The Book of Esther: The ultimate disguise

Former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly Reuven Hammer discuses the intrigue of The Book of Esther.

Purim 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Purim 2014
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As we approach the feast of Purim, I continue to be intrigued by the Book of Esther, the book written in order to explain that holiday. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that – like everything else connected to Purim – there is more hidden than revealed, and that everything in it is in disguise and is not what it seems to be.
We are not the only ones who put on masks at Purim. The very Persian name of the heroine, Esther (Ishtar) in Hebrew means ‘hidden,’ and that is what she was. Hadassah hides herself as Esther, pretending to be what she is not. Indeed there is the tremendous contrast between Esther and Mordecai. He is always revealed. He is known even to the king as “Mordecai the Jew.” He goes out of his way to publicly identify as a Jew, even though his name too is Persian and not Hebrew.
He will not bow to Haman, he identifies himself to others as a Jew, he wears sackcloth and ashes in public.
Esther, on the other hand, is indeed “the hidden one.” She hides her real name, Hadassah, and she hides her Jewish identity. She lives in the palace as if she were a good Persian girl. If she practiced her Judaism there, she did so in secret. The irony is that she hides her Jewish identity at the behest of Mordecai – the public Jew! Why does he urge her to do that? Why does he want her to hide her Jewish identity and become the first Marrano, as it were? It is not accidental that to the hidden Jews of Spain and Portugal Esther became their patron saint.
No explanation is given for Mordecai’s urging her to pretend to be something else. Was he afraid that she would be harmed if they knew she was a Jew? Nothing is said at that point about danger to Jews.
Was he afraid that if it were known, she would not be chosen? Why would he even want her to be chosen in the first place, to become the concubine (not even the wife) of a pagan monarch? Later on he says that perhaps she attained her important position so that she could save the Jews, but did he have that in mind at the beginning? It doesn’t seem so.
The book itself is in disguise. It pretends to be the story of the triumph and victory of Diaspora Jews, but is it really? Most biblical scholars today view the book as a historical fiction rather than a book of history. Some see it as a comedy, a book written to accompany a Persian carnival holiday, and indeed it has more comedy than any other biblical book. I would add, however, that it is not merely a comedy or a farce, but a black comedy, what could be called a cause of bitter laughter. There is really nothing funny about the possibility of exterminating all the Jews – men, women and children – as Haman proposes to do. Nor is their salvation totally believable.
Can we seriously be asked to believe that the Persian king gave permission to the Jews to kill 75,000 of his people? When the life of the Jews of Persia depends upon the outcome of a beauty contest, on the fact that Haman falls on Esther on the couch and on a eunuch reminding the befuddled king that there is a stake he could use to impale Haman, is that really a plausible victory? The line between the survival of the Jews and their total destruction was very thin. Should Jews depend on something like that, or should they look to leave Persia? The story seems to be saying that Jews can live in a Diaspora community like Persia in safety, and if threatened, they will always be saved. But underneath the surface, the true message seems to be that they are saved only by chance. Is it wise to depend on such things? I know that many interpret this story as teaching that God intervened in secret, behind the scenes. It seems to me that biblical books have no problem in telling us when God intervenes. If that is the case here, why hide it? If God does not appear in this book even once, there must be a good reason.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).