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.
God’s Role in the Diaspora
By expanding the history of Jewish redemption to include Diaspora experiences, the Book of Esther opened up Judaism to the world. Once the Megillah made clear that God’s redemption operates in Diaspora as well, Judaism became an option for those who never lived or have no intention of living in the land of Israel. The Book of Esther tells that many of the peoples of the land became Jews or passed themselves off as Jews. While the obvious motive for this behavior was fear of the new Jewish power, the result was that people now saw Jews as a religious community that all could join, not just a tribe living in a certain land.
The Book of Esther communicates a new sense of triumph, of an optimistic, self-confident Jewish Diaspora that can boast of one of it own as prime minister, a community fully able to defend the Jew from further attack. Yet in its narrative, the scroll reminds Jews that they are permanently vulnerable in Diaspora. (Perhaps one should say that as long as the world is unredeemed, Jews are vulnerable, for today even the rebuilt land of Israel is also not totally secure.)
Persian Jewry can serve as a model for a Diaspora Jewry that strives to be powerful yet live without illusions, one that enjoys prosperity and freedom yet is aware of the risks of history. To affirm the centrality of Zion and the unity of the Jewish people while living one’s own good life and striving to maintain Jewish loyalty is not easy, although the Book of Esther suggests that it is possible. But those who choose this way should never forget the Talmud’s wistful comment: Had all the Jews returned to Israel from the first Exile, the Jews could never have been thrown off the land again.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.