Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is the ‘Wicked Man’ Just Misunderstood?

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, March 2005

Last month I took my family to see the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” a recasting of the “Wizard of Oz,” where all the supposedly good people turn out to be self-centered and the Wicked Witch is revealed to be a sensitive iconoclast battling a malicious smear campaign. “Fractured Fairy Tales” haven’t been this popular since the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. Hollywood has most recently brought us the “Shrek” series, various modern remakes of Cinderella, and now, “Hoodwinked,” a takeoff on Little Red Riding Hood, in which extreme snowboarder Granny and thoroughly modern Red team up with the wolf, who turns out to be an undercover reporter and all-round good guy.

Such moral ambiguity has a home in Judaism, which revels in the hidden complexities of life. The Bible paints few of our heroes in bold, simplistic strokes.
Arguably, Judaism’s most towering figures, Moses and David, are among the most flawed. There are no “happily ever afters” to be found. No one is purely good, nor is anyone entirely evil.

Except for one. Oz had the Wicked Witch, and we have our Wicked, Wicked Man: Haman. Jews are expected to have sympathy for just about every enemy, with the exception of Haman.

Admit it. Don’t you feel just a little uncomfortable on Purim night, beating the tar out of Haman, shouting him down, cheering ecstatically at his demise? Doesn’t it bother you just a little bit that the same tradition that encourages us to spill drops of wine at the seder in memory of suffering Egyptian slave drivers also encourages us to drink ourselves silly while hanging Haman and drowning out the very mention of his name?

With Haman being painted with cartoonish evil clarity, however, the Talmud throws us another zinger, calling upon us to imbibe on Purim not to ignite more anger, but to create a very “wicked”-like confusion, according to one interpretation. We are to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai.” This custom seems to undercut the Bible’s assertion that Haman, simply by virtue of his Amalekite roots, as well as his own deeds, is the pure embodiment of evil. It introduces the possibility of moral ambiguity, or worse, a moral equivalence between Haman’s intentions and those of his accusers.

If the Book of Esther were to be rewritten the way “Wicked” recasts Oz, it would make for a great Purim shpiel. Essentially, the inverse story of Haman would begin at birth, where his parents reject him. As a child, the neighborhood bullies beat him up, poking fun at his three-cornered hat given to him by Mordechai, the Big Man on Campus, as a prank.

“Tri-corner is this year’s kaffiyeh,” Mordechai tells him.

Haman then wallows in self-pity with a show-stopping number titled, “My Life Is Bad Noose.”

He hopes against hope that some day maybe he will make it so big “that they’ll name a pastry after me.”

Finally, he is granted an audience with the king, but he is forced to wait outside for hours on end.

“Why does the king leave me hanging?” Haman laments.

While he is waiting, he overhears Mordechai plotting against the king. The plan is to place Esther on the throne and force all the royal subjects to become life members of Hadassah. Mordy also plots to create a diversionary smoke screen by accusing Haman of scheming to annihilate the Jews. The plan works to perfection and the “wicked” Haman is hanged. But it turns out that Haman gets wind of the plot, substitutes a scarecrow effigy at the last minute and while the scarecrow swings, Haman escapes to Hollywood to produce morally ambiguous movies for Steven Spielberg.

Jewish tradition teaches us that no human being is either totally evil or completely good. Spielberg has been maligned for his recent film, “Munich,” because he meddled in the moral complexities of our contemporary Purim saga involving Israeli good guys and terrorism’s evildoers. With hundreds of specialized cable channels and millions of Internet sites to choose from, people focus on only one side of any story.

Spielberg’s attempt to break through the caricatures is refreshing and commendable in this polarized world, as long as the terrorism itself is not minimized or justified.

Am I being too forgiving of Judaism’s Wicked Wicked Man? Not at all. I’ll be out there on Purim night raising a ruckus like everyone else. But I’ll do so with the understanding that Book of Esther is only part of a long and complex story whose end has yet to be written.

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