Commentary Magazine

Reckless Rites by Elliot Horowitz

Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence
by Elliot Horowitz
Princeton. 356 pp. $35.00

To announce in a book's subtitle that its topic is “the legacy of Jewish violence” is to promise a great deal. Although Elliot Horowitz, an associate professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, has written a study replete with interesting detail, this promise is not lived up to.

The thesis of Reckless Rites, which deals with the darker side of Jewish attitudes toward Christians and Christianity from late antiquity to modern times, is straightforward. Despite its being a commonplace to state that Jewish societies in Christian Europe were characterized by a strong aversion to physical violence and a very low level of it, Horowitz claims that such a characterization is misleading. In point of fact, he argues, Jews, as a religious minority in a Christian culture that treated them with contempt, not only harbored deep feelings of animosity toward Christians; they also, while generally keeping such feelings to themselves, acted them out annually on the one occasion that served for their ritual expression and release. This was the holiday of Purim, the annual celebration of the Jewish people's victory in ancient Persia over its arch-foe Haman—at the culmination of which, according to the biblical book of Esther, “the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and destroying them, and did what they would unto those that hated them.”

Esther is the only book of the Bible in which there is no mention of God. And Purim, Horowitz contends, with its atmosphere of licentiousness that goes back to the early rabbis (who declared it a day on which Jews were encouraged to drink so much that they could “no longer tell Haman from Mordecai,” Esther's protector and counselor), served the function in Jewish life that Carnival—which falls at the same time of year—served in Catholicism: as a licit opportunity for ribaldry and “transgressive” activities that violated the social and religious norms prevailing during the rest of the year. For Jews, the most daring of these activities was venting anger on Christians and even physically assaulting them.

Modern Jewish historians, Horowitz writes, have sought to play down this aspect of Purim, just as they have apologetically played down the entire subject of religiously motivated Jewish violence. Yet, he maintains, without facing up to these things honestly, it is impossible to understand many moments in medieval and modern Jewish history, starting with the alleged massacre by Jews of tens of thousands of Christians when a Persian army conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 614 C.E. and down to Baruch Goldstein's murder of 29 Arabs in Hebron on February 25, 1994—a date, Horowitz points out, that not accidentally coincided that year with Purim.


What is the historical evidence for Purim-linked anti-Christian violence? Given the fact that Horowitz had the better part of two millennia to choose from, one would expect him to have come up with a large body of it. Here, in chronological order, are some of the typical incidents he lists, including all that ended in death or serious injury, along with the Christian reaction to them:

  • Fifth century C.E.: Jews in Syria fasten a Christian boy to a gibbet representing Haman's gallows and whip him to death on Purim. (More commonly on Purim, Horowitz writes, Jews of this period burned effigies of the hung Haman, who also stood in their minds for the crucified Jesus; this can be inferred from an edict, issued by the emperor Theodosius II in 408, instructing all Roman governors to “prohibit the Jews from setting fire to [H] Aman in memory of his past punishment in a certain ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the saint[ed] cross in contempt of the Christian faith.”)
  • 576 C.E.: A Jew in Clermont-Ferrand, France, throws “rancid oil” at “a former co-religionist who had been baptized early that day as [he] . . . entered the city with the other participants in the Easter procession.” (Although this incident, like others mentioned in Reckless Rites, did not take place on Purim itself, Horowitz chooses to view the entire Purim-to-Passover period, corresponding to the Ash Wednesday-to-Easter period, as having been under the influence of Purim.)
  • 1017: Several Jews in Rome “mock a crucifix” in their synagogue on Good Friday. (Reported to the authorities, they were beheaded.)
  • 1192: With the backing of a friendly Christian countess, the Jews of Bray-sur-Seine, France, execute on Purim, on a gallows like Haman's, the Christian murderer of a Jew. (The countess notwithstanding, 80 or more Jews were put to death by the Christian authorities in return.)
  • 1236: A Jew in Narbonne, France, kills a local Christian in a fight on Purim. (Widespread anti-Jewish riots broke out as a result.)
  • 1389: A Jew in Prague “thr[ows] a stone at the monstrance carried by a priest” during Holy Week. (A number of local Jews were killed and burned in retaliation.)
  • 1609: Jews in Rome respond to a Christian parody of a Jewish funeral performed during Carnival by “flinging a variety of household objects down upon the participants . . . causing a number of injuries.”
  • Ca. 1740: Jews in Alba, Italy, are reported by the local bishop to be doing on Purim what Jews “did elsewhere” as well—namely, smashing jars into pieces and expressing “the wish that Christendom too would quickly be smashed.”
  • _____________

    Add another two dozen incidents no more serious than the last three, and Horowitz's list is pretty much exhausted, leaving the reader to wonder just what all the hullabaloo is about. This, one asks, is the “legacy of Jewish violence” connected to Purim? Three reported Christian deaths at the hands of Jews in the course of history, one of which took place in a private quarrel? Would not a more reasonable conclusion from such evidence be that there is no such thing as a “legacy of Jewish violence” connected to Purim at all?

    In his defense, perhaps, Elliott Horowitz might reply that the criticism is unfair. The point, he might say, is not what Jews actually did to Christians on Purim, since in Christian societies the Jewish freedom to do anything was highly restricted. (The vengeance wreaked on some of the “transgressive” Jewish acts mentioned by him demonstrates just how restricted it was.) Rather, it is what Jews would have liked to do if they could have done it, as illustrated by such Purim customs as burning effigies and smashing pots that symbolized Christianity and their Christian neighbors. The real subject of Reckless Rites is thus not actual Jewish violence but the potential for violence in Jewish emotions—a potential that, whenever the conditions for its actualization came into being, resulted in such frightful deeds as the 614 massacre or Baruch Goldstein's rampage.

    Fair enough. But if violent emotions are what Elliott Horowitz is writing about, not only should he have said so in the first place, he is also knocking on an open door. Who would or could deny that Jews have felt violently toward their enemies and persecutors? The literature of Judaism, starting with the Bible, is fairly bursting with such feelings, the book of Esther being only one of innumerable examples. While it is certainly noteworthy if such feelings were expressed more openly on Purim than at other times, this tells us something about Purim, not about the feelings themselves. About them we would know all we needed to know even if Purim had never existed.


    Reckless Rites thus suffers from a kind of scholarly astigmatism; the things it sees, though undoubtedly real, are seen in a distorted perspective. What is historically interesting about Jewish feelings toward Christians, after all, is not that they were hostile; where has there ever been an oppressed people that did not feel hostility toward its oppressors? What is interesting is how Jews coped with these feelings—and in this they were atypical, not because they did not act violently toward Christians but because they did not act violently toward themselves.

    Consider the case of African-Americans. This is a population traditionally associated with a high level of violence—yet until relatively recently, the violence was rarely inflicted on whites. On the contrary, throughout the entire period of slavery and post-emancipation racial segregation, physical attacks by blacks on whites were extremely rare. The obvious reason was the draconian retribution such attacks met with; in many parts of America, a black man could be lynched for far less. Instead, black violence was aimed at other blacks, and as such it was perfectly ordinary: brawling, wife-beating, child-beating, and other such acts are almost always more widespread in downtrodden minorities and pariah groups. The emotions that cannot be taken out on those one hates but also fears are taken out on those one does not hate and may even love.

    Jews in Christian Europe were anomalous because they did not follow this pattern. Although some domestic violence undoubtedly existed among them, the indications are that it was not common; in the halakhic literature of medieval Europe, which tells us a great deal about everyday Jewish life, it is infrequently mentioned as a problem. Perfectly capable of verbal aggression, Jews nevertheless had strong inhibitions against physical aggression, inhibitions that cannot be explained merely by fear of Christian punishment. Indeed, medieval Christians would probably no more have cared about purely intra-Jewish violence than whites in Mississippi cared about intra-black violence.


    How these inhibitions developed is a complex subject. But although Elliot Horowitz criticizes Jewish historians for turning a blind eye to the “legacy of Jewish violence” in Christian Europe, these historians have gotten it right. If there is any legacy at all, it is the legacy of Jewish non-violence—as both Jews and Christians were always quite aware, the Jews generally with pride in their higher moral standards, the Gentiles more often with disdain for the Jews' lack of physicality and manliness.

    Why Horowitz, a competent historian and reader of texts, has so much trouble recognizing this is curious. In part, it may be due to nothing more than that perennial pitfall of scholarship, the desire to be original. Did Jews in Christian Europe have a reputation for being pacific? Well, then, let us demonstrate how wrong this is: Jews threw stones at Christians, mocked their religion to their faces, urinated on their crosses, burned them in effigy, even once or twice killed them—and often on, or close to, Purim. Clearly, the real Jew was the “Purim Jew,” whom generations of historians, wed to their conventional conceptions, were unable to recognize.

    But beyond this, I think, Horowitz is responding in Reckless Rites to what appears to him to be a genuine conundrum. Regarding violence, it would seem, Jewish history can be divided into three ages. First come the biblical period and classical antiquity, in which Jewish life is full of war and mayhem. Next come medieval and modern times, when all this seems to disappear, not only in Christian lands but in Muslim ones, too. And finally we have the state of Israel, and war and mayhem are back again.

    Can we really be looking at three different types of Jews, between each of which and the next lies a historical discontinuity? Does not Occam's razor demand that we pare the three down to one—that we posit, that is, a single Jewish type with a strong predisposition to violence which, in the middle stage of Jewish history, lasting from the beginning of exilic times through the Holocaust, went underground? And is it not the historian's task, then, to unearth this underground vein and bring it to light?

    The problem with such an analysis is that it removes the Jews from their human context. Implicit in it is Horowitz's assumption that, historically, Jewish violence has been special, so that, in explaining it, whether in regard to 7th-century Jerusalem or 20th-century Hebron, we must invoke unique causes like the intolerance of Jewish monotheism, Jewish hatred for Gentiles, and the biblical and rabbinic concept of “Amalek.”

    2 This is an assumption with a long tradition of anti-Semitic historical writing behind it, and it is ironic that Horowitz, in his eagerness to upset the applecart of conventional wisdom, has resorted to another set of intellectual conventions about the Jews that is at least as old as the French philosophes.

    It is also a superficial way of thinking. What it turns a blind eye to is that war and violence have been endemic to all human societies, and that Jewish violence forms the most minuscule chapter in a universal story. Against such a background, all attempts to explain specific outbreaks of violence in human history as fundamentally motivated by religious animus seem sadly inadequate.


    Occam's razor is a useful tool, but Horowitz does not wield it sharply enough. His formulation needs to be pared down further. It is not only Jews who have been predisposed throughout their history to violence, which has surfaced openly among them under certain conditions and been repressed under others. It is all humanity. What is unusual about Jews is that, for much of their history, the resort to violence was repressed.

    Indeed, it is precisely this trait of the Jews that modern Zionism, rightly convinced that a people that would not fight for its independence would never get it, successfully sought to reverse. There is to this day a great deal of Jewish ambivalence toward this reversal, and Elliot Horowitz strikes one as a typical case of it—a Jew who is disturbed to find that there were Jews in medieval Europe who risked their lives by doing crazily provocative things of the kind that he himself would never do, yet who is also secretly pleased by the knowledge that such “proto-Zionist” Jews existed and had the courage to be as defiant as they were. In the end, Horowitz emerges from Reckless Rites as a bit of a closet Purim Jew himself.



    1 Nearly all of these incidents are known exclusively from Christian chronicles and are uncorroborated by Jewish sources. Horowitz tends to accept the chronicles at face value and to accuse Jewish historians doubtful of their accuracy of an apologetic bias. Why he is so ready to assume that Christian chroniclers were not swayed by their own biases is a methodological question he does not pursue; for the sake of the argument, I shall not pursue it, either.

    2 Amalek was the name of a desert people who attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and whom the Bible commands to “destroy utterly.” As a label, it is applied by the book of Esther to Haman (described as a descendant of Amalek) and later—as Horowitz shows in a lengthy discussion—to Christians by some medieval Jews.


    About the Author

    Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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