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 (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. 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 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 read- ing, 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, textual and literary analysis, knowledge of cognate languages, and pre-monotheistic religion.

We’ve all probably heard the Purim story as: “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, 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. We may suddenly be at the mercy of a hateful regime, after all.

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!