Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thoughts on Esther

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Persian Jews' deliverance from the wicked vizier Haman. The main event of the day is the reading of the megillah, the Book of Esther. Here are my annual thoughts on the text. All of these notes are very brief; I'd be happy to discuss any of them in the comments or by email.

1. There are many ways to read King Ahasuerus' character. The classic Jewish account makes him a bumbling fool, susceptible to complete manipulation by whomever happens to be getting him drunk at the time. He's fundamentally good-hearted, though, and he finally arrives at an appreciation for justice when Esther points out to him the plight of the Jews.

Revisionists, though, make him out to be much more sinister character. Ahasuerus, says this camp of interpreters, is bent on destroying the Jews, and Haman's proposal is merely a pretext for doing so. This reading explains why Esther does not reveal her Judaism when she denounces Haman, and it makes Harbona, the eunuch who points out Haman's plot to hang Mordechai, crucial for making it politically impossible for Ahasuerus to spare Haman. Finally, Ahasuerus is lying when he says he can't revoke his declaration against the Jews. Of course he can—he's the king! The excuse is a last-ditch effort to have the Jews killed even after Haman's death.

I have a third reading. Ahasuerus is a king who just doesn't care about the suffering of the weak. But though he's willing to seal their destruction over drinks, I don't think he has any special animus against the Jews. If he really wanted all of them dead, he would have found a way of making it happen even without Haman. He likes Haman enough to command their annihilation, but he likes Esther even more, so he spares them. (As for the irrevocable decree, I'm more willing to call it a trope of Near-Eastern fairy tales than to call it unrealistic and suspicious.)

Ahasuerus, under my reading, is not necessarily an innocent, manipulable king—none of his drastic actions are the result of any error in judgment or weakness. He's just a king who toys with human suffering, and who's powerful enough to be immune from consequences.

2. Notably for a book of the Bible, God's name is not mentioned a single time in the Book of Esther; nor does he interfere in the narrative. That does not mean that it is a secular book. The king, after all, is mysteriously disturbed in his sleep, and it's certainly no accident that the Jews so handily slaughter their enemies. I think, though, that God's role in the book is similar to the role of fate in the Iliad, or of the god in the Histories. He does justice in the end, but tortuously and subtly. And rather than a character, he is a mystical force that suffuses the story.

3. Speaking of Herodotus' Histories, Ahasuerus is traditionally identified with Xerxes the Great of that book. I've noticed many uncanny parallels between the two kings, which makes me suspect that they are, in fact, the same person.

In the Histories, Xerxes is disturbed at night by a vision that convinces him to invade Greece. In the megillah, Ahasuerus is disturbed in his sleep and gripped with an urge to read the story of Mordechai's saving him from death.

In the Book of Esther, meanwhile, the king's messengers swiftly distribute his proclamation against the Jews. In the Historiesneither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

4. One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is the second banquet. After Esther proclaims the plight of the Jews to Ahasuerus, the king asks: "Who is he, and where is he, who plots this in his heart?" And Esther, pointing across the room: "A wicked man and an enemy, this evil Haman." The root of evil in the world is discovered and torn up.

It's him!

5. After Haman is hanged and the Jews are saved, Mordechai emerges from the presence of the king. A famous verse then declares that the Jews were filled with light, gladness, joy, and honor. This is the footnote to that verse supplied by my Artscroll edition of the megillah:
Rav Yehudah said: "אורה, light, refers to Torah, שמחה, gladness, refers to holiday; ששון, joy, refers to circumcision; and יקר, honor, refers to tefillin. [The Jews] were finally able to resume the study of Torah and without hindrance the performance of mitzvos." (Talmud)
I would like to propose a simpler gloss. I think that light refers to light, gladness to gladness, joy to joy, and honor to honor. The Jews were overwhelmingly happy, and for good reason: they just escaped annihilation! The natural sense of the text has nothing to do with the smooth fulfillment of mitzvos.

I think this is an important point. The Hebrew Bible deals with a vast range of human emotion, from ecstatic joy to anguished despair. We must resist the temptation to cloak that in a shroud of intellectualizing legalism.

6. The Torah contains an injunction, which it repeats many times, to kill the Amalekites wherever a Jew finds them. Reinterpretations and apologies aside, this is what I think is the most natural interpretation of that commandment: kill the Amalekites wherever you find them.

That's all for this year.

On an unrelated note, my hard labor last week produced these two videos. Watch at your own risk.

Monday, February 4, 2013

To Smiling Virtue

     Humean Timothy
     sat in his postered-up
     dorm-room at Yale.
"Ethics I've jettisoned
     all of my morals are
     empty and stale!"

     Kantian Anthony
     sold off his clothing and
     made himself poor.
"Though I can't stomach this,
     still I'll press on with it,
     helping Darfur."

     good-hearted Emily
     dog-eared the Ethics in
     laughing dismay.
"Who ever thought to write
     Julia's sick, so I'd
     better not stay."