Esther in America, from Cotton Mather to Rabbi Soloveitchik

Esther in America, from Cotton Mather to Rabbi Soloveitchik

New book curated by Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern of Englewood shows the Megillah’s mega-influence

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern

What’s a royal book like Esther doing in a democratic place like America?

A great deal, it turns out.

In “Esther in America,” recently published by Maggid and Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern of Englewood has assembled 27 essays on how the Book of Esther has been interpreted, studied, and occasionally reenacted over the course of centuries of American history. Rabbi Halpern is senior advisor to the provost of YU and senior program officer at the university’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

The collected essays range from how Esther was read by colonial preacher Cotton Mather in his monumental Bible commentary, to discussions of how Esther was interpreted by two giants of 20th century American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch.

The book falls in the genre of “reception history” of the Bible — the study of how it was interpreted and understood over the years.

It’s a fascinating topic for Rabbi Halpern.

“As Jews in love with textual interpretation, it’s exciting that even in our own day there is a measure of modern midrash being developed by dint of people interpreting and even reshaping biblical text in way that speaks to the current moment,” he said.

“Esther in America” is a sequel of sorts to his earlier “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook.” But where in that volume he and his colleagues collected documents from American history that referenced the Bible, for this one he solicited new essays — and wrote a couple himself.

His first essay, the first in the book, deals with Cotton Mather, the Massachusetts Puritan minister and author who died half a century before the American Revolution.

“He wrote the first full-length Bible commentary in America,” Rabbi Halpern said. “It was so big no publisher would take it on.” Only in 2010 did the first of 10 huge volumes of “Biblia Americana” appear. “He was quite the brilliant intellectual. He integrated dozens of rabbinic commentaries and non-rabbinic Jewish commentaries, like Josephus, in his commentary on the Bible.

Reverend Cotton Mather, America’s leading religious figure 400 years ago, saw Esther as a model of how a Christian woman could guide her man.

“Esther was uniquely emphasized in early American religious thought. Cotton Mather admired Esther and wrote about her in a strikingly almost proto-feminist way. He admired her ability to save her uncouth husband. He wrote about her in a behavior manual for Puritans.”

A generation or so earlier, Roger Williams looked to the Book of Esther in arguing for religious freedom. In this case, it was Esther’s husband, Achashverus, who was the role model.

“Just like by the end of the tale he essentially allowed different religions to operate with a degree of religious freedom, Williams argued that so too should the colonies,” Rabbi Halpern said.

Haman gets his due in the book, in an essay looking at the villain’s role in political discourse in the years immediately before the revolution. “When Americans were dealing with the idea of a king who was issuing bad policies at the advice of nefarious ministers, where do they turn?” Rabbi Halpern asked. “Naturally, to the Book of Esther. Numerous newspapers labeled King George as King Xerxes and they labeled Prime Minister Lord North as a veritable British Haman. They were trying to excuse King George’s oppressive tax policies as coming not from him being evil, but because he was given bad advice.”

Two chapters deal with intimations of Esther in American fiction, specifically “The Scarlet Letter” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Other chapters deal with characters in American Jewish history who could be seen as replaying the parts of the megillah’s cast of characters.

In a second essay he wrote for the volume, Rabbi Halpern discusses Mordecai Manuel Noah, “the most fascinating footnote to American Jewish history, a man who 50 years or so after America had declared its independence tried to buy an island in upstate new York near Buffalo and declare it the homeland of the Jews, 100 years before the modern state of Israel.

“He had a founding ceremony. It was launched in an Episcopal church. He wore royal clothes borrowed from a Shakespeare production. Mordecai Manuel Noah was ignored if not criticized by the Jewish powers that be of his day.

“He proved prophetic. I recommend reading his speeches. He’s an endlessly fascinating historical figure — a playwright, a sheriff, an ambassador stripped of his position.”

If Mr. Noah didn’t become the Jewish leader that the biblical Mordecai was, Rabbi Halpern sees certain similarity between the two. “The Book of Esther arguably ends on a sad note. The Jews of Persia are still in exile. It remains an open question whether Mordecai and Esther should have leveraged their power to get the Jews to return to the Land of Israel,” he said. As a prophet of a failed diaspora ingathering, Mordecai Manuel Noah “has more than a passing resemblance with the Mordecai from the Book of Esther.”

And then there’s “The Purim Crisis of 1948: Harry S Truman, Freda Kirchwey, and Chaim Weizmann,” which describes “how a certain political crisis pertaining to the U.S. backing of the State of Israel, for which a hurdle had come about, ironically on the day of Purim, and which was solved due to the political interference of an Esther-like figure that allowed for the endorsement of the State of Israel.”

One essay has particular relevance to this era of covid. It’s by Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, a medical ethicist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. It concerns a question in medical ethics that was posed to Rabbi Soloveitchik.

“It seems that a scientist in America, a hundred plus years ago, died after injecting himself with an experimental treatment,” Rabbi Halpern said. “A law was then passed that doctors were not to do this, not to try out potential cures on themselves. Rav Soloveitchik was asked about a story of potential self-sacrifice, where one person risking their own life could potentially save the lives of many others. He ruled that it would be allowed, based on the precedent of Esther putting her life on the line to save her fellow Jews.”

Another essay in the book, “The Esther Aesthetic and Jewish Beauty Queens in Early Twentieth-Century America,” is by Dr. Shaina Trapedo, who will talk about Esther on Zoom for the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Sunday. (See page 10.)

So what does Rabbi Halpern want readers to take away from the 360 pages of essays?

“In a day when Americans need a unifying narrative, Americans can and should remember how their fellow citizens long shared a common language in the Bible. This book can hopefully remind Americans, both Jewish and or other faiths, that this language can and should continue to inspire us. It has always inspired Americans and can continue to do so.”

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