Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Point of Purim

The month of Adar has arrived and Purim is on the docket once again. GH brings up the topic of the historicity of the Book of Esther and I remember that I did likewise this time last year. Now, I didn't have the intention of going on about this topic again, but I'd like to get to the heart of the issue rather than arguing particulars as I had last year.

The fact of the matter is this: The story of Purim contains a number of events that I would consider unlikely. These are items internal to the text. Somehow Esther is taken from the home of a known Jew, Mordechai, and is yet able to keep anyone from figuring out her ancestry. For some reason the author thinks that the King of Persia would be unable to overturn past decrees. Somehow Achashveirosh would allow wholesale genocide to pass without him even being aware of who was being killed and somehow Achashveirosh would allow armed struggles to go on throughout his empire. Kinda fishy.

There is also the appearance of the book wherein it reads like a fairy tale. If you read it, just plain read it, it sounds more like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast than a historical report. The whole story is just so neat. Too neat, as it were. Books like Kings or Ezra and Nechemia read more like history. If you just read them, they sound like accounts of events, though sometimes embellished. Just on prima facie consideration alone, I'd consider the Book of Esther suspect and I'd give those other books of Tanach tentative legitimacy.

All this being the case, I acknowledge that it is possible for the Book of Esther to be historical. Certainly modern scholarship hasn't proven it impossible. But on that same note, I don't know any convincing reason for why we should give it legitimacy when its appearance holds the hallmarks of fiction. What we need is some independent corroboration for the events of the Book of Esther in order to consider it historical. But such evidence is sorely lacking.

So now we must go beyond this. Maybe the story is true to some degree, maybe its not. But even if the critical thinking observant Jew can convince himself of its historical legitimacy, he must concurrently realize that the facts are not conclusive for that opinion and he cannot demand the same view be held by all other critical thinking Jews if he values freedom of thought and hates unthinking acceptance of dogma. Therefore, we need to establish value within the implied message of the Book of Esther and the holiday of Purim. This message, I think, is clear and worth celebrating.

The story goes that the Jews were in exile and were in danger of being destroyed. Yet they weren't and the day was saved for all. Hoorah! This has obvious parallels throughout the past two thousand years of Jewish history. The Jews have been in exile and have been in danger of being destroyed time and time again, yet somehow they have persevered and today we may be in a distinct upswing of Jewish success throughout the world on all levels of society. Today, it can be argued, is one of the best times a Jew could be a Jew.

What Purim then is, is a day to celebrate our persistence, our success, and really our very continued existence while thumbing our collective noses at those who would have the presumption to think that they could destroy us. Did Haman exist? That's debatable. But Hitler did. And so did Antiochus and Titus and Luther and Torquemada. They had their chance and where are they now? History. "On the day that the enemies of the Jews expected to prevail over them, and it was turned about: The Jews prevailed over their adversaries."

Now lets have a drink and eat some candy.

13 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

Daniel,

you forgot the most important lesson of Purim. Don't wait for God to save you. You must step up to the plate if opportunity presents itself. If you wait for God/nature to save you then who knows what terrible things will happen because of your inaction? This is what Mordechai was telling Esther. The message is loud and clear.

Doresh said...

Your post is ridiculous apologetics. Chazal and all the rishonim and acharonim say it happened. They say a nais happened too (albeit a nais nistah) and they emphasize its importance of the klal yisroel re-accepting the torah.

Our whole understanding of purim assumes it actually happened. It makes nafka minous la'maaseh is halachah too. Like what may be done during adar, we darshan halachos from pesukim. Now if its a fraud we need to throw them out. There are so many things we understand in haskofoh that are based on purim. How we are supposed to be noheg in golus, how music affects people, how teshuvah works, the tsneeos of ester and its applicability, and hashem's midah of midah kenged midaah….the list goes on and on.

You cant draw these conclusions if the events didn’t happen.

If anyone could be quite certain that it didn’t it means chazal are liers and that the rishonim were duped and that there is no reason to taken torah she baal peh seriously. It also means that out mesorah is quite unreliable.

One other thing. The torah is obsessed to the emes. Go look at the pains each sughah goes to, to establish what some brisa means. You can’t lack that; otherwise you have a religion that is internally inconsistent and thus a fraud.

kasamba said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with your questions, they're pretty good. I always think; how come the guards that found Esther never disclosed that they knew who she was?
For me the whole theme of Purim is essentially 'nothing is as it seems'.

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"you forgot the most important lesson of Purim. Don't wait for God to save you."

Excellent point. I like that message too.

Orthoprax said...

Doresh,

"Your post is ridiculous apologetics."

How so?

"Our whole understanding of purim assumes it actually happened."

Speak for yourself.

"If anyone could be quite certain that it didn’t it means chazal are liers and that the rishonim were duped and that there is no reason to taken torah she baal peh seriously. It also means that out mesorah is quite unreliable."

While I'd agree that it would certainly imply a difficult trust issue with mesorah, I don't see why it must follow that one should then be cavalier about tradition (halacha) or that chazal intended to deceive. Your whole or none mentality is the voice of nothing short of fanaticism.

The Jewish Freak said...

Ortho: Great, great post. Your idea about the message of Purim and its meaning for all Jews of all times is wonderful. You made the Jewish Freak very happy.

Sarah said...

Isn't this essentially the same question as whether the Exodus happened, or whether Matan Torah happened, or even whether Midrashim are factual (clearly not!)?

In all these cases, I end up extrapolating some message despite the fact that the historicity is debateable or nonexistant. I'm not sure what makes this case of debateable history particularly different ...

Orthoprax said...

JF,

Glad to be of service. ;-)

Sarah,

You are right of course. And, in fact, all ontological claims made within Judaism are part of this issue. But as people's simple belief in their truth wanes, to keep Judaism relevant we must find inherent and undeniable truths within the stories with which we can use to retain them.

But even though you and I can find meaning without literal truth, others can have difficulty thinking that way. To write it down, to think it through, to open the door of one's mind to this kind of consideration is an effort worth making. Reconstructing Purim for thinking Jews to fully enjoy again is just one step in the effort to reconstruct Judaism as a whole.

Lisa said...

Just to address some of your points:

Somehow Esther is taken from the home of a known Jew, Mordechai, and is yet able to keep anyone from figuring out her ancestry.
Except that neither of them was a "known" Jew in the way you're thinking. We're talking about Jews named Marduk Belshunu and Edeset Ishtar. Two Babylonian names. Why would anyone assume they were Jewish?

Somehow Achashveirosh would allow wholesale genocide to pass without him even being aware of who was being killed and somehow Achashveirosh would allow armed struggles to go on throughout his empire.
You're looking at the whole situation through 21st century eyes. Zoroastrianism was originally monotheistic, and there were struggles between the Magians and Zoroastrians on this issue throughout the Achaemenid Persian period. Just because the Megillah focuses in on the peril we were in doesn't mean it was only us. The Persian king may have realized that he was permitting/ordering the crushing of monotheists without having any idea that Esther was one of them. Hell, he may never have heard of Jews, as such. Or if he had, he may not have realized that Jews were monotheists.

Rav Mendel Blachman once talked to a class I was in about depictions of biblical characters. He pointed out that what we see of the various big characters in Jewish history is very, very limited. For all we know, Yaakov Avinu may have had a nasal voice that made people want to clap their hands over their ears. Yitzchak Avinu may have had bad body odor and hairy toes.

What was committed to writing was committed to writing for a purpose. In the case of the Torah, it was explicitly Hashem's purpose. In the case of the Megillah, it was the purpose of the Sages.

Today, it's common to say that a half-truth is a whole lie. But that's not the case at all. Tanakh doesn't purport to give the whole story. If we knew the whole history of, say, David HaMelekh's reign and time, we might draw drastically different conclusions about his reign than we do from what's written in Shmuel and Divrei HaYamim. And that's why those details aren't preserved. Because we don't really care about David HaMelekh as a person. Or Avraham Avinu or Mordechai or Esther or any of them. They existed. They did what it says they did. But the actual people were both more and less than the characters that are depicted in the books of Tanakh.

You hear people saying that Tanakh is not a history book. Often, they say this as a way of claiming that what it says in Tanakh never really happened. I've heard that lame argument used for the Mabul, just as an example. But while the statement itself is true, that application is not.

Read Jacob Hoschander's The Book of Esther in the Light of History. Hoschander was a bible critic himself, and he had no problem rejecting huge sections of the Tanakh casually. But he had sufficient background in both classical and archaeological sources to have been able to find the events of the Megillah right there in recorded history.

Now, you call yourself "Orthoprax", which sums up your whole problem right there. Judaism isn't just about the observance. A monkey can be trained to shuckle and lay tefillin. Purim is the holiday that embodies the message that it's not about the observance alone, but rather the recognition that Hashem is there behind the scenes. That's the underlying difference between Jews and Amalek. As I wrote on my blog, Amalek is about looking at the most blatant and miraculous evidence of Hashem's Hand in the world and finding a way to see it as mere happenstance, while we're about seeing the divine in the most prosaic-seeming events. They find the secular in the holy. We find the holy in the secular.

It's sad to see which derekh is apparently yours.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

"We're talking about Jews named Marduk Belshunu and Edeset Ishtar. Two Babylonian names. Why would anyone assume they were Jewish?"

Mordechai himself tells the king's servants that he's Jewish. Haman then learns about. That's like a fundamental facet of the story. If Haman didn't know Mordechai was Jewish, why would he take revenge on the Jewish people?

"You're looking at the whole situation through 21st century eyes."

No, I think even in Persian times the king would prefer peace over civil war - and if there was to be civil war, he'd like to understand why and with who. All your other apologetics are completely speculative. I haven't read Hoschander's book myself, but I suspect it is along the same lines as you've already offered. Apologetic gymnastics. There is simply no corrobative evidence showing that the story is historical. Linking that with the questionable likelihood of the events lead me to the conclusion that it is not historical - which is on par with the wide majority of modern scholars.

"You hear people saying that Tanakh is not a history book. Often, they say this as a way of claiming that what it says in Tanakh never really happened. I've heard that lame argument used for the Mabul, just as an example. But while the statement itself is true, that application is not."

First, do you think the Mabul was an actual historical event? Do tell in what sense?

Second, when you make the stories in the Torah ever less like reality then you must acknowledge that your religious worldview is ceding ground to real scholarship. Thus "truth" and truth become different things.

People can make (and do make!) the same arguments in defense of the divinity of the Koran and Book of Mormon when they acknowledge that the stories don't match up to history. You're cut from the same apologetic cloth. When your arguments can work just as well for items which you would argue against then it indicates that your arguments hold no water.

"It's sad to see which derekh is apparently yours."

I really don't need a musar speech, thanks. Especially not from one as myopic and self-righteous as yourself.

Lisa said...

Orthoprax,

"We're talking about Jews named Marduk Belshunu and Edeset Ishtar. Two Babylonian names. Why would anyone assume they were Jewish?"

Mordechai himself tells the king's servants that he's Jewish. Haman then learns about. That's like a fundamental facet of the story. If Haman didn't know Mordechai was Jewish, why would he take revenge on the Jewish people?


Exactly. They need to be told. If it was so obvious, why would they have needed to be told? Even Haman needed to be told that Mordechai was Jewish before he launched his attack.

I haven't read Hoschander's book myself, but I suspect it is along the same lines as you've already offered. Apologetic gymnastics. There is simply no corrobative evidence showing that the story is historical.

I love people who say, "Well, I haven't read it, but I'm sure it must be wrong." And you criticize others for blind faith. Fact is, Hoschander was more of your mindset. He was a Wellhausian bible critic, and a lecturer at JTS.

First, do you think the Mabul was an actual historical event? Do tell in what sense?

How many senses can there be? In the actual sense. The physical sense. The historical sense.

Second, when you make the stories in the Torah ever less like reality then you must acknowledge that your religious worldview is ceding ground to real scholarship. Thus "truth" and truth become different things.

"Ever less like reality"? Give me a break. My worldview is about seeking truth. You're the one with a dogmatic outlook. You've posted elsewhere that no one can possibly become frum if they aren't already emotionally disposed to it. Evidence to the contrary is tossed away, because it doesn't fit your hypothesis.

Face it, Orthoprax. None of this is about facts "disproving" events in our history. It's about you wanting our history to be false, in order to make your choices more supportable. You'll bring anything, however weak, to support that end, and you'll dismiss anything, however strong, that shows our history to be accurate and true.

You call me myopic and self-righteous. You really need a good look in a mirror.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

"Exactly. They need to be told. If it was so obvious, why would they have needed to be told? Even Haman needed to be told that Mordechai was Jewish before he launched his attack."

Ok, now read my post again and see whether your response actually acknowledges my point. Did I say anything about obviousness? No. I said that Mordechai was a known Jew.

"I love people who say, "Well, I haven't read it, but I'm sure it must be wrong.""

Good to know, but I didn't say that. You're great at pretending people say something and then responding to your own misperceptions. Shadow boxing.

"Fact is, Hoschander was more of your mindset. He was a Wellhausian bible critic, and a lecturer at JTS."

Regardless, I am skeptical of his idea that the Purim story actually takes place in the rule of Ataxerxes 2. It still suffers from the same lack of corroborative evidence as the idea that it took place under Xerxes. I'm willing to be shown wrong though.

What I will not do is just accept some extreme minority opinion just because you say you've been convinced in the face of the large majority of scholars who have found otherwise.

"How many senses can there be? In the actual sense. The physical sense. The historical sense."

Fascinating. So the story of Noah and the global flood is complete accurate history? So how do you explain the complete lack of evidence for such an event and the frankly glaring impossibility of such an event given our knowledge of the ancient world and simple logistics?

""Ever less like reality"? Give me a break. My worldview is about seeking truth."

No, it seems like its about how to fit an unruly ancient text into modern scholarship. I'd like to hear more about your efforts with Noah.

"You're the one with a dogmatic outlook."

Heh, ok. Pot/Kettle/Black.

"You've posted elsewhere that no one can possibly become frum if they aren't already emotionally disposed to it. Evidence to the contrary is tossed away, because it doesn't fit your hypothesis."

Someone offered you as an example against emotion driving people to become frum. I saw your post where you tell your story of how you became frum. Now, you don't actually give any of your intellectual reasons for coming to your conclusions, but I do get the sense that emotional reasons were involved albeit not the typical mushy feel-good type of emotional reasons.

It's rather easy to say that you came to your conclusions via strictly intellectual means, but I find that hard to believe. And your emotion-laden responses (where you sometimes approach hysteria) that you've made here only give me the stronger impression that you are not the most rational of thinkers.

But, as in all things, I am willing to be shown wrong.

"It's about you wanting our history to be false, in order to make your choices more supportable."

What choices are that exactly?

"You'll bring anything, however weak, to support that end, and you'll dismiss anything, however strong, that shows our history to be accurate and true."

That's a silly thing to say. Anyone who reads my blog or knows my reputation would know that I consider much of Jewish history to be generally accurate. Esther is an exception to that rule.

Furthermore, a one century old book presenting the opinion that has been discarded by the wide majority of scholars does not strong evidence make. And, actually, the only significant place that I could find online supporting his thesis was by you on wikipedia.

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