The story of Purim, which we celebrate this Saturday night, is said to have happened some 2,500 years ago in the Persian Empire. Historians will argue as to whether the story of Mordechai and Esther is historically accurate.
It is not at all clear if the name of the king Achashverosh applies to a specific one like Artaxerxes, or just Xerxes, or even Darius. Perhaps it was just a general title for all emperors or kings of the Persian Empire. And archeologists have found that similar sounding names to the Hebrew version were quite common in those days. Still, one wonders whether this inebriated, credulous, short-tempered, lovesick monarch really was the great Emperor who invaded Greece, and that’s why he needed money and taxes. What’s more, some argue that Mordechai and Esther were not real people but instead really Marduk and Astarte, Babylonian gods. Speculation extends to Vashti’s motives in refusing to appear before the king. Did any woman dare to do that sort of thing in those days? And why did the king need to send out a pompous, formal declaration telling the men to stop being pansies and show who was boss in their own homes?
It’s not just historians who speculate. Psychologists are fascinated by the mentality of Mordechai in refusing a simple request to be polite. They pick on his political ambitions, his excessive loyalty to the powers that be and the way he happily moved into his opponent’s apartments. Perhaps to cap it all he also took over Haman’s wives too. And as for Esther, was she the determined, courageous girl she was beneath her sweet beautiful exterior precisely because she was brought up parentless and had to fend for herself and use a charming exterior to mask a will of steel? Perhaps she was an early Mata Hari or Shin Bet operative!
And if it is a holy book why is God not given a mention? And why such delight in hanging one’s enemies and begging for more time to attack the David Irvings of those days who had, according to the text itself anyway, already panicked and conceded the field. Indeed, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in England, the Victorian Claude Montefiore, wanted to scrap Purim altogether because he thought that no English gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion could possibly be allowed to go around killing anti-Semites and celebrating a victory. He’d rather prefer they had acted like good Christians and turned the other cheek. How different to the Midrash which says that Purim will outlive all other festivals because it is pure joy! Apologists might point to the fact that they didn’t touch the spoil and only attacked those who sought to destroy them. But still, rather like opponents of Israel nowadays, there are those who refuse to acknowledge mitigating circumstances. In parts of the world pacifism is highly regarded. It is simply not right to kill anyone. Which is why there were ‘Conscientious Objectors’ and refused to go to war even against Hitler. But in those awful days you either killed your enemies or else you’d be massacred or raped or sold into prostitution and slavery (as the TV miniseries ‘Rome’ so amply and accurately illustrates). So, by jiminy, you rejoiced if for a change it wasn’t you on the receiving end.
The Talmud, itself, enjoyed speculations; whether Mordechai had adopted Esther or even married her when she became orphaned; what Esther actually ate in the palace (was it non kosher, supervised or just vegetarian?) and what were her seduction tactics, all schoolgirl innocence or a woman of the world? All kinds of fascinating questions arise and are, in the end, no more than speculative. You can believe, in which case the questions are unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. Or you are a skeptic and it’s really a primitive concoction of dubious historical, literary, or moral merit, with no spiritual dimension at all.
In truth, the historicity of the Bible is simply not going to be established beyond doubt. Naive attempts by Hollywood directors teaming up with part-time archaeologists to find Jesus’ burial plot are in the news, even though a historical Jesus is probably an oxymoron. And if he did exist as the Greek Gospels said, Romans never allowed crucified rebels a decent burial. Besides, the names Joseph, Mary, and Joshua were as common a set of names at that time and place as John and Jane are in the Estuary today. Going back hundreds years earlier the evidence is even sparser.
The cynic will accept no evidence and the believer will not require any. I should like to plead for a simple approach, in between both extremes.
Life is tough. The function of ritual is to help us enjoy life as well as to reign in our selfish egos a little and make us more aware of other people and other standards. All festivals are concerned with experience, with exposing ourselves to different facets of existence and building around them a framework that enriches our lives. When we go to the cinema or theatre we don’t always want a moral or a stern rebuke. But a powerful message conveyed in a visually attractive and arresting way, or with an exciting story line, will reach home far more easily that a man standing on a podium ranting and raving.
Religion is often seen as stern and moralizing and boring and dull. Yet if you think about it, whether it is Purim or Chanuka, Pesach or Sukkot, we are exposed to powerful human themes and experiences of the senses, and asked to reflect on them. And it’s much better, educationally, to do this when they are ‘dressed up’ in interesting events, celebrated with unusual festivity, amid good food, wine, family and friends.
This is what can make religion fun and enjoyable as well as educational and uplifting. This is religion experienced by participation, rather than sitting passively in a large hall observing others, being bored out of one’s mind.
If we spend too much time deconstructing and arguing about the dates, or whether the author knew his history or not, or forgot to mention God or intentionally disguised Him, we’ll miss the fun, miss the experience. We’ll be left with a sour or bitter taste or none at all, instead of good food, good wine, and good cheer.
As they say of drama- suspend your critical faculty, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com