Thriving in the Diaspora

Persian Jewry can serve as a role model for Jews who live outside of the Land of Israel.

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In this article, the author examines a number of issues in the Book of Esther from a theological perspective: the relation between the Book of Esther and the Bible, humor as a Jewish perception of the unstable world, Jewish communities flourishing in the Diaspora, and the possibility of redemption in Diaspora. Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

The most remarkable contribution of Purim and the scroll of Esther is to present the transformation of Persian Jewry not as a product of either blind chance or human effort alone but, in true covenantal fashion, as a result of God's working in history. It is not chance (pur) but Providence that ultimately accounts for the reversal of Esther's fortunes and, because of her, of Israel's as well. Thus, the Book of Esther brings the Diaspora into the great pattern of redemption history.

The Persian Jewish community, as reflected in the Book of Esther, responded to the entire episode with a determination to survive as Jews and with a discerning reaffirmation of its Jewishness in relation to gentiles. Nowhere is there a hint that all gentiles were like Haman. Jews attacked people because they were unjustified enemies intent on murder, not because they were gentiles. Gentiles who helped were neither censured nor criticized. The Jews avoided blind affirmation of the victory and naive praise of Jewish-gentile cooperation.

Biblical Humor in the Book of Esther

Purim celebrated the ability of the Jew to live and cope with an imperfect world where shrewd use of power and opportunity often spelled the difference between destruction and survival. It celebrated (and admitted!) the narrow margin by which Jews snatched meaning from the jaws of tragedy and absurdity in history. The humor, mockery, and tongue-in-cheek tone of the Book of Esther and of the holiday is a perfect way to express the ambiguities and reversals built into the occasion. The way to deal with reversals is to play with them; humor can be the key to sanity. It is the only healthy way to combine affirmation with ongoing doubt.

Although the Bible uses humor to mock the pretensions of God's adversaries, the application of satire in a holy day was unprecedented. No wonder established thinkers hesitated or resisted; adoption of the Purim holiday came from the folk, which expressed itself in a rollicking (to scholars, "unseemly") way. It took time for the religious authorities to confirm the holiday, and it took centuries for the Book of Esther to be fully accepted as worthy of inclusion in the Bible.

Persian Jews gave up neither on the Diaspora nor on their Jewishness. Despite the narrow margin of their salvation, they remained committed and involved in Persia. The scroll of Esther describes their remarkable transformation from a condemned, vulnerable minority to a powerful, confident community. Thanks to Jewish self-assertion and the hidden grace of God, the mourning, fasting, weeping, and lamenting are turned into "light, joy, gladness, and honor" for the Jews. Purim "reruns" the Exodus story. This time its result is not a happy ending in the Promised, Land but peace and prosperity in the Diaspora.

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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).