To prepare for Purim this year, I studied and taught from Robert Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Esther.
There is a longstanding debate among biblical scholars about the historical accuracy of the Book of Esther. I think of it as the Robert vs. Robert debate. Both Robert Gordis and Robert Alter agree that the Book of Esther includes many Persian names, words, and places, as well as accurate knowledge of governmental and cultural practices. Both Roberts agree that the scroll must have been recorded by the year 400 BCE, while Persia was still strong. Both identify Achashverosh as Khshayārsha or Xerxes I, who ruled between 486 and 465 BCE.
For Robert Gordis, the dating lends credibility to the story, because the narrative was recorded within a generation or two after the events. Gordis also points to archeological evidence — an Aramaic letter from the 5th century found among the Treasury Tablets at Persepolis (Persia’s other royal capital) refers to a government official in Susa (or Shushan) named Marduka, who, presumably, is Mordecai.
Robert Alter, on the other hand, points to exaggerations in the text — such as 180 days of drinking and six months of oil treatments — as well as a series of reversals that seem to him more convenient to a literary theme than probable as historical episodes. The reward meant for Haman goes to Mordecai; the punishment meant for Mordecai goes to Haman; Esther is the most secure Jew — and then the least; the beauty queen outsmarts the prime minister; the Jews prevail against their enemies on the day slated for their destruction; a day of mourning turns into a day of feasting.
This last reversal is proof, for Robert Alter, that the Book of Esther is ahistorical. He writes, “This resolution of genocide reflects the fairy-tale vehicle of the narrative and could scarcely represent an actual option of policy in the Persian empire, known for its tolerance of minorities.”
A congregant of mine, Jay Weinstein, brilliantly argued: “But haven’t we seen reversals just as improbable in the last year?” A year ago at this time, the economy was humming, Trump was on his way to victory, Biden’s campaign was all but dead. (The South Carolina primary wasn’t until February 29, 2020.) Rapid reversals are not just the stuff of fairy tales. They happen in history and right now — all the time.
Rabbi Ishmael taught in Talmud Shabbat 151b: “[Fortune] is a wheel that revolves in this world.” Sometimes you are up; sometimes you are down. The context of Rabbi Ishmael’s remark is an observation by Rabbi Hiyya that we who today give charity may someday need charity. These concepts resonate powerfully in the time of coronavirus.
After all we have endured in the last few years, I find the quotation from Robert Alter chilling. Alter’s belief that genocide “could scarcely represent an actual option of policy in the Persian empire, known for its tolerance of minorities” seems naïve.
Until this year, I personally believed that the Book of Esther was based on historical incidents and characters, with thematic elements exaggerated for literary effect. In other words, I agreed, in part, with both Roberts.
But this year, I understand the Book of Esther in a new light. In addition to everything else that it is and teaches, this biblical book is a polemic against the idea that “it can’t happen here.”
The Persian Empire was known for its tolerance of religious minorities, as Robert Alter points out. So is the United States, of course. But after all we have witnessed, I read the Book of Esther as a warning: Don’t be complacent. Jews — and anyone whom those in power label as other, distinct, foreign, unlike “us” — can go from being tolerated to being targeted in the blink of an eye.
Haman told the king: “There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, and their rules are different from those of other people’s, and they do not observe king’s rules, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8).
This is the essence of bigotry — hating people just because they are unlike you. When this kind of hatred is unleashed, tolerance and good fortune can be reversed quickly. But, thankfully, the wheel can turn again.
When and how the wheel turns is not a matter purely of destiny. Esther and Mordechai are heroic in part because they take fate into their own hands. They take risks on principle and for the benefit of others. “And who knows?” (Esther 4:14). Maybe we, their heirs, were born into the rarified privilege of Jewish life in the United States “for just such a time as this.”
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, teaches Mazal Tov on Zoom, an online class in creating hybrid and Zoom celebrations, at RabbiDebraOrenstein.com.