At the outset it seems a perverse text, undoing what other texts in the Tanach tell us: that there is a God in heaven (who sometimes reveals Himself on earth), and that He makes sure that everything turns out for the good, especially for His chosen people the Jews, even if they have to wait around a bit. In the strange and alien story of the Megilla, God is noticeable by His absence.
Moreover, the Jews do not appear to observe halacha, in fact they violate some of its most sacred traditions. Esther, for example, marries an unstable, goyische king at the behest of her cousin Mordechai, who may be married to her according to some of our most distinguished rabbis, including Rashi. Similarly, when the peace-loving, if passive, Jews of the time get the opportunity, they merrily slaughter 75,000 and more of their fellow citizens. What is going on here? Is this why we celebrate Purim, for the wrong reasons?
There have been any number of commentaries on this tightly told tale, trying to explain these apparent contradictions between the text and the context, between what is written and what is considered normative Judaism.
Now Dr. Seymour Epstein has thrown his kippah in the ring, attempting to explain why all other interpretations missed the point, and does so by addressing the question of the motivation of the author or authors. His hypothesis is simply put. The scroll is a parody, that makes living in the diaspora an impossibility for Jews who want to remain Jews in the way of the Tradition.
Epstein was encouraged in his exploration of the text when he was sent to Morocco to teach (by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). In Morocco, he found a strictly traditional community under the aegis of a King (Hassan ll) and with a court Jew (a Monsieur Amar) , a situation which enabled him to draw parallels with the folks in far-off Persia. They, too, were totally dependent on the whims of an inconsistent ruler. They, too, suffered from the vulnerability of the diaspora situation.
Epstein backs his thesis with a number of proofs. Firstly, however, it is important to remember that his critical analysis assumes that the Scroll has an original, alpha text to which certain additions were added later that would cast a shadow on his overall view that the scroll is a negation of life in the diaspora. Examples of these additions include the prayers that Mordechai and Esther offer up (which are only in the Septuagint, which adds God’s name).
One dimension of Epstein’s argument is his attack on the rabbinical rewriting of the tale. They make out Mordechai as the ultimate Jew and Esther as a pure soul who is the victim of a non-Jewish twit. These additions do more than just elaborate on the original story, they transform the story into something opposite of what was originally intended. It transforms a tragedy into a victory.
In his line-by-line analysis of the text, Epstein shows how the effect of exile has pulled the Jews – all the Jews – away from Judaism. For example, when Mordechai speaks to Esther after she has married Achashverus, he demands that she hides her Jewish identity rather than lecture her on the importance of keeping Shabbat or kashrut. Contrariwise, Mordechai reveals his identity as a Jew as the reason for not bowing down to Haman. In the same way the Jews have forgotten how they counted the months back in Israel and give – for almost the first time – pagan, Babylonian names to the months, Adar, Nisan and Sivan. Confusion is a natural outcome of living in exile.
Haman’s appearance in chapter three, historically ushers in antisemitism, another clear sign that living in the Diaspora is bad for Jews, since antagonism towards them is an integral part of living outside the holy land. The Jews are permanent outsiders, although censured by the rabbis for imbibing non-kosher wine. It is at one with the implied criticism of the godless society in which the Jews have found themselves. They are embedded in a society that emphasizes materialism, partying and drinking. It is a polity characterized by corruption and irresponsible leadership.
Further interference with the original text is related to the absence of God. This proved too much for some of the redactors of the Megillah, like the Greek translators of the Septuagint and Josephus both of whom add in God’s name in the prayers of Mordechai and Esther, forgetting perhaps that God does not appear in a place of impurity, which ancient Persia certainly was. Quite the opposite, for Mordechai’s prayer is not directed at the Deity but is markedly non-specific (4:1). Epstein uses this fact to stress the distance that Mordechai himself is from his own culture. Esther, too, initially manifests her alienation from her Jewish origins by refusing to take up the role of savior of her people, instead she is passive even when confronted with Mordechai’s demands, and says weakly: “If I die, I die “ (4:16). This weakness is repeated in Esther’s request from her aids to fast for three days –which will make them weaker rather than stronger. Moreover these three days will fall on Pessach, when fasting is forbidden according to Halacha, a further sign of their gross assimilation.
Although Esther eventually is transformed into a savior, she does it through the heavily sexual atmosphere of the court, hinted perhaps by the phallic symbolism of the king’s scepter, a point taken up by the Talmud (Megilla 15b) which suggests that the sages also enjoyed the joke.
Even after the Jews revenge themselves on their antisemitic enemies in chapter nine they don’t thank God. Their violence towards a passive community is gratuitous to put it mildly.
To cap it all the festival of Purim which emerged from this tale is celebrated by a drink-fest, hardly the most Jewish way of celebration; rather, it is a copy of what the non-Jews in Persia did (on any occasion).
Epstein’s hypothesis is extremely well-substantiated. It gives a totally new twist on a story that has fascinated generations of Purim-observing Jews. Little do they realize that the anti-galut (exile) message was so well-wrapped up that it has taken till now to deconstruct the text to reveal its real intent. Le’chaim!■
The Esther Scroll: The Author’s Tale
Mosaic Press: 145 pages: $18.95
(Available on Amazon. Hebrew version available at Steimatsky’s book stores)