Jewish Holidays and Celebrating our Enemies’ Destruction
It's been said that the Jewish holidays all celebrate military victories against others. How can we make celebrations over massacring others?
I have a coworker who has some pretty anti-semitic views about a lot of things. I’m not Jewish either but I’ve tried my best to defend the Jews against him. Most of his “claims” are patent nonsense and he probably knows it. But he did make one point which I didn’t know how to respond to. He said that the Jewish holidays all celebrate massacres against the enemies of the Jews. Is that any better than, say, if the Nazis would celebrate wiping out the Jews? How should I respond to him, if at all?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the important issue. It’s not likely anything you say will appease a person who is probably not open to reason. But I’ll write the answer for your sake, and you can decide if it’s appropriate to share.
First of all, if you study the Jewish holidays, you will see that for the most part this is not the case at all. Most of the Jewish holidays (such as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Shavuot, etc.) have nothing to do with victories against enemies. The only ones which do are Passover, Chanukah, and Purim. I'll respond about each one below.
Regarding Passover, we are primarily celebrating our salvation and our emergence from bondage to become a nation. It is true that this came at the cost of overcoming our enemies, but that is not the point of the celebration. We are not celebrating their downfall, but our redemption.
In fact, Judaism views the destruction of Egypt as a tragic side-effect of our salvation. The Talmud records that God told the angels not to sing their daily praises to Him on the day the Egyptians were drowned at the sea because, "My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you are singing songs?!" (Sanhedrin 39b). God Himself was not happy (so to speak) to see even the worst of His creations perish, that matters had to come to that.
In fact, this is one reason why we tone down the celebration of the later days of Passover (for example in not reciting the full Hallel prayer; Taz O.C. 490:3). (The final days of the holiday correspond to the splitting of the sea.) Our celebration is slightly muted because our salvation came through the destruction of our enemies – rather than their improving themselves and coming to recognition of God.
Regarding Chanukah, although in part it celebrates a victory over the Greeks, the actual event we mark is the oil burning eight days instead of one. Thus, again, the emphasis of our celebration is God’s miracle rather than our enemies’ defeat.
More generally, however, in a holiday such as Chanukah we are not simply happy that we killed the goyim. They were the ones who attempted to put us down, defile our Temple, and repress our religion. We are not happy that we killed them per se, but as a matter of fact, if any nation deserved its fate it was the Greeks (as well as the Egyptians). Judaism is not pro-violence, but neither is it so pacifist that it submissively bows to evil when it rises against us. Real commitment to God and His Torah does at times require taking up arms to destroy evil. It's a last resort, but the true servant of God has to be prepared to go that far when required. In fact, it was the Priestly Maccabees which led the rebellion against the Greeks – although the Priests did not ordinarily even serve in the army. But they recognized that our very beliefs and way of life were at stake.
Regarding Purim, likewise, it was hardly a matter of going about killing non-Jews. We specifically went after our known enemies, those ones who wanted to kill us as per Haman's first decree. This is again hardly violence against innocents, but completely justified self-defense. In fact, the Jews did not take the spoils to show that they were not interested in pillaging and looting, but in retaliating against their worst enemies (commentators to Megillat Esther 9:10).
In addition, Purim is celebrated not on the day of the victorious battle, but on the day after, when we “rested” and celebrated (Esther 9:20-22). (To my knowledge, this is unlike all other military holidays worldwide, which celebrate the day of the victory.) We do not celebrate the day of the destruction of even our worst enemies, as the verse states, “Rejoice not at your enemy’s downfall” (Proverbs 24:17). We instead celebrate the day after, when peace was restored (Me’am Lo’ez).
I wish you success dealing with your coworker. Perhaps he would also gain from the following articles:
(See Meshech Chochmah to Exodus 12:15 for a very similar approach.)