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(First published in Yediot Aharonot – Literary Supplement, Fri. March 10, 2006)
The Scroll of Esther appears to have been composed through the fog of alcohol. Wine and drunkenness permeate it from start to finish. Through the lens of the wine, we who read it every year see a world that is upside-down and topsy-turvy, as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Only Haman the Agagite remains forever wicked and evil, a kind of lone, fixed axis that stands out among the fluid, colorful and outrageous characters in this story that pokes endless fun at its readers.
Let’s take a look at some of these reversals: first of all, the Jewish people was persecuted, as Haman the wicked described: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws.” (3:8). And lo and behold, this people is saved by a hidden miracle, revealed through the wisdom and devices of a very wise Jew and Jewess, who take control of the king’s court and save the people from genocide. But from another angle, that of the Megillah’s 9 th chapter, it appears that from the moment the sword of destruction was lifted from the neck of the Jews, they themselves became cruel and with great enthusiasm “struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies” (9:5). In Shushan alone “the Jews. killed a total of five hundred men” (9:12) and the following day, another three hundred, and in the rest of the king’s lands, the Jews killed an additional 75,000 men (!) including hanging Haman’s 10 sons, from Parshandata through Vaizatha. All this was accomplished in a single day – on the 13 th of Adar. On the day following the slaughter, they celebrated and held a public feast.
Yet another reversal: an innocent Jewish orphan, shapely and beautiful, is placed by her parents in the custody of her uncle, so that she will be given a proper Jewish education. She is brought to the king’s court, rises to greatness on the merits of her beauty, wisdom and courage, and with the help of her self-control and the public support of her maidens and all of the Jews, becomes a powerful queen (sexually and politically) and saves her people from persecution. Alternatively, however, one might say that Esther is taken, or in other words abducted or trafficked for purposes of prostitution by the king, in respectable venues – in rooms scented with myrrh and perfume, and not in dark and dismal hideaways. The queen, in essence, is the call-girl of the very man who stands at the head of kingdom. She does not marry her true love, or the man of her parents’ choosing, who died when she was a small girl, on account of which their darling was placed in the care of her uncle, their faithful custodian. The Jewish woman, who pleased all who beheld her and rose to greatness in a foreign land, also became a tyrant at the wave of a hand and the quill, when she wrote dispatches commanding the mass killing of the ‘Jew-haters.’
And what were the actions of her uncle-mentor, who “would walk about in front of the court of the harem” (2:9) – why? Was it to save her from the harem? Or was it to indulge himself in the beauty of the other women? Or perhaps, to spy and to bend his ear to the whisperings of the courtiers in order to penetrate the court and climb higher on the social ladder on the back of a girl whose body was sold as a commodity, the very girl placed in his care?
And what else can we say about the heroes of the story, whose names testify to their shameful feelings towards the monotheistic religion of their ancestors and sought to blend in among the nations and follow their laws: Esther = Istahar (the Ashtoret) and Mordechai = Marduk, the pinnacle of the Babylonian divine pantheon.
And what can we say of poor Queen Vashti, evicted from the palace and the harem (perhaps there are worse fates.), precisely because she gathered her courage, refusing to deviate from her modest ways and resisting the order to appear before the king’s lecherous friends? Thus does the Scroll of Esther turn ethical conventions upside down and reverse them, each time casting the same characters and story in a different light, and through them, ourselves and the dramas of humankind.
One of the first commentaries on the Scroll of Esther is Tosafot l’Megilat Esther , dated to the 2 nd century C.E. at the latest, which appears in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Hebrew text of the Bible. The Tosafot is still part of the Apocrypha, preserved by the Church, and its influence on the literature of the Sages can also be seen, for example, in Esther Rabba . According to the Tosafot , Mordechai’s decision to hand the daughter entrusted to him over to King Ahasuerus was not for his own advancement, but rather in response to a prophetic dream he had regarding the danger awaiting the Jews. Ahasuerus was a fair king who sought peace and calm, and wanted “to renew the peace that all people desire.” It’s just that he made a human error in hiring the wrong advisor (Haman.). The temptress Esther is no more than a tortured righteous woman, who faints straight into the arms of her (noble) husband, who embraces her and draws her to his heart, declaring to her in a voice full of confidence and love: “I am your brother; be strengthened; do not die!” When he discovers the order to kill the Jews, Ahasuerus issues an edict in all of his land in which he makes clear how the regrettable incident occurred: “Haman ben Hamdata [.] who is truly foreign to the Persian blood [.] and using sly, deceitful words asked to bring about the demise of Mordechai our savior and who does good on our behalf in all things, and Esther the pure, along with their people.” In the happy ending according to these Tosafot , the Megillah became a story of the good guys versus a sinister villain. The message: How good and pleasant it is for all the nations to dwell together!
But the Sages chose not to give subsequent generations of exegetes an easy time. The Tosafot were not included in the Hebrew text of the Megilla, and instead of a clear message of good prevailing over evil, the Sages of Israel decided to leave their progeny with the grating complexity and inversions of the Scroll of Esther and the Purim holiday. They passed onto us a written version of the Megillah, according to which the slaughter at the end of the tale goes undisputed, and the extent to which it is justified remains in doubt. Ahasuerus comes across as a licentious and irresponsible king. And while Esther and Mordechai, are honored as saviors of Israel in late liturgical poems for Yom Kippur, no social ‘purification’ is carried out to remedy their dark sides. Thus the tradition demanding that we grapple with the complexity of the story survived.
The aggada in Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud dove deep down into the bright-blue waters, and mainly into the capricious character of Esther, and sailed on the fog of the wine to the world of delusions. According to this text Esther’s skin was green, yet she was also beautiful. One view states she lived on seeds in order to keep kosher in the king’s house, while other Sages report that she ate ham to her heart’s content. She observed the laws of family purity, as a daughter of Israel and a dignified minister. After immersing in the ritual bath she would go back and forth between Ahasuerus to Moredchai, the two men of her life, living in the bosom of both, alternately as wife and as virgin. While standing in her royal costume in the court to seduce Ahasuerus, divine prophetic vision would descend upon her, and she tempted the king with a clear head and uplifted chin, all the while the royal crown perched upon her head in its full glory.
Thus have we inherited an additional incarnation, full of reversals, of Queen Esther.
And what was the fate of the 9 th chapter? It remained unchanged, since anyone who hears that the Jews, the people miserably persecuted by the nations of the Diaspora, killed their enemies, would laugh at the very possibility, ridiculous at the outset.
And how did our secular Zionists Sages go about applying their own inversions and innovations to the story? “I come with shtreimel and fringe – do not move until the Purim play begins,” wrote Levin Kipnis, beloved children’s author who made aliya in 1913. As kindergarten and grade school children in the secular public schools, we would wait all year long to dress as King Ahasuerus or Queen Esther (and today: for new versions of the story – Superman and Cinderella – from traditions outside of our own). No one told us – we who were raised on the knees of secular-cultural Zionism – about the 9 th chapter of the Megillah. Purim was for us the holiday of the Ad-lo-yada Purim parade named for the tradition of getting drunk until one cannot distinguish between Haman the wicked and blessed Mordechai. It was the holiday of legendary dancer and showman Baruch Agadati, of little Tel Aviv, of costume stores and parades, of face-painting and celebrations and mishloach manot for adults and children.
Through this conspiracy of silence, they tried to act upon their love of the Jewish tradition, despite – and perhaps precisely because of its complexity. In the attempt to infuse the holiday with an enlightened meaning, they silently amputated the fanatical tradition. The first secular Zionists sought to resurrect a different Jewish consciousness, one that stood tall and proud, and at the same time sought peace.
Yet when we read from the Torah on Purim morning “remember that which Amalek did unto you” we must take care to remember the inconsistencies of the human soul, which in a flash can turn the day of joy into a day of mourning, the rejoicing to suffering and the wine, to blood. In leaving Chapter 9 inside the Megilla, and Tosafot Esther outside, the Talmudic Sages were saying that the heroes of the nation had the potential to turn vengeful and fanatical, and that as Jews we must exercise caution in this regard. They also insisted that the joy in the streets, the dancing and costumes, the carnivals and drinking feasts go on. All this so that we not lose hope in the ability of the human soul, the heroes and heroines, to overcome their dark weaknesses, to control their impulses and to bring us light and gladness, happiness and honor.
Einat Ramon Dean, Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Jerusalem Senior Lecturer, Jewish Thought and Women’s Studies, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem.
Einat Ramon is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish Women’s Studies at Schechter and one of the founders of professional spiritual care in Israel (she is the writer of Israeli spiritual caregivers’ standards and ethical code.) In 2012 she founded the Marpeh program – the only academic program for the training of spiritual caregivers in the context of pluralistic Jewish studies, where she teaches and supervises chaplaincy students and Israeli pastoral education supervisors-in-training. Dr. Ramon writes academic and popular books and articles about contemporary Hassidic spirituality, the philosophy and methods of spiritual care , Zionist and North American Jewish thought, and modern Jewish women’s theology and ethics— particularly concerning family and bioethics issues. She is a third generation native Jerusalemite, received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Stanford University, she is married to (Reform) Rabbi Arik Ascherman and is a mother of two.