Visiting a synagogue as a guest lecturer on Purim can be a highly disorienting experience, as I recently learned. Your job is to help congregants explore the deeper meanings in a festival dedicated to intoxicated silliness. At first glance, the gig sounds a lot like getting paid to be a party-pooper.
The assignment is even stranger when your audience is Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. There are few tasks more humbling than teaching the ancient tale of the Jews of Persia to a room full of Persian Jews.
On the other hand, it makes you re-read the Book of Esther thoughtfully, undistracted by noisemakers and costumed drunks. It turns out that the Purim story has a sudden immediacy today that wasn’t obvious 10 or 20 or 500 years ago.
Most of us were raised to view the story of Queen Esther as a sort of Punch-and-Judith show about oriental potentates and evil viziers and the beautiful heroine who saves her people. It is all that, but it’s also something else: a cautionary parable about Jews and politics in post-9/11 America. Seriously.
The story of Esther speaks to us, first of all, because it is the Bible’s take on Jewish community life in the Diaspora. In fact, it’s the only book in the Bible whose subject is a Diaspora community. It ought to offer us some important message. That’s what biblical narratives are supposed to do. For most of us, though, it’s been a long time since any message came through.
But if you put aside the colorful details and focus on the broader narrative, Purim becomes a strikingly familiar story. It’s about a minority community living among its neighbors in a confusing mixture of self-confidence and insecurity. This community has real enemies, as Jews have had throughout their wanderings. But it also has a store of resources, rare in Jewish history, to cope with threats. Much like the American Jewish community today.
The enemy, of course, is Haman, the royal minister who hates Jews because one of them, Mordecai, disrespected him. In retaliation he decides to have his troops massacre the entire Jewish community on an assigned date. He runs it past the king, who happily gives his O.K.
The Jewish community’s main resource is Mordecai’s political acumen. He’s won the king’s good will because of past service to the crown. For good measure, he’s also installed his beautiful cousin, Esther, in the king’s bedchamber. When Haman’s troops pounce, the Jews are armed and ready to defend themselves. Mordecai has cleared this in advance with the king, who happily went along. But the Jews don’t just fight off their attackers. They keep on fighting until they’ve not only won the war but also secured the peace. Mordecai cleared this with the king, too. The king was fine with it.
In the long sweep of Diaspora Jewish history, that combination of vulnerability and strength is not the norm. The Purim story reflects the reality of life in the first Jewish Diaspora in Babylon and then Persia, after the fall of the First Temple. But things had changed by the time the Second Temple fell five centuries later. The foundations of Jewish power were shattered. Through the next 20 centuries Diaspora Jews faced countless powerful enemies with pitifully few weapons and few allies to stand in their defense.
During the last half-century, the balance was reversed. In the wake of World War II, Diaspora Jewish communities acquired growing influence and power in the world around them, partly due to sympathy for Jewish suffering, partly due to broader Western notions of democracy and partly thanks to smart, Mordecai-style politics. At the same time and mostly for the same reasons, Jews’ external enemies steadily declined in numbers and influence.
Today, quite unexpectedly, we’re back where we started. Diaspora Jews still have resources to protect their interests and values, as they’ve had since World War II. But Jewish communities also face mounting threats from real enemies once again, thanks to the combined effects of the September 11 attacks, the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Iraq War. Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activists and ideologues have taken to claiming with unaccustomed boldness that organized Jewry controls and undermines whole governments and industries. Israel’s sworn enemies are broadening their focus and taking aim — with words and sometimes with bombs — at Israel’s closest overseas ally, the Jewish community. Perhaps most important, verbal attacks on organized American Jewish activity are no longer taboo. Diaspora Jewry hasn’t lost legitimacy, but its enemies have regained theirs.
We’ve entered an unsettling time of transition in Diaspora life. It often helps at these moments to return to the classic sources for guidance. Purim is a good time to ask what the Bible’s tract on Diaspora life can teach us at this juncture. What would Mordecai do?
For one thing, he wouldn’t run around in a panic looking for quick action or grand drama. His habit was to plan his moves carefully, always looking three steps ahead, weighing all possible outcomes and not only the ones he intended.
He would make sure he had his backing lined up before opening fire, rather than shooting first and hoping for the best. He would take a risk, as he did in sending Esther to confront the king, only if he had no other choice. He wouldn’t insult a king, no matter how insipid, if he might need him later on.
And, if he were of such a mind, he might offer us two pieces of hard-won wisdom. First, remember that Haman plotted to destroy the Jews because Mordecai insulted him. Sometimes your enemies hate you because of something you did, not just who you are. Sometimes a small concession now can save a lot of grief later.
Finally, don’t abandon your intermarried relatives. They might save your life some day.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).