The Politics of Esther: The Story of our Times

There was surely a time when the Story of Esther must have been seen as Hebrew mythology or Biblical fantasy.  One man wielding State power constructs a legal order sustained by political authority calculated for the single purpose of killing every single Jew, men women and children.  And the Jews respond to the death sentence hanging over their heads, to the noose around their neck, not with martyrdom but with violence.  They organize themselves into military units, sustained by political authority, fight back and defeat their enemy.

But in our times, history has drained the Story of Esther of its fantastic and mythological elements.  To our shame – and to our credit – the Story of Esther became our reality.  Not so long ago, we faced the very same destruction which Haman plotted for the Jews of yore.  And while we succumbed in our millions to the European Holocaust, we were not destroyed by it.  The very generation which absorbed the destruction responded to the horror which engulfed them by establishing the instrument of their redemption and ours – a mighty and sovereign Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

The stark parallel between those times and our times is not limited to the broad strokes of the narrative which focuses on the brutal dichotomy between destruction and redemption.  Rather, it penetrates into every detail of the Story of Esther, infusing the blunt connection between those times and our times with a frightening poignancy.  Those Jews, like today’s Jews, were crushed between the desire to assimilate in to the glorious culture of the day and the burden of their Choseness.

The opening chapter of the Book of Esther establishes the reality of this harsh dialectic.  As the text tells us, in the third year of his reign, King Ahashvarosh sponsored a celebratory party of Royal dimensions replete with outstanding finery, exquisite food, and unusually fine wine.  And the text makes clear that the Jews of Shushan participated in the celebration to the max, behaving as if they were members of any one of the 127 nations which compromised the Kings polyglot Empire rather than members of God’s Chosen Nation.  Dietary laws limiting what Jews could eat and drink were no hindrance to social climbing and cultural integration.

And when the party was over, the Jews continued to express their assimilationist impulse.  When it came time to choose a new queen, Esther participated in the search for a Royal mate.  In all likelihood, many other pretty Jewish women did so as well, auditioning for the position which each and every one of them would have been thrilled to attain – sitting beside the King on his throne.  It even appears that the community relaxed the prohibition against intermarriage when the prize of such a union was the King.   More to the point, at least some Jews, like Esther, were so thoroughly assimilated that they could pass in the highest echelons of Persian society without calling attention to their Jewishness.  Otherwise, Esther’s silence on her ethnic origins would have been pointless since un-assimilated Jews cannot keep their identity secret.

But nothing speaks more directly Jewish assimilation back then, than the extremely odd description which the text employs when describing the response of the people in Shushan to the proclamation of annihilation of the Jews – “and the City of Shushan was confused.”

Confused?  The decree itself was crisp and clear leaving nothing to the imagination.  It boldly and forthrightly laid out the grim fate that awaited the Jewish nation, that on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of the year, every single Jew in the entire Empire – men women and children – was to be murdered, and their property was to be expropriated.

A chilling decree by any standard, but not one that left any room for confusion.  In response to the posting of the order, the Jews could flee in panic or hunker down and plan for their defense.  They could even become so dispirited that they lose the will to survive and abandon their fate to the gods.  But confused?  There was nothing confusing about the fate which now awaited them.

Unless, of course, the Jews of Shushan were confused by the stark contrast between their assimilationist illusions and the parochial reality which now confronted them.  They were confused by the fact that despite being part of the ethnic and cultural mosaic of Persian life, despite being able to pass in the halls of power and privilege, they remained a nation apart, forever a target of the others.

Only Mordecai the Jew was not confused.

Mordecai was fully cognizant of the illusions which the Jews of his time nourished about themselves and their social status.  He understood, as the text tells us, that a Jewish community enthrall to its assimilation cannot be entrusted even with their own survival.  Such Jews only waste their political assets, destroying in their lust for acceptance the very material factors which can save them from their enemies.

And that is why Mordecai had instructed Esther to keep her Jewish identity a secret, not only from the King and his Royal entourage but from her fellow Jews.  Had those Jews known that the Queen was a sister, a member of the Tribe, they would have wasted this asset, reading into it a guarantee of their continued assimilation, which it certainly was not.  Mordecai knew that assimilating Jews either forfeit their traditions in order to join the world or deform their traditions in order to hide from the world.

But in the face of Haman’s decree, Mordecai knew that the Jews would only survive if they engaged the world by using their Chosen status as a political tool for legitimating the world.  You see, once you face genocide you can have no illusions.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY
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