The Book of Esther

The subversive message of the Book of Esther

Op-ed: Beneath its carnival pizazz lies a deeper message that hints at a multifaceted Judaism. Eran Baruch explores the absence of overt Judaism in the megillah.

The Book of Esther is one of the most fascinating books of the Bible. There is much talk about its feminine-feminist dimension. This is certainly important, but there is another message that is hidden and repressed under the festive carnival aura of the story.



What may be connected to the feminine issue, is the story that's disguised in Purim: The secular scroll. Yes, you heard me right. Reading the scroll critically raises several important questions:


1. Where is God? Look hard. He's absent, is not mentioned and does not interfere. His name does not appear, nor does one of his other names, directly or indirectly. There is no other text like it in the Bible. This is not a deafening silence: It's more than that, as is revealed below.


The Book of Esther (Photo: Shem Olam)
The Book of Esther (Photo: Shem Olam)


2. What about the Torah and the commandments? Again, nothing. Even though Mordechai (named after the Babylonian god Marduk) does not kneel or prostrate before Haman, he does nothing that indicates that he's Jewish. He doesn't pray in the afternoons, give charity or observe the laws of family purity. Really, thre are no sign of observing the commandments. If it were not stated that Mordecai was a Jew, it would be hard to guess.


3. What about the Land of Israel? Again, nothing. The Holy Land. Zion, the joy of our lives, is just another of the 127 countries of the world. Without uniqueness, without yearning, without a hint of longing. What would Rabbi Kook say about that? Without God, without Torah and without the land of Israel, it's only Jewish nationalism without any religious trappings.


And it's important to internalize that  there is a guiding hand. Esther is a well-written composition. Everything is synchronized and organized and not coincidental, including what it does not say.


It's not just the absence of God that stands out and raises questions. The attempts to interpret the story also stand out. The allegory that Jewish commentators and others produced (the scroll was also very popular among Christians, especially in England and France from the 16th to 18th centuries), between the scroll's worldview the general worldview. Xerxes is the king; he dominates unchallenged in most of the ancient world. This naturally raises a comparison with the king of kings. But Xerxes runs the world capriciously and carelessly. He did not distinguish between passion, ambition, grace, and evil. All of this is intermingled, and what decides is the lot — Purim (literally, "lots"), which means fate or destiny.


Purim is a fairly secular holiday, and perhaps so is the story which inspires it. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Purim is a fairly secular holiday, and perhaps so is the story which inspires it. (Photo: Shutterstock)


The story is one big casino with a lot of alcohol and beautiful women. The roulette wheel spins, and things are cut down with cruel and meaningless timing. There is no justice or anyone enforcing it; worse than that, the judge is a fool and a drunkard who is uninhibited and unrestrained, is easily influenced by others, and is pulled to and fro without values, morals or a plan.


So in this case we were saved from death. It does not guarantee anything. Indeed, it's horrifying. If that is how things are in this world, it's worth being careful.


The Mishnah’s sages understood this subversive message, and there is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud about whether the Book of Esther should be included in the canon of holy writings. Luckily, they decided in the affirmative. They understood that skepticism, heresy and secularism are part of the people of Israel. Their decision to include the book along with several other subversive ones, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, in our cultural canon perhaps shows another face of Judaism. 


Unlike the face of religious Judaism (By the way, the word "dat" — religion in Hebrew — appearing here for the first time, is a Persian word that means "law") in Israel today, my Judaism is the multi-faced Judaism. It is a Judaism that has preserved the place to deliver, criticize and sometimes defy God. This is a significant and important part of building a society, a culture and a nation. Happy Purim.


Eran Baruch is the CEO of BINA-Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture.


פרסום ראשון: 03.24.16, 15:40
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