Marianne Novak

Paranoia and the lesson of Purim for Modern Orthodoxy

As Purim approaches, we will again read from Megillat Esther. Traditionally, King Achashverosh is depicted as a drunkard, fool and buffoon. The traditional commentators have a more nuanced view of the King. In their analysis, Achashverosh had no royal right to be on the throne. It is his wife, Vashti, who had royal lineage (through Nebuchadnezzar). That being, Achashverosh is paranoid that he will lose his throne. His paranoia, however, leads him to do many outrageous things that  he believes will help him solidify his legitimacy at king. He has  his wife Vashti banished (or killed) and takes advice from Haman. In fact, these acts do not end up helping him, but rather do the exact opposite.

The lessons of power, legitimacy and paranoia are not lost on me during the latest events in the war raging for the heart and soul of Modern Orthodoxy. The latest battle entails a YU semicha candidate who arranged for a small, private partnership minyan in his home so that his wife who had recently recovered from an illness, could say the blessing of gomel, thanking God for saving her life. The head of RIETS got wind of this event and in a letter now widely circulated on social media, threatened to revoke the student’s ordination unless his signed some sort of loyalty oath and promised not to be involved in partnership minyan even again.

While reading the details of the event and the letter, I was struck by the overt desperation and perhaps in some sense paranoia on the part of the leadership at YU. It reveals their worry (a legitimate one) that many of their core members especially its devoted women, are going to walk. For this, they should truly be worried. If you alienate the core you are in trouble and if you alienate women, who are truly the most important piece for Jewish continuity, then it is game over for sure.

Instead of actually talking and engaging with its own members, leaders in Modern Orthodoxy have adopted a siege mentality desperately trying to ensure their legitimacy. They have looked to other parts of the Orthodox world, namely Haredim in Lakewood for help. This paranoid move is not unlike Achasherosh who enlisted the help of Haman to solidify his rule, while all the while Haman was after the throne himself.  The Ultra-right wing of Orthodoxy will never accept Modern or even Centrist Orthodox.

YU and its leaders should avoid following the Achashverosh playbook. After all, all of Achashverosh’s moves were overturned, v’nahafoch hu. They should learn the lesson of the price of paranoia. And  of course, being that it is Megillat Esther, they should be aware of the power of Jewish women. It is, after all, Esther, a woman, who saves the day. When, Mordechai, tries to shame her into action telling her if she won’t do it, another person will, Esther bravely accepts his challenge, kicks him to the curb (she doesn’t take any more advice from him in the rest of the story) and gets the job done.

So as Purim approaches, a couple of lessons for those at YU/OU/RCA,etc. Engage your core, don’t look to outsiders for advice (they are not your allies) and don’t alienate the women. Your future and the future of Modern Orthodoxy depends on it.


Chag Purim Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
Related Topics
Related Posts