Book of Esther and the musical Book of Mormon

Canonical texts are multivocal. The religious message they attempt to impart is contingent on variables of time, place, and, perhaps most importantly, the people who encounter them. The story of Esther is a case in point. The contrast between the simple pshat of Megillat Esther’s message and the way Chazal understood it is epic and a perfect illustration of a canonical text’s multivocality.

This idea of interpretive multivocality, where the same story can mean vastly different things to different audiences, is aptly articulated by the musical The Book of Mormon. The provocative musical illustrates the relationship between foundational myths and those who are meant to internalize the message those myths attempt to convey. It, like what happens to the Esther story in Tractate Megillah, is an example of the way in which a community’s foundational narrative evolves and adapts, adjusting the particulars of its religious message to its readers. (I mean “myth” in the Joseph Campbell sense, whereby foundational legends are internal and self-contained truths. They describe events that are true—within themselves.)

Image result for Book Of MormonThe musical no doubt has a sacrilegious veneer, but beneath the subversive surface, once you get past the repulsive obscenities, lies a profound religious message. It celebrates the way Mormonism’s credal narrative, with its obvious Christian-American roots, is transformed by its encounter with a foreign African culture—the Ugandans. As is, the Mormon weltanschauung cannot resonate with the Ugandans because it does not speak to their culture’s religious or spiritual needs. The tale it tells is too white and too Christian. It tells the wrong story and speaks about the wrong people. In order for the story to do what religious myths are supposed to do—to vivify and inspire—it needs to be retold in a manner that corresponds with their African reality. The musical does that ingeniously. It retells the Latter Day Saints’ credal story through an African prism. While the core ingredients of the narrative remain the same, the narrational (metaphorical) colors and fragrances change drastically, thereby making the story relevant and contemporary. That change allows the Ugandans to be spiritually nourished by Mormonism’s foundational myth, by interpretively making it their own. The result: a myth that was destined to wither in the scorching African climate was instead given new life.

True, the revised credal narrative became unrecognizable to the traditionalists, who were initially appalled. Ultimately, though, creativity and adaptability prevailed—for obvious reasons. Because it is the only way the Mormon myth could be further perpetuated outside the confines of its Utah cradle—by constantly fine-tuning the religious message it is trying to convey.

Image result for Gentileschi estherArtemisia Gentileschi: Esther Before Ahasuerus

The same happens to the Purim story in Tractate Megillah.

For the superficial reader, the book tells a very “goyish” tale of integration and assimilation. It recounts the tale of an immigrant minority that manages to infiltrate the upper echelons of the host culture, triumph over the marauding masses, and ultimately gain positions of power in their adoptive home. That is the story the Megillah tells when read unadorned by external interpretive interpolations.

But that narrative was incompatible with the Rabbis’ own cultural reality and also anathema to their innate anti-assimilationist value system. Therefore, in Tractate Megillah, this very story is turned on its head. According to Chazal and Judaism’s interpretive tradition, Megillat Esther is conveying the opposite message than what the pshat seems to suggest. In this read of the story, the hero is Mordechai the isolationist, not the assimilationist masses. From the Talmud’s perspective, the transgressive desire of the masses to assimilate actually boomeranged by bringing the community to the brink of annihilation. They were only saved because Mordechai, whom the Rabbis portray as a radical isolationist, with the help of his niece Esther, swooped in at the last minute to save them. According to their interpretation, the Megillah is a anti-assimilation creed, condemning acculturation, not condoning it. In this way, Tractate Megillah echoes The Book of Mormon.

Image result for Dali EstherSalvador Dali: Assuerus Falls in Love With Esther

The Rabbis of the Talmud, like the Ugandans in the musical, retain the core ingredients of the original story but, in accordance with their local traditions and because of their contemporary values, the core message is different than the one inferred by someone who reads it through a pshat lens, without Midrashic elaboration.

Ultimately this is true for all canonical texts. Metaphysically, religious texts are blank slates and only earn their raison d’etre from their encounter with their adherents. The audience that listens to a text’s religious message gives it its vitality; their interpretation gives it its meaning. The text only comes to life once the interpretive community has decided to discern its message and apply its wisdom to their life experiences, be they Ugandans in Africa or Jews in the diaspora.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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