Esther, Shakespeare, and the Hidden Hand of God

March 21 2019

In the book of Esther, read in synagogues yesterday evening and today, the miraculous salvation of Persian Jewry from the genocidal plot of the wicked vizier Haman appears to take place thanks to a few fortunate coincidences and the courage of the two heroes, Mordecai and Esther. Indeed, God’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text, and there are but two oblique references, made by Mordecai, to divine providence. Noah Millman seeks to make sense of these puzzling aspects of the book through a comparison with Shakespeare:

Were it not canonical, we might read the book of Esther as a comic story of pluck and luck. . . . But Esther is canonical. . . . This is how Mordecai himself tells Esther (and us) to understand the story. Salvation will come one way or another, he tells her, and one should act as if one has a providential role to play even though there is no sign of it. Non-signs thus become signs, and every profane or comedic element in the book is transformed into a greater source of wonder. . . .

However familiar, this reading is still strange. . . . When Mordecai asks Esther to consider the possibility that she was placed in the palace for a purpose, he gestures at a plane of existence for which the reader has seen no evidence. Esther’s own faith, with which she girds herself to approach [her husband, the Persian emperor] Ahasuerus, is stoic: “And if I perish, I shall perish.” To read such a story providentially, as Mordecai and tradition bid us, requires us to see the book’s biblical status as itself evidence of God’s controlling hand, the very fact that we read the story in a synagogue on Purim implying that there is destiny in coincidence, fulfilled prophecy in surprise.

It’s a neat trick. But would it work if we could actually see the author manipulating those chance occurrences? Make him visible, make it possible to ask why this way and not that? [As it happens], Shakespeare wrote that play. In Measure for Measure we see just that kind of manipulation by a character with godlike pretensions and with some of the same plot elements and turns as Esther. . . . Reading the book of Esther by the light of Shakespeare’s play forces us to face our ambivalence about the character of this hidden manipulator, to feel both the weight of his sovereignty and our frustration at his lack of forthrightness.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hebrew Bible, Purim, Religion & Holidays, William Shakespeare

Why the Leader of Hamas Went to Russia

Sept. 30 2022

Earlier this month, the Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh and several of his colleagues visited Moscow, where they met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. According to Arabic-language media, Haniyeh came seeking “new ideas” about how to wage war against the Jewish state. The terrorist group has had good relations with the Kremlin for several years, and even maintains an office in Moscow. John Hardie and Ivana Stradner comment on the timing of the visit:

For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital. In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem—and its American allies—would do well to keep a watchful eye.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Algemeiner

More about: Hamas, Israeli Security, Russia