam? The verb “soneh” means to hate, as in the command ‘lo tisnah et ahicha bi’lvavecha’ – do not hate your brother in your heart (Leviticus 19:17).
Chinam comes from “chen” (grace). Sinat chinam is, therefore, hatred that is gratis. It refers to the internecine strife that unfortunately is not a historical footnote from the time of the Maccabees. Rather, it has been a destructive force in Jewish life in every age.
You could charitably ascribe its existence to the high-stakes decisions that Jewish communities have had to make or to a persecuted people internalizing the hatred directed at them and then projecting it against other groups of Jews. Either way, there is clearly too much of it about.
The Talmud already knew of the phenomenon and its destructive effect on Jewish life. Tractate Yoma 9b records that the First Temple was burned down because of idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. On the other hand, at the Second Temple’s destruction, the Jews were pious; the Temple was lost, however, because sinat chinam, groundless hatred, was endemic to Jewish national life.
From this, the Talmud infers that groundless hatred is as grave as idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed put together. I believe that because the Books of Maccabees openly describe the hatred of Jew against Jew, the rabbis designated them as forbidden books and excluded them from the canon. The rabbis then re-created Chanukah as a God-centered holiday, rather than focusing on the Jewish civil war described in the Books of the Maccabees.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, famously wrote that if the Second Temple was destroyed and the people scattered through sinat chinam, then the Temple will be rebuilt and the people gathered again through ahavat chinam (unconditional love).
Unlike the Purim story, which is the prototype for Jews standing together against antisemitism, the Chanukah story is a prime example of the damage we can do to ourselves through sinat chinam. As Rav Kook described, this Jewish civil war laid the groundwork for the continuing internecine battles within the late Second Temple Jewish community.
There have been many subsequent moments over the past 2,000 years of Jewish history when sinat chinam played a determinative role in the fate of the Jewish People. They stretch from the Chanukah story to the early 20th-century Zionist movement, where battles within the Jewish community delayed Jewish settlement in British Mandate Palestine from the end of World War I until the Great Depression. Each of these moments can, I believe, teach us about the danger to communal and individual survival that the current divisiveness that American Jews experience today, particularly over our relationship with the State of Israel and in our relationships with fellow Jews who identify with different religious streams.
I believe that Rav Kook’s concept of ahavat chinam, of unconditional love, is not just the opposite of sinat chinam, but also the antidote to the pandemic-level plague of sinat chinam in both American society and the world Jewish community. Consider how different the world would be if unconditional love rather than groundless hatred were our fallback position toward others, be they people with whom we have had little or no interaction or our sisters and brothers.
The climatic summation of Megillat Esther is verse 8:16, which tells us: “The Jews had light and joy; gladness and honor.” This verse appears in the weekly Havdalah prayers, and to it our rabbis added the phrase: “So may it be with us.”
We continue to wrestle with both the biological plague of COVID-19 and the sociological plague of sinat chinam that led to a partisan divide overtaking public health actions necessary to protect us all. I pray that this Purim we not only stand guard against the Haman-like villains who are filled with hate and threaten our existence, but also against the sinat chinam within us.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, a participating member of Berkshire Minyan in Great Barrington, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, NJ. He is married to Ann Appelbaum. He is past chair of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern New Jersey, and Past National Vice Chair of Jewish Council for Public Affairs.