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Digging Deeper into Esther’s Mysteries

Some consider the Book of Esther history. Others, a fairy tale. After all, there is a virtuous and beautiful maiden and her protective (non-fairy) godparent, a king, a villain, looming danger, a heroic act and then… an improbably happy ending. Whether history or myth, Esther is more complicated than she seems. Like all biblical literature, there is meaning in the details. With its multiple reversals of fortune and the absence of any direct reference to God, Esther’s story raises numerous questions. So, it’s a thrill to read an author and teacher whose knowledge of rabbinic texts, classical sources and modern critical commentaries combine to tackle these questions. Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile by Erica Brown [Maggid Press, $29.95], does just that, while remaining accessible to readers of all levels.

Brown’s thought-provoking explorations of character, especially of the mysterious Vashti and her more successful counterpart, Esther, are well worth reading, as is her analysis of their reception throughout history. Brown details rabbis’ condemnation of Vashti’s alleged immorality and also explains how the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement adopted her as a defender of women’s rights! 

Yet for someone like me (a Conservative rabbi and Bible Ph.D. dropout), there are a few disappointments. Brown’s section on the pagan associations (Esther = Ishtar, Mordecai = Marduk, etc.) barely touches on modern scholarship on the subject. It opens by vaguely noting that “Haman’s name may have derived from the god of Susa…”, without providing that deity’s name.

It’s reasonable that Brown’s book would be shaped in some measure by her (modern) Orthodoxy and her target audience, which consciously includes other Orthodox Jews. This, perhaps, explains her reluctance to dwell upon Esther’s pagan antecedents. But there is also a reflexive tendency among Orthodox interpreters to blend midrashic (broadly, interpretive) explanations with peshat (the contextual meaning) and to give them equal weight. This may be why Brown’s book fails to make sufficiently explicit whether she is proposing a peshat reading, gleaning from classical Midrash (the literary genre), or “waxing midrashic” (embroidering upon the story) herself.

I hope that more teachers and students of Torah (including rabbis of my movement) will come to understand that Torah should include what we learn about our sacred books from inscriptions, archaeology, text and literary analysis, knowledge of cognate languages and pre-monotheistic religion. 

We’ve all probably heard the following narrative of the Purim story: “another story about how they tried to kill us all and failed because God protected us, so let’s party!”  

Brown does not contradict this, exactly, but she is more attentive to detail than the cliché suggests: according to Brown, the reversals in the book of Esther describe the temporary nature of Jewish power, the role of “fate” in the lives of the Jews and the fragility of safety in exile. Jewish power relies on discretion and yields protection by the ruler.  But rulers are fickle, and we may suddenly be at the mercy of a hateful regime. And throughout the story, there is the question of fate: is what happens to the Jews a roll of the dice — mere chance? Do we have a fixed destiny, which, like King Ahasuerus’ laws, cannot be rescinded? Or may God’s intervention supersede fate, even in exile?  

The Book of Esther still speaks to us, even in the “safe” diaspora without ruling monarchs — because governments may shift, policies change and antisemitism reasserts itself.  And so, every year at Purim, Esther warns us. And despite all that, as it was for the Jews of Persia who found light, joy, happiness and honor, so may it be for us! And long may it last.

Rabbi Chana Thompson Shor is a Conservative rabbi, the first woman mesader gittin (preparer of Jewish religious divorce), a Judaic fabric artist, and a writer.