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Purim: A Story of Crime and Excessive Punishment

Over the past several years, the RAC has used Purim as a time of reflection on the broken state of our criminal justice system and on the urgent need for reform. Previous Legislative Assistants have written insightfully about the execution of Haman at the end of the Purim story in the context of the modern day death penalty, and about the intersections of reproductive justice and criminal justice drawing from the inspiration of Esther’s courageous actions to save the Jewish people.

But why ponder a topic as heavy as criminal justice reform on the Jewish holiday most generally associated with revelry?

At its core, the Purim story is about regimes of crime and punishment, whether legitimate or illegitimate. Haman, who has been granted expansive ministerial authority, perceives Mordecai’s refusal to bow as an inexcusable slight against his honor and sentences all the Jews to death in response. Later, King Ahashverosh decides that Haman has committed a crime by plotting against the Jews and therefore orders that Haman and his sons be executed.

Examining the latter case more deeply, we could even roughly link the characters in the Purim story to the roles in our modern judicial system. Esther acts as a sort of defense attorney, representing the Jewish people (the defendants) against accusations made by Haman (playing the triple role of plaintiff, prosecutor and executioner) by appealing to Judge Ahashverosh. In fact, it is only because the relatively marginalized Jews have access to Queen Esther’s court power that they are spared from death.

At the same time, Purim also forces us to confront the implications of arbitrary and excessive punishment. Haman, at least for a short period, has virtually unlimited power to punish an entire ethnic and religious minority, all out of a hurt ego and deep-seated prejudice. For his part, King Ahashverosh is vested with the sovereign right to turn Haman’s punishment back on him and his family without any sort of real trial and to issue the ultimate punishment: death. The Purim story is a demonstration of the dangers of a criminal justice system that has run rampant with excessive punishment, and of the need for advocates like Esther to demand that it operate justly.

Reform Jews today are tasked with carrying on the prophetic work undertaken by Esther and many other heroes from our tradition to speak out against cruel and unusual punishment. Whether the death penalty, solitary confinement, the excessive sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders or the punishment of the many limitations imposed on returning citizens, we have an obligation to demand that our criminal justice system operates in accordance with our deeply held Jewish beliefs in rehabilitation and redemption. As we read in Ezekiel, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (33:11).

One way to do so is by urging Congress to pass comprehensive sentencing reform.

Additionally, we confront a unique challenge today when faced with a criminal justice system that disproportionately and unjustly punishes people of color. The Union for Reform Judaism recognized this injustice in 1999, stating that “There is an increasing perception that we have two criminal justice systems, separate and unequal: one for affluent Whites, and one for racial minorities and the poor.” More recently, the Reform Movement has endeavored to tackle criminal justice as a primary component of the Movement-wide racial justice campaign.

During Purim and beyond, we must work together to ensure that no one is subjected to inhumane and unequal punishment under the constraints of structural racism and a broken criminal justice system. Here are some additional resources to get involved in the Reform Movement’s work around racial justice and criminal justice reform: