Unmasking the Purim Heroes

Were Mordecai and Esther assimilated Jews?

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Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Today, Purim is a quintessential Jewish holiday. To every little boy and girl who masquerades on Purim, Mordecai and Esther are arch-heroes of Jewishness. But a good case can be made that Mordecai and Esther, too, may have been quite integrated in Persian life and that Purim is the holiday brought to you by assimilated Jews.

What kind of Jews were Mordecai and Esther? Obviously, the answer has to be a speculation, and their record of saving the Jews speaks for itself. Still…

First, there is the matter of their names. Esther’s name probably is derived from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai’s name from Marduk, a Babylonian god. Equivalent names today might well be Mary and Christopher. Of course, committed Jews in open societies also adopted Gentile names. My parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted an Anglo-Saxon name for their little son, Yitzchak–so they named me Irving. But Christopher!

Then there is that Miss Persia contest. Esther was entered into a competition to become queen by marrying a Gentile king. Imagine that the president of the United States gets divorced and there is a nationwide beauty contest whose prize is marriage to the president. What kind of Jewish women would enter? Not likely Hasidic girls or graduates of Stern College [the women’s college of Yeshiva University].

The Megillah tells us that, at Mordecai’s instruction, Esther did not reveal her people or her origins while she lived at the king’s court. What did she eat? Did she go to the mikvah [ritual bath]? The Rabbis of the Talmud recognized the problem, and while some claim Esther had secret arrangements to keep Shabbat and kashrut, others conclude that she did not act very Jewishly.

It is also interesting that neither Mordecai nor Esther had any family, at least as far as the Megillah reveals. (A midrash suggests that they were married to each other, but that is another story.) One of the "crazy" reversals of the Purim story is that the Jewish characters seem to be living alone while the Haman types had the strong family ties.

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Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).

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