Purim is just around the corner, and with its approach I expect my Facebook feed to be full with half joking, half serious comparisons between the story of Esther and our current presidential situation. However, I think that Purim can (in a very serious manner) teach us a very important lesson about the place of politics and political activism in Judaism. This post is not meant to be a defense or support of one politician or political party over the other, rather it is centered around discussing the importance attached to political activism for a good and just cause. As we will soon see, the book of Esther imparts a unique demand, previously lacking throughout Tanakh; namely: the inherent importance politics within Judaism.
The story of Esther is one of the most interesting books in the Hebrew Bible. Stripped of all theology, the book reads more like a play or even a comedy of sorts. God is not present in any capacity and there is scarce reference to any type of rituals or religion in general. In fact the book of Esther is so “secular” that the Septuagint actually adds an entire array of prayers and references to God to make this book more religious (Just Google it, its pretty interesting).
Nevertheless, what many people have noticed is that the book of Esther can actually be read as a large metaphor for the Jews and God. Think about it. Imagine that Achashverosh and Haman represent God, who wanted to punish the Jews for refusing to serve him/them. The parallels between Achashverosh’s castle and the Temple, or Esther and the Cohen Gadol, are plentiful and telling. Furthermore, the story of Esther (contrary to what the Midrash tells us) presumably takes place during the early Second Temple period. This means that only the Jews who did not want to go back to Israel, were stuck in this mess in the first place. The irony could be that the Jews who did not want to go back to Israel and help rebuild the temple, perhaps because they enjoyed the freedoms of the diaspora, became stuck in a parallel system of punishment for disobedience that they may have been trying to escape in the first place!
However, many people that offer this interpretation (or similar ones) do so under the premise that this book (written via divine inspiration) contains these deep allusions, metaphors, or lessons. Now while I do think that much can be learned from the book of Esther, I think that the greater lesson can come when we actually refuse to read it metaphorically and seek out the literal meaning. Namely, the power of the book of Esther is that it represents a very modern situation where the worries about God and religious rituals are completely negligible compared to the political realities of the time. The happy ending in the book is not that the Jews return to God and all is well (like many other books in Tanakh), rather the happy ending is that the Jews are saved via political activism and Mordecai is promoted to a prominent position in the government.
The Jews in the Purim story are not irreligious or anti-religious, they just don’t seem to care much about it. Consequently, there is no need engage in religious ritual or prayer when political activism can produce the same (if not a greater) effect. This point becomes immediately evident when we compare the “battle” in Purim with any other previous battle in Tanakh. In the early parts of Tanakh the idea that it is God or allegiance to God that causes the Jews to be victorious in battle is ubiquitous. If the Jews win it was because of God, if they lose then it was because they were unfaithful to God. In Esther, the Jews were saved via a string of strategic political moves done by Esther and Mordecai – no divine help required.
The fact that Esther was even included in the Tanakh attests to the multiplicity of viewpoints that one can have as a Jew and the multifaceted obligation that every Jew has. One can imagine Mordecai as a completely secular Jew and the story would make just as much, if not more, sense as imagining Mordecai with a Kippah and Tzitzit (even though the institution of the Kippah was a much later idea). What is important in the book of Esther is that Esther and Mordecai are standing up for injustices done on behalf of the ruling power or government. This is the situation of the modern Jew. At almost every stage of moral development in society, Jewish communities have stood in the forefront advocating for what is right. Armed with a myriad of moral imperatives gleaned from the wisdom of the Torah and prophecy, Jews have continued to make their voice heard in the battle against injustice.
Instead of being viewed as a satire or a deep metaphor for Jews and God, the book of Esther should be another voice in the conversation of our Jewish obligation. Does Esther represent a time where all religious rituals and obligations are rendered obsolete, since there are more important concerns? I would answer no, I find religion important for a wide variety of reasons (just read some of my previous posts). However, just as one can argue that fulfillment of the laws and moral obligations throughout the Tanakh are important aspects of being Jewish – I would argue that our political obligation to speak out against injustice is right up there.
Perhaps the characters in the book of Esther that we never meet are those Jews who are so focused on the purely ritualistic and “religious” parts of Judaism that they don’t even realize what is going on. Or even one step further: one could imagine a petition signed by hundreds of Rabbis speaking out against Esther since she “married” a gentile, completely oblivious to the greater reality. What all of these statements attest to is the idiosyncratic nature of the book of Esther and the unique message that it imparts on the Jewish community. Namely, that political activism is an inherent Jewish ideal – so much so that an entire book in the Tanakh was devoted solely to that theme.
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