Does the Book of Esther Portray Diaspora Heroism or Its Opposite?

March 9 2020

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 The Diaspora of the megillah, in which God seems to have been replaced by a capricious tyrant, is the ultimate description of that reality.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.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Diaspora, Esther, Judaism

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform