THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Reading Esther after Auschwitz

After Auschwitz, the Purim story takes on a different feeling.

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March 7, 2018 18:23
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

ONCE AGAIN Jews throughout the world have listened to the reading of one of the most dramatic books of the Bible, which is also one of the most problematic – the Book of Esther. The book – known simply as the Megilla – the Scroll – is problematic for many reasons. Why does the Bible have a book that has no mention of God or commandments? Who wrote it and why? Is it historical or fiction? What are we supposed to learn from it? Is it a serious work or a satire? There are many different ways in which one may approach the understanding of any book. One is to try to discern what the author meant. Another is to take the position that once a book is written, the meaning lies not in what the writer intended but in what the reader understands. If we adopt the first approach, most current scholars would probably say that the writer intended to create a story that would explain why Persian Jews celebrated a carnival-like festival at a certain time of year. To justify their doing so, they adapted an ancient Persian myth about a struggle among the gods and made it an account of the triumph of Jews over their enemies. Of course that is not what Jewish tradition says. It understands the book as the account of a historical event and explains the absence of the Divine Name as portraying the role of God as a hidden force behind the triumph of the Jews.

If we take the second approach, there can be no one answer. Each person will have to give his/her own reply as to what he/she finds in the book and learns from it. Some might say that it teaches that we must take responsibility for continued Jewish existence, as Esther did. Or that Jews should always try to attain positions of power and maintain good contacts with the authorities when they live in Diaspora communities.

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