The Test of Esther

In generations to come, the elections of 2016 will be viewed as a historic flashpoint for the American Jewish community, due to what is and — perhaps more significantly — what is not happening.

Senator Bernie Sanders has to the best of my knowledge picked up far more delegates than any other Jewish presidential candidate in history, his candidacy capturing the imagination and support of a significant slice of the American electorate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mother-in-law to a nice Jewish boy, was not too long ago standing under the huppah with President Clinton beside their Methodist daughter — a watershed moment for American Jews second only perhaps to Oreo cookies going kosher.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump has a daughter and son-in-law who are active, observant and upstanding members of the Upper East Side Jewish community, engaged in Jewish life to a degree that I think we all can and probably should aspire.

And then, as if things weren’t already interesting enough, this week President Obama chose Merrick Garland as his nominee for the Supreme Court — a Jew born to a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. You may have heard Garland speak movingly and beautifully in the Rose Garden of his family’s immigration from the Pale of Settlement, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping for a better life for their children in America. The current situation is an extraordinary state of affairs in the history of Jews in American politics, perhaps in the history of Jews in the Diaspora altogether.

That said, I believe that in years to come, what will be found far more interesting than what has happened and is happening vis-à-vis Jews in the public sphere, will be what is not happening — in both the Jewish and the broader community. I recall, vividly, the drama surrounding Al Gore’s August 2000 choice of the Jewish Senator Joe Lieberman as his vice-presidential candidate. The fact that Bernie Sanders is Jewish has been totally inconsequential to his reception as a candidate — either to his benefit or detriment. Even his full-throated embrace of his Jewish roots last week elicited nothing more than a collective shrug from Jews and non-Jews. It has been Ted Cruz’s prayer life that has caught the attention of the public, not the fact that the mekhutonim of our presidential front-runners are both, well . . . mekhutonim. Contentious as Garland’s nomination may be, his Jewish roots, it would seem, will have absolutely no bearing on the question of whether he will or will not be confirmed.

So many Jews in the public eye and so little being said! Is that a good sign or a bad one, or maybe a little of both? Does the fact that nobody inside or outside the Jewish community seems to care bode well for the Jews or just the opposite? Is it a signal that American Jews no longer are, or are perceived to be, or perceive themselves to be a coherent religious community? There are, undoubtedly, more questions than answers. It is an extraordinary time to watch Jews, Jewish interests, and Jewish values play out in the public sphere — a fascinating and unsettling state of affairs.

But it is not unprecedented.

There are many ways to read the scroll of Esther, the story of the festival of Purim that we will celebrate on Wednesday night. It is festival about kings and queens, masks and merriment, disaster averted, heroism and of course, hamentashen. But at its core it is a tale about how a diaspora Jewish community navigates the threats and opportunities of being a distinct minority, all the while living in remarkable proximity to the halls of power. The intrigue of Haman’s dastardly plot against the Jews was not that it was hatched; that fact in and of itself would not be enough to carry the story. The intrigue is that unbeknownst to Haman, Ahasuerus and a whole lot of others, Esther the Queen was herself a Jew! The scroll of Esther is a story of the shifting and unpredictable nature of power. The Jewish people are a body politic without a defined polity. On so many fronts Esther is powerless — she is a Jew in exile, a woman, and an orphan — yet the combination of her beauty and her Uncle Mordecai’s initiative has thrust her into the royal palace. Her regal status, however, comes at the cost of a significant concession: She must not reveal her Jewishness to anyone.

There is something altogether jarring in Mordecai’s initial counsel to Esther in chapter two:  If you want to make it in this world, Esther, if you want to improve your condition, if you want to walk the halls of power, better keep your head down. Don’t let them know who you are; your Jewishness has no place in the public sphere.  Lest we forget, her name is Esther — from the Hebrew root meaning “to hide.” Esther is who she is only by hiding the most important feature of her personhood.

As a national story, the story of Esther will reach its redemptive conclusion when the Jewish people as a whole are saved from Haman’s scheme. On a personal dimension, the decisive scene upon which the entire narrative pivots takes place in chapter four when Mordecai reverses his initial counsel to Esther regarding her Jewish identity. The Jewish people, Mordecai explains, are now in trouble: The genocidal face of anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head. You, Esther, must no longer hide; at great personal risk you must reveal yourself to be a Jew. “Who knows,” reasons Mordecai, “perhaps it was for just such an occasion that you arrived at the station of royalty.” Your people need you and you must intercede – as a Jew. Esther, we know, will step up to the call of the hour. No longer merely a beauty queen living at the command of men, she asserts her will, her power, and her Yiddishkeit in defense of her people. She knows the risks – “If I perish,” she sighs, “I will perish.”

The mask comes off. What was veiled now stands revealed, and she pulls on the levers of power to intercede on behalf of her brethren no matter the consequences. If Esther is a story about the political power and powerlessness of diaspora Jewry, then its take-home message could not be clearer. We must, even at risk of peril, be ready and resolute in standing up the needs of the Jewish People and Jewish values, and we must do so as Jews.

To tell the political history of Diaspora Jewry over the past century is to measure ourselves against the litmus test of Esther. We enjoy telling the story of Eddie Jacobson, President Truman’s Jewish friend and business partner, who, at the critical hour, persuaded the President to meet with Chaim Weizmann, arguably leading towards US diplomatic recognition of the new State of Israel. For that matter, we like to tell the story of Chaim Weizmann and his associates, who, having achieved great wealth and influence in their day, secured the 1917 Balfour declaration. Far less comfortable, of course, are those times — too many to count — when American Jews, despite their proximity to power, have proven reluctant to speak up as Jews on behalf of Jews. The well-documented failure of President Roosevelt’s inner circle — so stocked with Jews as to be derisively referred to not as the “New Deal,” but the “Jew Deal” — to sway the President to act on behalf of an imperiled European Jewry, stands out as perhaps the ultimate failure of the “Esther test” in the modern era.

Our Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, as noted, is a proud Jew. In an ironic twist of history, his wife Lynn Rosenman is the granddaughter of Samuel Rosenman, a man who despite having served as a state Supreme Court justice and trusted counsel to FDR, has not received kind judgment in the eyes of Jewish history. Among other failures of the Esther test, when he was asked by FDR whether to allow for more Jewish refugees in the wake of Kristallnacht, Rosenman replied that he opposed such a move because “it would create a Jewish problem in the United States.” (Rafael Medoff, ed., Jewish Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook, p. 113).

At the other end, a few decades later a small coterie of Jewish policy makers such as Richard Perle and Morris Amitay, having learned the lesson of “never again,” played an instrumental role in the passage of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment and the freeing of Soviet Jewry. At times leaders who are Jewish have stepped up to the Esther test, at times they have not. The pendulum does not hang still — there are many factors at play, and hindsight, as the expression goes, is 20/20.

All of which leaves us with the question with which we began, not about history — about yesterday — but about today and tomorrow. We live in a time and place not altogether dissimilar from that of Esther. We are comfortable here in the Diaspora. There are Jews in high places. Some of them wear their Yiddishkeit on their sleeves; some of them, not at all; and some of them draw attention to it only when politically expedient. Despite our comforts and blessings, there are clear and present threats, as in the time of Esther: threats to the Jewish community in Europe, threats to the state of Israel. And there are opportunities to see Jewish values play out in the public sphere. What should our posture be? Should we hide our identities? Should we speak openly and stridently as Jews? What does our moment ask of us as American Jews, ask of our leaders who are Jewish?

I believe that we must follow the example of Esther. We dare not check our Judaism at the door, especially when Jewish lives are at stake. To the suggestion made in the Wall Street Journal this past week that Jews should vote their mind and not their ethnicity, I would respond that we must absolutely vote our Jewish minds, we must embrace the opportunity and obligation to let Jewish values inform our public stance. (Joseph Epstein, “The Political Stupidity of the Jews Revisited,” WSJ, March 13, 2016). Long gone are the days of Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, who when asked for a proper blessing for the czar replied “May God bless and keep the czar far away from us.”

It is incumbent upon us to engage, impact, and influence public discourse as best we can — as Jews! There will inevitably be Haman-like figures peddling anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalty, as if it is somehow un-American to be assertive as a Jew in the public sphere. As Jews and as Americans we must categorically reject such assertions. The promise of our country is not freedom from religion, but freedom of religion. No different than the evangelical, African-American, or any community, Jews should feel free to draw on Jewish values and interests to inform our stance on the issues of the day. Hunger, health care, education, poverty, refugees, immigration, defense, Israel — our tradition has much to say about these and other issues, ranging from neo-conservative to the liberal left.

We are not uniform in our views; we are, after all, Jews. No person should ever claim to speak for all Jews or for Judaism. But what we cannot do is act as if Judaism and Jews have nothing to say, sitting around waiting for help to arrive from another place when we ourselves are stationed to take action. The stakes are too high. On this Shabbat Zakhor, we heed the commandment to remember what Amalek did to us and we obligate ourselves to stand proudly as Jews on behalf of those Jewish values we hold dearest.

Sunday morning, along with a delegation of Park Avenue Synagogue congregants, I arrived in Washington. DC for the annual AIPAC conference. AIPAC is far from perfect and, like any organization constituted by a flawed and diverse humanity, sometimes it misses the mark and sometimes AIPAC’s views do not represent mine. But here is the thing: As an American Jew living in this blessed historical moment, I am not throwing away my shot. I have both the opportunity and obligation to vigorously exercise my rights as a citizen to influence and shape public policy when it comes to matters of Jewish concern. For me, the health and well-being of the State of Israel is near if not at the very top of that list. I am there as an American, I am there as a Jew, I am there as a lover of the State of Israel, and I am there proudly and unapologetically. Most of all, I am there with my high school age daughter, because you know and I know that the test of any value we purport to hold dear is whether we model it for the next generation.

The scroll of Esther is just that: a scroll. Unrolled and re-rolled year after year, generation after generation, it speaks to us this year with an urgency that cannot be ignored. Who knows if it was not for just this moment that we were brought to our station? I can’t know for sure, but I am not willing to risk being on the wrong side of the question. Some things are better not left to chance. Today and every day, may we be ever ready to stand proud as Jews, to pass the test of Esther, and to stand vigilant whenever the safety and security of world Jewry is in question.

About the Author
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD is Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, is an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of seven volumes of sermons and the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time.