Revelation: The Next Level

A hidden God allows for a more active human role in the covenant.

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A striking feature of the Book of Esther is the fact that God is not mentioned in the text. Why, then, is Esther part of the Jewish Bible? The author of this article interprets the text to show that the Purim story is closer to a modern relationship with God than other biblical narratives. God has taken a less active role, thereby making it possible for humanity to have a greater role in partnership with God. Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

The holiday of Purim represents a great step forward in the history of Revelation and in the sophistication of Jewish religious understanding. Unlike the earlier traditions of Exodus, where the redemption from Egypt was accompanied by phenomena of a miraculous nature, and unlike even the later victory of Hanukkah, which had at least one extraordinary sign attached to it (the oil that burned for eight days), Purim appears to be a purely natural, human-made phenomenon. It was achieved by court intrigue and bedroom machinations. In the plain sense of the text, its heroine is presented not as a God-intoxicated superhuman "saint" but as "the girl next door," frightened, lonely, using feminine wiles, an "ordinary" person.

Like all achievements in the real world, Purim was an admixture of moral ideal and moral compromise, which upsets perfectionists and religious purists. Fundamentalists objected that the holiday was not given in the Torah. It lacked the overtly supernatural; it was flawed by evil and human frailty and its victory was achieved by morally ambiguous methods. It would have been easy to dismiss Purim as secular, as not sanctioned by God, or to explain it away as accident. This is expressed in the absence of God's name in the scroll. However, by their acceptance of the Purim holiday, the people and ultimately the Rabbis, showed their grasp of the way to understand how God acts in history in the post-prophetic age. They realized that God operated not as the force crashing into history from outside but in the center of life as the One who is present in the "natural"and in the redemptive process in which the human is co-partner.

The Traditional View

In the tractate of Shabbat (88A), the Talmud tells a story that captures that transformation in the character of redemption and of covenant. The Talmud says that when the Israelites came out of Egypt to Sinai, God held the mountain over their heads and said, "Accept my Torah or I will bury you right here." To which a scholar, Raba, comments, "Then we can plead 'acceptance under duress' (as extenuating circumstances if we fail to live up to the covenant)." Not so, responds the Talmud, in the Book of Esther, for it states that "TheJews accepted and upheld [the Purim holiday]" (Esther 9:27). This means that the Jews, by freely accepting Purim, upheld (reinstituted) the original covenant acceptance of Sinai.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

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).