The uproar over President Obama’s bow before Japanese Emperor Akihito refuses to die down. As soon as it happened, it brought to mind the Biblical Book of Esther, and the story of Mordechai refusing to bow down to Haman. As in the case of the President, although much emotion is evoked by the story, one wonders why it is such a big deal.
Although Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman is viewed as a heroic defense of Jewish pride and identity in the face of overwhelming power, it may well have been a needlessly obstinate decision to make a point in public, even if such point-making is neither wise nor called for. Very early on, the Sages noticed this and felt compelled to provide a reason for Mordechai’s refusal.
The Rabbis knew that without additional information, not appearing in the Biblical story, Mordechai’s actions were quite indefensible. Simply posturing before powerful people is never the way to go, and absent the information supplied by the Midrash, that is exactly what Mordechai would have been doing.
According to Esther Rabba 6:2, Haman was wearing a small idol around his neck and it was therefore Mordechai’s refusal was not only justified, but required. I have no desire to debate here whether that midrash is simply adding information that is accurate but not part of the story, or adding to the story to make it more understandable — that is a larger theological conversation for another time. I do know that it places the rabbis’ perspective at the center of this Obama – Akihito – bow debate, and it even suggests that we be very cautious about the things we do or don’t do, simply to prove a point.
I appreciate that for some people, the President’s bow before the Emperor is a dangerous statement of American subservience. I imagine that is just how Mordechai, in the actual Biblical narrative, felt as well. But I know that such thinking is so dangerous and distasteful from a larger Jewish perspective, that it required Rabbinic artistry to justify it.
It seems to me, that while the Rabbis of the Talmud might dispute many things our President does (at least many readers of the Talmud claim as much), on this one, even the most conservative among them would side with the President. I didn’t see any idol hanging from Emperor Akihito’s neck, did you? In fact, I saw a gesture toward an elderly man whose very position was fundamentally altered in the face of American power over sixty years ago. What did you see?