Esther – fact or fantasy?

We all need to be able to relax and to laugh even when there are troubles. Purim gives us that opportunity and the Book of Esther – for all its problems – is perfect for that.

The Shrine venerated as the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran (photo credit: NICK TAYLOR / WIKIPEDIA)
The Shrine venerated as the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran
(photo credit: NICK TAYLOR / WIKIPEDIA)
The Book of Esther is the most entertaining book in the Bible – especially if you like satire and black humor. But it is also a very problematic work from many points of view.  As history, it seems to have no factual basis. The book begins like a historical chronicle – “It happened in the days of Ahasuerus....” (1:1) and later states that this story about Mordecai is “recorded in the annals of the Kings of Media and Persia.” (10:2)
That may be, but we have yet to see them there. Are we to believe that these events took place as written when there is no historical evidence of it? There is no record in Persian history of any of the Jewish characters in the book or even of Haman, nor of the incidents that are recorded. The book does show a real knowledge of Persian society and its court, however, so it must be assumed that it was written by someone who lived there but it is more likely a historical novel than a work of history.
From a religious point of view, Esther is also problematic. There is no mention of God, no mention of prayer, no concern with observance of Jewish ritual. What did Esther eat in the royal court? Where did she worship?  There is no concern about Esther’s conduct including marrying out of the faith. Later rabbinic texts seek to make up for all that, but the book itself ignores these questions. Yet somehow we manage to forget all of this and simply enjoy the story. Perhaps that is what we are intended to do – not to take this too seriously, but to see it for what it is – a black farce, making fun of our enemies and allowing us to enjoy the fantasy that Jews always come out on top.
Indeed you can actually read Esther as the Holocaust with a happy ending since Haman’s desire and the king’s decree was no less than “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and all, children and women…” (3:3). No Nazi could have demanded more.
My teacher, H.L Ginsberg, believed that this was a book written to be read in order to explain a Persian carnival holiday, in which Jews happily participated. They adapted a pagan story of the triumph of the good gods Marduk and Ishtar over the evil god Human, turning it into a human story depicting the triumph of Jews over their Persian enemies. Persian Jews wanted to enjoy this carnival and so retold the story in a Jewish way – but since it accompanied a carnival, it was never intended to be taken too seriously.
Esther is unique in the Bible in that it takes place totally in the diaspora and was written there as well. With the exception of a few verses mentioning the destruction, Zion plays no real role. From a Zionist point of view the story is therefor quite  problematic. Why does it never suggest that they move back to the land of Israel, something that was perfectly possible? Some scholars read it as justifying life in the Diaspora, teaching that Jews will always be able to overcome their local enemies, no matter how difficult. Look at what they did to Haman – and his sons! See how they manipulated the King – who was, not so incidentally, a bit of a fool.
On the other hand, Esther can be interpreted in the opposite way. Perhaps it is saying, can you really rely on such events as a Jewish girl winning a beauty contest to insure Jewish safety? If you really believe that things can happen in this way to assure Jewish existence – let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge at a good price. Life in the diaspora is dangerous. You cannot depend on the proverbial man on a white horse to come and save the situation at the crucial moment. Read that way Esther is  Zionist in a subversive way – actually saying “don’t ever depend on such things for your safety. It may be a good story but real life is not like that.”
Many people also object to the book because of its exuberant depiction of Jews slaughtering Persians in huge numbers, as found in chapters eight and nine. “”They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes” ((9:16). It should be remembered, however, that this was not gratuitous killing, but Jews defending themselves against enemies who had been given royal permission to exterminate them. 
Unfortunately some – such as Baruch Goldstein – took this as giving permission to slaughter non-Jews just because they are non-Jews and therefore potential enemies even when they have done nothing. He and others have used these chapters as a source giving permission to simply slay any one considered a potential enemy. The fact that people meet at his grave every year on Purim to read the Megillah is enough to warn us that it can be misinterpreted and used to justify murder even though that is not inherent in the book. In Esther it is made very clear that the Jews are not out for revenge or killing for its own sake but were simply defending themselves by fighting back against those who had been given kingly permission to eliminate each and every one of them. 
However we interpret the book of Esther, it is important that we make it clear to all – especially the young – that Judaism does not permit killing others for any reason except to defend ourselves and others from immediate danger.
So by all means enjoy the reading of the Megillah however you interpret it, but never forget that it is a fantasy meant to entertain and to give us much needed relief from the troubles of life but it does not teach us either to love violence or to ignore danger when it exists. We all need to be able to relax and to laugh even when there are troubles. Purim gives us that opportunity and the Book of Esther – for all its problems – is perfect for that.
Hag Purim Sameah!