Pluralism on Purim for Jews

Although Pesach is a much more important holiday than Purim; we are not commanded to read the first half of the book of Exodus during the Seder; yet we are commanded to read all, or almost all of the book of Esther during Purim. Why?

How much of the scroll of Esther must one read to fulfill the Mitsvah of reading the Megillah, asks the Mishnah. Rabbi Meir says, “All of it”.

Rabbi Judah says only from Esther 2:5 where Mordecai and Esther are first introduced.

Rabbi Yosi says only from Esther 3:1 where Haman is introduced. (Talmud Megillah 19a)

The three sages differ about what is really important about what happened? Haman creates the crises. You have to include him (3:1). Do you have to include chapter two that explains how Esther became Queen as Rabbi Judah says? And if you include that, do you have to include chapter one that tells about Queen Vashti and how she was deposed, as Rabbi Meir insists.

How far back do you have to go in trying to explain anti-semitism or anything else? After all, the Gemara starts the debate over this question by citing a statement of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai (a mystic who seeks personal spiritual power and is not interested in history or politics) that one can start reading as late as chapter 6 where the king tells Haman to honor Mordecai.

After all, it is not really important why anti-Semites hate Jews or what they plan to do to the Jews. For Zionists what is important is what Jews do about those evil plans that counts. The only important thing for Jews to know on Purim is that Esther did what she had to do, and Haman was brought down.

Rabbi Huna has a different view of why these four sages differ. Huna thinks they all interpret one verse (9:26) differently. It says the Megillah of Esther is based on what they saw (of the intentions of the various parties) concerning this matter.

Huna says Rabbi Meir blames the king for being stupid and putting Queen Vashti to death.

Rabbi Judah focuses on Mordecai who does not avoid a quarrel with Haman and is only saved by a miracle- Esther becoming Queen and then influencing the king.

Rabbi Yosi blames Haman for attacking all the Jews instead of just Mordecai thus dooming himself and his whole family. God might not have saved Mordecai, whose decision to defy Haman was a personal one, but God must and will save the Jewish people when their very existence is threatened.

Rabbi Simeon thinks the reason the king couldn’t sleep that night, and had the court records read to him; is that Esther had made the king jealous of Haman by flirting with Haman at the first feast she had arranged for Haman and the king.

We also have three different views of Antisemitism in the Mishnah. Rabbi Meir thinks Antisemitism comes from ignorance and stupidity (the stupid treatment of Vashti).

Rabbi Judah thinks it results from rivalry and pride (Mordecai’s public insult of Haman).

Rabbi Yosi says it is the result of scapegoating and over generalizations (Haman accusations and the King’s accepting of the charges against the Jews).

Rabbi Johanan argues that the sages really differ over a different issue and a different verse. That verse is (9:29) which states that Queen Esther and Mordecai wrote the Megillah “with full authority”. What kind of authority did they have to decree a new Jewish holiday; and thus change and reform the Jewish holiday calendar.

Rabbi Johanan says Rabbi Meir insists on reading the whole scroll to show the power of the king/government to do good or evil i.e. we observe Purim even in other countries where we are an accepted minority because you never know when new rulers may bring about a new political situation. Our authority is learning the importance of self preservation.

Rabbi Judah says the authority is from Queen Esther who the rabbis of the Talmud considered a to be a prophet of God writing under Divine inspiration. [See pages 174-5 of my new book “Which Religion Is Right For You? A 21st Century Kuzari” available on Amazon.]

Rabbi Yosi says (the failure of) Haman’s power is our authority. Jews should always remember and celebrate our survival and our enemy’s downfall; not with hate, but by joy.

Rabbi Simeon says it was the miracle of Purim itself that authorized the Jewish People itself to take on Purim observance as a Mitsvah.

The Talmud’s pluralistic discussion ends with Prophet Elijah informing us that God supports all the pluralistic answers of the rabbis: “Rabbah ben Abbuha met Elijah the prophet and asked him: Which of these reasons prompted Esther to act as she did? Elijah replied: All of them. All the reasons given by the Rabbis are correct.”

This is why Jews always say: two Jews, three opinions; and I say: 2 Rabbis, 7 opinions.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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