In a recently published work, Seymour Epstein offers a radical reinterpretation of Esther—the biblical scroll (megillah) read in synagogues tonight to mark the holiday of Purim. The book, he suggests, is in fact a critique of its ostensible heroes. In Epstein’s understanding, Mordechai and Esther, having passed up the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel with other Jewish exiles, are portrayed as representing the confusion and vulnerability of life in the Diaspora. In her review, Sarah Rindner summarizes his case:
In Epstein’s reading, every moment of triumph in the megillah becomes a further indictment of the Diaspora. Epstein laments that Mordechai allows Esther to be [married to] a non-Jewish king instead of protecting his niece and her Jewish identity. Esther, too, is criticized for her failure to discern, independent of her uncle’s advice, the seriousness of the verdict against the Jews while sequestered in the king’s harem, and consequently for failing to stand up for her people herself in the face of adversity. Indeed, Epstein reads the entire book as a denunciation of the inevitable moral and spiritual compromises required by life in the Diaspora. . . . For Epstein, the megillah depicts the cycle of passivity and overreaction that is endemic to the Diaspora.
While Rindner finds much that is compelling in what Epstein has to say, she is ultimately unconvinced:
[A] midrash in the medieval anthology Yalkut Shimoni states that in the messianic era, all Jewish holidays will be nullified except for Purim, and then it adds Yom Kippur to the shortlist as well. . . . Perhaps the rabbis understood that, in a messianic era characterized by an overwhelming sense of security and spiritual well-being, [Jews] will lack the sort of heroic potential that is only possible in an environment where redemption is distant. The Diaspora of the megillah, in which God seems to have been replaced by a capricious tyrant, is the ultimate description of that reality.
[For] Epstein, Diaspora life is a joke when we consider the depth and integrity of Jewish life under independent political sovereignty. It is hard to disagree entirely. But perhaps one needs to experience the darkness of Shushan to grasp the infinite reach of divine providence. In their subtle appreciation of the megillah and the enduring significance of Purim, perhaps the rabbis have the last laugh.