Review: Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile

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Book Review: Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile by Erica Brown (Maggid Books), 493 pages.
Reviewed by Stuart Halpern

Well I was rollin’ / On the way to Jerusalem / I was headed for the Promised Land / And nothing make me go against the tide / But I took a little turn (Neil Diamond, “Jerusalem,” 1980)

There was a certain Judean in Shushan the city, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite (Esther 2:5)

Ahasuerus, it seems, never would have gained the approval of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his On Grand Strategy, Yale military historian John Lewis Gaddis levels a critique against the Persian king Xerxes, whom the scholarly consensus presumes to have been the biblical Ahasuerus, for not heeding the advice of his uncle and advisor Artabanus. Against the pleadings of his counselor, Xerxes crossed the strait of Hellespont (the Dardanelles) in his invasion of Greece circa 480 BCE. He suffered a humiliating defeat. Failing to balance ambition alongside sound military strategy, the great king never, according to Gadis, would have passed “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test, from 1936, for a first-rate intelligence: ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind and the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’” 

In her Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile, the latest in Maggid Books’ “Studies in Tanakh” series, renowned educator Dr. Erica Brown seeks to balance opposing ideas in mind. Offering a robust study of the heroine whom scholar Carolyn J. Sharp crowns the “queen of paradox,” the volume reads in the accessible and engaging style familiar to readers of Dr. Brown’s previous works. In it, the author, whose doctoral dissertation was on Eliezer Ashkenazi’s (Egypt, 1512-1585) Yosef Lekakh, a commentary on Esther, offers her own verse-by-verse interpretation of the tale of the Persian Queen. Drawing from the teachings of an immense range of both traditional Jewish sources and modern scholarly commentaries, Brown offers countless literary and thematic insights into the tale of the eponymous heroine who was, at once, the obedient orphan, courageous advocate, national leader and childless prisoner of the palace. For instance, in her analysis of the opening feasts of Ahasuerus, and the possibility that the Jews were present, she offers: “alcohol, in the narrative, becomes the very symbol of exile itself. It causes loss of self-control, loss of memory, loss of dignity” (87). And in another observation on diaspora living she notes how, in Esther, there are two heroes, unlike in other biblical books where “we find one dominant hero – chieftain, priest, king, or prophet; here it is the partnership that saves the day. This, too, may be a message for those who lead in exile. Identify allies in the cause and the work… Diaspora Jews must identify their partners as they create a more meaningful and impactful voice in foreign lands” (143). 

Brown finds subtle ways, in the playful spirit of Purim, to wink at the reader in the midst of her interpretive deliberations. An extensive discussion of the Talmud’s explanation of Ahasuerus’ disturbed sleep in chapter 6 is titled “Sleepless in Shushan,” a nod to the 1993 romantic comedy set in Seattle, and remarks on the “erratic pacing in the book” in which “one party, one parade, another party, and then a hanging took place in a matter of days” appear in a section titled “Thinking Fast and Slow,” a reference to the renowned Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller

Discussions throughout the volume bring into conversation rabbinic commentaries with academic analysis and interpretive history. This includes Vashti as a feminist heroine in America, morality plays, modern Israeli poetry, “Megillat Hitler” in the United States Holocaust Museum, and personally witnessing Sadam Hussein’s effigy being thrown over the women’s gallery on Purim 1991, the day the Gulf War ended, as a means of stamping out the memory of a modern Haman are just a brief sampling of the many imprints Esther has left on the collective Jewish imagination. Coupled with literary, poetic, and philosophical texts unrelated to Esther, which Brown marshals to enhance her readings, Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile analyzes dozens of themes. 

As is clear from the title, the center of her reading is the precarious nature of Jewish diaspora life. The contrasting book of Daniel, with its main character refusing to eat non-kosher food and praying towards Jerusalem, is cited often, and she ends the book with multiple “alternative endings” filling in what might have happened next. One reading, inspired by the Religious Zionist Rabbi Benjamin Lau, has Mordecai leading the Jews of Shushan triumphantly back to Jerusalem. After all, should Mordecai, the Judean man, really be in Shushan and not the Land of Israel? Throughout Brown’s volume, the relative stability and God-focused Jewish communal living in Israel, both in ancient times and today, shadows over the fragile fate of Shushan’s Jews as it does contemporary diaspora Jewry. Additionally, there are eloquent and insightful teachings on an array of topics, including the nature of political power, the Greek additions to Esther, minor characters in Tanakh, taxes, assimilation, buildings in the Bible (prompted by the discussions of Ahasuerus’ palace) and whether Esther 8:17 means that the gentile residents of Shushan converted to Judaism (which, in turn, leads to a discussion of the possible conversion of the sailors in the story of Jonah, on which Brown also composed a volume in the Maggid series). 

With so many ideas at her disposal, a few end up, to reframe Fitzgerald, in an opposition that might justifiably preclude functionality. Mentioning, without critique, contemporary scholar C. A. Moore’s suggestion that “many scholars believe … that the word purim represents a later folk etymology for a Judaized pagan festival, that is purim was a name supplied by Babylonian Jews to a Jewish festival which had been initially pagan in both origin and character” (206) seems out of place for a commentary meant to be religiously edifying. And there is an extensive discussion, with one part titled “An Unreasonable Death Toll,” that belies the traditional Jewish rejoicing over a lopsided defeat of our enemies by wrestling, more than one might think necessary, with the nature of the Jewish military victory. Referring to the large number of Persians killed in the battle at the end of the book, Brown writes “while many modern commentators blame the Jews for this massacre, the blame actually belongs to the king. If there is any blame directed at Esther, it may be her failure to petition the king for the lives of the Persians” (346) and “we might want to avoid the reality that the Jewish victory came at the expense of Persian lives – even if it was in self-defense” (413). 

Brown also states that the usage of the word ve’avdan (9:5) “connects … destroying with women and children.” Conceding centuries of differing perspectives wrestling with the morality of the extensive defeat of the enemies of the Jews in the book, from the anti-Semitic ravings of Martin Luther, who argued the Jews loved the book of Esther because it “befits their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous greed,” to the late Jewish scholar Elliott Horowitz’s writings on the history of Purim violence, this reading seems mistaken on historic, literary, and moral grounds (though not as greatly as a recent commentary that cites approvingly the suggestion that Jews fast on the day before Purim out of sympathy for our defeated enemies). The verse, unlike the letter allowing the Jews to fight back against man, woman, and child (8:11) does not state that women and children were killed. Ve’avdan simply means “destruction” (not, as she seems to read it, “destroyed them [feminine plural]”). Was it a “massacre” in Esther’s era to so soundly defeat one’s enemies? And can Esther really be blamed for not preventing the killing of the people who had been granted license to do the same to her? Offering an opposing reading of this episode, Rabbi Norman Lamm, while cautioning that hating our enemies should be the “commandment” that is “most difficult of all to observe,” said, in a Purim-day sermon delivered in 1973:

I am sorry that I have to disturb the prejudices that we have inherited in our liberal culture, reinforced by the Christian environment … we do reserve our actual, living hatred for the unusually hateful individuals who commit historic crimes and whose malice is monstrous and premeditated. Anti-Semites who wish to destroy all the Jewish people; monsters who seek sadistically to wipe out whole populations — such people remain deserving, on purely moral grounds, of actual contempt and hatred.

Despite these disagreements, Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile is an enlightening, and comprehensive work. Hybridity, as Hadassah/Esther surely knew, is a constant, fraught challenge. In producing this Modern Orthodox classic, balancing scholarly rigor and readability, humor and history, parshanut and poetry, the prolific Dr. Brown has once again given both Jewish readers and people of all faiths timeless teachings on a timeless tale.

Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost, and Senior Program Officer at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, at Yeshiva University.

[Published on March 4, 2020]

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