Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Book of Esther: Celebratory or Travesty?

Despite its very festive nature, the holiday of Purim based on the Book of Esther is an object lesson of what can happen when we become too comfortable with a traditional narrative. For some, it represents the quintessence of the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism in Diaspora. For others, it is cause for great consternation.

All human beings have an amazing ability to take a relatively objective (factual) situation and interpret it in several ways, sometimes completely contradicting each other. As someone once said: “Variety is the spice of life.” But as we all know, sometimes spices can be very “hot” – burning us in the process of ingestion. In other words, if two people, camps, sectors, or population groups have widely different “tales” on what happened or “who did what to whom”, that could be a recipe for serious societal trouble.

This conflicting way of understanding the present is also true of the past (perhaps even more so!). There’s nothing like a contretemps between historians regarding a past event, or as Dr. Henry Kissinger once opined: “Academic arguments are so virulent because the stakes are so low…”.

Which brings me to the Purim holiday. As a mostly observant Jew (“Conservadox”), I have no intention of starting another “cultural war”. Rather, I want to explicitly state here something that other Jewish friends and acquaintances have sheepishly mentioned to me over the years: Purim is one “strange” story (and they don’t mean that positively). Some of you readers might have had the same queasy feeling.

The standard narrative is well known. Indeed, it is the classic basis for the Jewish trope (and joke): “What’s a Jewish holiday all about? The Gentiles tried to kill us, we fought back and won, and now let’s eat…”. Haman tried to manipulate King Ahaseurus into decreeing the destruction of the Jews, Esther devised a plan to turn the tables on Haman and succeeded, the Jews killed their Persian enemies, and we Jews celebrate to this day by eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor (the only day of the Jewish calendar when drunkenness is permitted). Kids celebrate by masquerading, adults by gorging on “hamantaschen” (in Hebrew “oznei Haman” = Haman’s Ears), and a good time is had by all.

So, what’s not to like? Well, when read a bit more closely, the Purim story is a complete travesty of Jewish ethics and commandments! Esther, an orphan, is brought up by her “uncle” (or cousin?), and when the king decides to find a new queen through a “beauty contest” (in the king’s bedchambers) of all the country’s virgins, she joins!! In other words, she is willing to have sexual relations before marriage, and with a Gentile no less. Then when she wins the competition, she actually marries the Gentile king!!! When was that ever condoned in Judaism? Indeed, in Jewish Law there are only three transgressions that prevent the saving of life – one of them, illicit sexual relations – so how does Mordechai even suggest that all this happened to save the Jews??

The Rabbis came up with all sorts of convoluted “explanations”, e.g., Esther was actually married to Mordechai (!?!) and didn’t consummate anything with the king (??); or, she would go to the mikveh (ritual pool for cleansing) before having relations with the king, and then again when she snuck out of the palace to have relations with Mordechai (again – her guardian and close relative). I am not making this up – the Rabbis actually put forth such speculations.

Not as egregious from the standpoint of Jewish Law, but quite unJewish nonetheless is Mordechai’s self-aggrandizement in the concluding sections. We are asked (actually commanded) to repeat every year the heroics of Mordechai (“the great man”, as the book puts it) – that he ostensibly wrote himself! Where did Jewish modesty go?

Which of these two main narratives is correct – the traditional one representing the Jewish Diaspora experience through the ages (trying to successfully fight anti-Semitism), or a highly problematic “outlier” in the Biblical canon? Obviously, I’m not objective given my antipathy to the entire Esther story, but consider these two points. First, where did the names Mordechai and Esther come from? The ancient Mesopotamian gods Marduk and Ishtar!! In other words, not only is the behavior of our “hero” and “heroine” reprehensible (by Jewish standards), but their very names suggest that they are not acting Jewishly (maybe because they might not be?).

Second, other than the Song of Songs (a love poem), the Book of Esther is the only other book in the entire Bible where God’s name is not mentioned! The Almighty was obviously as embarrassed by this narrative as I am…

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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