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Obama’s Bow, and What Mordechai and Haman Can Teach Us About It

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?

  • John, A American

    As a patriotic, red-blooded, true American, I see the end of the office of the presidency as we know it, when “President” Obama acknowledged his servutude to the heathen foreign dictator Hirohito, who cost so many American lives in WWII.

  • Mike

    John A: In America, we shake hands, in Japan, they bow. Bowing is not a sign of subservience over there, but is akin to a handshake, a gesture used upon greeting someone.
    In the case of the book of Esther, Haman expected full prostration from the Jews, that is, to be worshiped by Mordechai and others as one worships God. There is no connection here, since Obama was merely saying hello in a manner that the Japanese culture expects, and the Emperor responded by giving a Western-style handshake.
    Do you really think that submission-of-will was Obama’s intent in bowing?

  • Becky Mann

    I lived in Japan for three years and it is just a custom and not a statement of anything except courtesy. Why do people have to read such negativity in to anything and everything this man does. Obama did nothing wrong. Get over it people and move on.

  • valerie

    Thanks, Becky. Well said. Why is it such a big deal to show respect for the customs of other countries?

  • Eytan

    Shalom from
    I have the feeling that there are not many Jews commenting in this forum and that the few Jews who do so tend to disagree with Rabbi Brad on almost every point he makes. First I didn’t understand why but suddenly it became clear. Rabbi Brad, which I enjoy reading every day despite our opposite views on almost everything, is simply catering to his audience. Rabbi, I feel much better and I understand your motivation.
    Obama is no Mordechai. One is the leader of the Free World while the later was only a simple Jew.
    Emperor Akihito is no Haman, he is not the ruler of the country where Obama lives. Being respectful with this elderly man I would say that at best their equal in terms of protocol.
    So there was no need to bow for Obama. Dick Cheney did not bow and our diplomatic relations with Japan did not suffer after his visit there. I really don’t see your point.
    Finally, once again you present the US as the aggressor. If this man’s position was altered 60 years ago maybe it is because of Pearl Harbor and the fact that Japan was an allied of the nazis, no? I think that if a bow was absolutely needed then the Emperor should have bowed. After all he should be thankful that we did not send his family in exile after WWII.
    Get your daily spiritual click at

  • Eytan

    Sorry I’m still learning English. I meant:
    “…I would say that at best they are equal in terms of protocol.”
    Get your daily spiritual click at

  • John, A American

    “Do you really think that submission-of-will was Obama’s intent in bowing?”
    Absolutely. Obama is telling the world that just as he is subservient to the Queen of the Illuminati, Elizabeth II, he is also subservient to the Illuminati’s Asian branch. You really should attend a Tea Party for Change meeting and get informed on these matters.

  • A. Leslie

    Obama was just being kind. He and the United States are not subservient to Japan in any way at this point, and Obama didn’t have to bow. But he was face to face with an elderly royal couple that has been through a lot of ups and downs. His bow was the equivalent of telling an elderly great-grandmother that her hair looks beautiful.
    I think the Republicans have a moral obligation to critique and oppose Obama policy proposals. That’s why we have a two-party system. But I hate to see the Republicans trash the nice things that Obama does just because he is such a nice guy. At this rate, they’ll soon be attacking him for throwing trash in trash cans and recycling his glass bottles.

  • Rob the Rev

    Former President George W. Bush, a REPUBLICAN, is photographed kissing on the cheek and holding the Saudi Prince Abdullah’s hand, as they strolled together in 2005.
    Former President Richard Nixon, a REPUBLICAN, is shown in a Life magazine phot from 1971 bowing to Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1841.
    what do you have to say to that you right wing hypocrits?

  • Frank Haas

    I believe it was done through respect. That is their culture. Personally I don’t like our president but then again I see no harm in bowing. It is like a hand shake.

  • Marcia

    I do not see President Obama’s bow as subservient or anything other than being respectful of the traditions and mores of another culture. Here we shake hands; there we bow. I’ve been to Japan and that’s the way it’s done. It’s just common courtesy. BTW, I’m Jewish, the child of a Holocaust survivor, and I believe (as my mother of blessed memory taught me) that we should respect the differences among us. It is ignorance and lack of understanding that causes fear; fear that can lead to hate.

  • marilyn clark

    What the rabbi and others don’t seem to understand is that this is not an isolated incident of a man bowing to another man: Obama as President represents the United States, a country that was brutally attacked by and fought a horrible war with the country represented by the emperor to whom Obama bowed. It is a matter of historical national pride that Obama should not have bowed to a leader of Japan as far as I am concerned.
    In addition, when he bows to the Saudi king or the emperor, Obama just looks small on the national stage, like a young country bumpkin who doesn’t know how to comport himself. He is an embarassment to our nation in so many ways!

  • J Hof

    I see a people pleaser par excelence. If he’s so big into bowing to show respec, how come I didn’t see a bow to the queen of England? There he felt he was big enough to breach protocol. Is he a racist? Bow only to brown? He’s definitly hard to figure out!

  • Michael Wall

    Marilyn and John, I di not rise in this forum to say that you are right or wrong, but do please consider the notion that the term ‘ugly American’ comes from a history of people traveling abroad and not caring about the customs or cultures of the lands they visit. To be in a social or diplomatic situation with a representative (social or govenmental) of a society and shun their customs can certainly be seen as an insult, if not just plain small minded. We do not know, any of us, why President Obama chose to bow. Write to him and ask. I believe one’s choice in this situation says something. I’m not saying which is better, just that we should alloow that the choice puts us one light or another on the world stage, be that stage one set of eyes or billions.

  • Your Name

    I agree w/Marliyn…..he is a country bumkin and those around him also..who advise or dont advise what is protocal….just like Clinton didnt know when to salute soldiers or not……he should learn some manners…..or does he think he can do what ever he wants because he is black and happens to be the first black prez….he could screw it up you know…..and he is

  • cynthia butler

    I don’t see the connection with the President and Mordechal, but I will say if a few of the other proud Presidents would have shown more humility maybe we wouldn’t have a need to even owe Chine the money we owe. Pride comes before a fall, I believe the President has a true concern for the people of the USA and he could care less about what others think about him, therefore he is willing to do what will help the people. It seems to me that includes death!
    Cynthia from Southfield Michigan

  • Natalie

    In Japan, everyone bows to everyone all the time as a sign of respect. It’s a common custom not only in business and politics but also during introductions of strangers. The bow takes the place of shaking hands. The title of a series of books on international business customs–“Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands”–makes that point.
    Bowing in Japan, whether to an emperor, a new acquaintance, or a statue of a buddha in a temple, simply signifies respect. For President Obama to show respect to the Japanese Emperor was 100% appropriate.

  • Nancy

    The problem with the bow was not that he bowed but the depth of his bow. Yes, bowing is a sign of respect that replaces shaking hands in Japan. However, the depth of the bow has meaning. President Obama bowed so deep, it sent a message that he was far inferior to the emperor. It was the bow of someone from the lowest class to someone of the highest class. The bow should have been no deeper than that of the emperor’s.

  • Eytan

    Shalom from
    I was going to comment on a few comments but then I realized how futile it would be. Do we really care about a speck of dust bowing to another speck of dust? No disrespect intended but tomorrow or the day after nobody will speak about this and this event won’t change anything to human history.
    Mordechai refusing to bow down to Haman is a different story entirely. We are talking of an extremely brave act against the representative of the arch-enemy of Am Israel.
    Dear Rabbi, I know that you really like our president but I think that we all should keep things in perspective. He will go as he came and he will be remembered for being the first African-American on the list of presidents. Mordechai with Esther saved the Jewish people…
    Get your daily spiritual click at

  • Claire Cameron

    I so applaud Rabbi Hirschfield! This was simply a moment of diplomacy and respect. What could be wrong with that?
    As a society, we seem so easily to misinterpret the actions of those with whom we have decided to disagree.

  • Linda J. McArtney


  • Linda J. McArtney

    Nancy…You are exactly correct, it is the extent of the bow.
    Someone ought to give Barack Obama a crash course on protocol, he is making a mockery out of our country. (as well as ruining it)
    While he is being groomed, have Michelle join him, as you do not put your arm over the shoulder of ANY monarch, as she did with Queen Elizabeth 11 of the United Kingdom.

  • Abambagibus

    MacArthur engaged with Hirohito on several occasions and not once did he bow to him. He simply looked him in the eye, eye to eye, and shook his hand, as if in acknowledgement of their existential equality. Of course, that was at time when our collective intestinal integrity had not yet begun to disintegrate. But liberally now we kowtow that we may be judged as the probable equal of those who look down at our heads in prostration and wonder.

  • kingskidd

    I see a president that continues to put on this submisive…I am the new humble leader for the big terrible bully called America. I’ll apologize to every nation for all of our terrible misdeeds over the years. Take America out of the world picture over the years and it would be a different world. And I don’t mean different as in good. So many nations have fed from the hands of the USA, in so many ways. Anyone with even an elementary view of modern world history has to appreciate what America has meant to the rest of the world. Is she perfect and without fault, of course not. But every other country in the world must share in mankind’s ugly nature, and they haven’t done a fraction of the good that America has.

  • windbender

    When I was a kid, my father taught me to address other adults as sir and ma’am – a title of respect which I showed my own parents. That didn’t mean that I mistook other adults as parental figures, it was simply a matter of respect toward others.
    Seemingly, a growing number of nay-sayers opposed to the Obama Administration are having a very difficult time remembering how basic simple respect is to civility.

  • Ryan

    Perhaps it was not intended to be a show of subservience, maybe it had more to Obama being rather tall and Akahito being rather short. In order for Obama to appear polite, he would have to bow much further than Akhito woulde have to. If Akhito was taller than Obama, then Akhito would have to bow further.

  • Jack

    What childish nonsense! There was nothing wrong or condescending about Obama’s bow – it was obviously just a cultural courtesy. The big problem is that obsessed Republicans are afraid that Obama is doing something right, and they are ready to criticize anything that he does.

  • Uriel

    The BOW to the Islamic leader is a far greater offence in my mind – however – they both deal with a mindset that says that he is submitting his life to them – much like a dog rolling over and offering his belly to the Alpha dog – so that, if it suites the Alpha, he can instantly attack, rip open and kill or maim the submissive dog, as he pleases with no fear of reprisal or defensive action being taken. Just a little aside – the posture of the BOW was taken as a gesture that stated to the person being bowed to that the person bowing was submitting his neck to the sword of the other so that he could cut off his head if it so suited him – he was literally laying the control of whether he lived or died in THEIR hands. Is this really something we as a country want or Pres. to do?
    Now if Obama wants to do so – that is his prerogative BUT he needs to cede his position and bow as an individual as apposed to as the Pres. of our country. For our Pres. stands AS the USA in the courts of the world and as such MUST reflect the PUBLIC’S stand on the subject, and if he does not do so he must be fired, just like any other hireling – this should also be remembered about EVERY Politician – we hired them, we can and should feel FREE to fire them when they misrepresent our views on the subjects we have elected them to represent us in.
    Having said this – as an individual and an American – I am not going to or willing to bow to ANY infidel or their gods. That totally negates ALL the blood that has been shed on this continent and others to gain and preserve our freedom. The blood of those men and women whose blood bought our freedom cries out from the earth for us to continue to STAND for the rights and freedom for which they sacrificed their lives.

  • g

    Well, it is not as if Japan is not an American Ally these days.
    It seems to me that if we see the world suddenly destabilizing at a faster rate because of Obama’s gestures to the world then I guess there is room for concern and criticism.
    But remember 9/11 happened on the bush/Cheney/Rumsfield watch, all staunch hard line neo-cons just itching for a fight. So obviously puffing out the American Chest and swaggering into’Tombstone’ hasn’t really helped the cause of peace. So give the Prez a chance. You can always vote another war-monger into office in the next election if Mr. President’s actions cause real problems.

  • just another opinion

    eat some humble pie people. everyone should be running around bowing to each other in the first place. if they don’t welcome you, run. if they do welcome you, your strength is derived from your faith in that God is over-seeing and in control of the situation. pride, the boding threat of warfare & anti social behaviour takes God out of the scenario and we stand alone. even in our own homes we must learn to forgive if our intentions are family unity and successful living; it is no different with neighbours near and far. that one human should show respect to another human is not a faux pas, neither is it a sign of weakness. In all truth, it is a sign of strength.

  • Your Name

    To surrender for the sake of love to any of our endeavors and affairs
    is remarkably the purest of all our intentions.In evrything we do,we walk in love,and by doing so,we gain love and approval from all people
    especially from the God of love.Bowing is not a defeat,it is a victory.

  • Miriam

    What’s the big deal? In Japanese culture everyone bows to everyone with hands pressed together in front, in order to greet them, the way we shake hands or wave.

  • Uriel

    I am hard pressed to take what is given as reason for Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman, an idol around his neck, as anything more than another contrived tail to add some “spiritually” to the act and make it a more acceptable circumstance than simply accepting that he was a man making a stand in the power of Yah. Much like the contrivance of the oil for the temple being added to the story of the Maccabean reclamation of the temple – so that it was not thought that the celebration was of a human victory – no matter how Yah ordained, directed and empowered the act was.
    Did Moses bow before Pharaoh?
    It just speaks to the jell-o in the spine of, not only, the president, but also the people who put him in the White House. If you are not happy with the way he is handling things – Fire Him.

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