What really happened in the Book of Esther? The question, of course, is not new. From Talmudic times to the present, commentators and close readers have grappled with the evasive, topsy-turvy nature of the story (and of the holiday that embodies so many of the major motifs of the Megillah). A common (perhaps, the most common) approach is to start with the assumption that nothing is as it appears to be. Hence, what looks like a simple palace coup d’etat is really a reversal worked not by a king, but by the King. It was the novel lesson that God works behind the historical scenery in an era of Hester Panim, of God hiding His Face, that got Purim into the canon in the first place (and may have almost prevented its acceptance, as well. Cf. Megilla 3a.)
I’ve been wondering lately, though, whether God was the only one hiding at the time. Perhaps there were other forms of hester panim at work in Shushan. Take the Jewish protagonists, for example. Everybody knows that Mordechai and Esther are names of Babylonian origin. The Megilla says as much, when it tells us that Esther had a Jewish name, Hadassah. For years, I assumed that these names were like the double names that Jews have had in exile for generations. Ramban was known as Bonastruc Della Porta. R. Yehiel of Paris was Magister Vivo, and so forth on and so on. These were their ‘outside names,’ though everyone knew they were Jews. (Rambam was probably known as Musa ibn Maimun bin Abdullah.)
Then again, did people know that Mordechai and Esther were Jews? Certainly, they did everything in their power to hide Esther’s identity from the public. She had made a solemn promise to her uncle, not to reveal her origins (2, 20). The same might well be true of Mordechai. True, we know he was an איש יהודי, but did his neighbors know? One could make a cogent case that they did not. Think about it. Mordechai sat in the gateway of the royal palace (Esth. 2, 19). It is possible that he served in some judicial capacity, since judges sat at the palace gates (Cf. Gen. 19, 1). He was certainly a person of some note and distinction. Otherwise, why would Haman care so much whether he bowed, or not? Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that no one knew he was Jewish. After all, Mordekhai explained that he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he was a Jew (Esth. 3, 4). Though this might be interpreted as a lesson in basic Judaism for the royal retainers, it is equally possible that this was the first time that they had heard that Mordekhai was a Jew. Indeed, it would appear that this development was news to Haman, as well (3, 6).
Is it possible that Mordechai was, on some level, trying to ‘pass’ in Persian society? Was he consciously living a double life, until he reached his ‘red line’ (i.e. idolatry) and was forced to own up to who he really was? Certainly, among Hazal there were some who thought that the Jews of Shushan were highly assimilated (cf. Megilla 12a). Why would Mordechai be any different? If this is the case, it might help explain Haman’s rationale for suggesting to Ahasuerus an ‘endlosing der judenfrage,’ a ‘final solution for the Jewish Question.’
Haman told the king, ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different than those of every people; nor do they keep the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries (3, 8-9).’ As my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik zt”l noted, the king didn’t even know whom he was exterminating. He was acting out of pure paranoia, as befits a tyrant. Haman, however, knew exactly to whom he was referring and his argument has an eerie ring of familiarity about it. It is the argument of the modern anti-Semite, a phenomenon that supposedly developed in the eighteenth century, not in fifth century BCE Persia.
Historians are very careful to distinguish between ‘Anti-Judaism’ and ‘anti-Semitism.’ While from a Jewish point of view the difference does not appear to be significant, it actually is. ‘Anti-Judaism,’ as the word implies, is aimed against the Jew qua Jew. If the Jew ceases to be Jewish, (say, through conversion to another religion), then he was no longer subject to ‘Anti-Judaism’ (at least, not officially). This changed, however, with the coming of the era of emancipation, when Jews fled the ghetto and fell over their feet trying to be as European as possible. Yet, Jew-hatred did not disappear, even though thousands of Jews were no longer identifiable as Jews. On the contrary, it assumed a more virulent, paranoid form. Now that Jews were not identifiable externally, stories of secret Jewish cabals and plots against the Christian world began to spread. (Two extreme examples are the infamous ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and the despicable Nazi propaganda film, Der Ewige Jude.)
Jews were also accused of maintaining ‘a state within a state.’ This accusation was, as pointed out by the late Professor Jacob Katz, particularly ironic. For a millennium, at least, Jews had possessed communal autonomy in Christian Europe. Various rulers willingly granted this autonomy in order to regularize Jewish existence, without including the Jews within the established Christian (feudal) order, something neither side wanted. The process of Emancipation put an end to this situation. The autonomous communities were dissolved, and Jews were enfranchised as citizens (at least technically). It was specifically then, however, that Jews were accused of constituting ‘a state within a state.’ Just as myriads of Jews sought nothing more than to become Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss and Italians (of the Mosaic persuasion), they were told, that ‘their laws are different than those of every people; nor do they keep the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them.’
The story of Mordechai and Esther, then, was not only one of an all too rare victory over the enemies of Israel. More than two millennia before it became de rigueur, the Megillah subtly warned what the price of assimilation was likely to be. I leave the contemporary implications to the reader, and certainly, this is not a call for self-ghettoization. After all, Mordekhai reached secular greatness davqa after he was universally recognized ‘Mordekhai the Jew.’ Nevertheless, this is one of the reasons the Rav called the Megilla, ‘The Book of Jewish Destiny.’
[An earlier version of this post was published at YUTorah.]