How Do We Sustain Our Jewish Identity?
As we approach Purim, the story of Esther gnaws at me and disturbs my peace of mind.
When I was in Yeshivah, I learned an interpretation of the story that I now realize was shaped by the agenda of the rabbis: Mordechai was a great pious man and sage. Esther was a profoundly religious young woman, tortured against her will to be the wife of a pagan king. They bide their time until it becomes clear why they got involved in all this mess-to save the Jewish people.
One question that used to bother me in the above narrative: how did the king and his courtiers not know that Esther was Jewish? Indeed, she had no father or mother, but did they think it an accident that she was raised by a holy rabbi in beard, yarmulke and tzitzit? Mordechai used to check on her welfare every day; wouldn’t any intelligent person realize there’s a relationship here?
Perhaps a better understanding comes from a straight reading of the text.
Our story takes places around the year 526 BCE, when the Jews have previously been conquered and exiled from their homeland. They are now foreigners, second class citizens vying to get by in the Persian Empire. There may be a desire to just let go of distinctions and blend in.
It seems from our first introduction to Mordechai that this is so (Esther 2:5):
“There was a Judean man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” How come Mordechai doesn’t have a Jewish name? His three antecedents have very Jewish, Hebrew names but he’s named after the local god, Marduk. Marduk, in the Mesopotamian religion, was the chief god of the city of Babylon and the national god of Babylonia. American Jews give their kids some pretty secular names, but I’ve rarely bumped into a Jewish Jupiter or Jesus.
Likewise, Esther’s name is also revealing. It derives from the goddess Ishtar, appropriately the goddess of love and beauty. I understand naming your daughter Emma or Briana, but Venus (in the times when Venus was worshipped!) is a bit strange.
I think some really solid evidence of their desire to assimilate is in Mordechai’s exhortation to Esther to not reveal that she’s Jewish.
Although the Megillah doesn’t explain Mordechai’s reasoning in hiding their heritage, the simple interpretation is that ‘we lie low, no one needs to know.’ Even when the king pressures her to reveal her heritage (2:20) she still claims ignorance.
All this changes when Haman threatens to kill all of the Jews. Esther is sitting pretty and after seven years of hiding her heritage, she’s rather resistant to revealing that’s she’s Jewish in order to stand up for her people. Mordechai had to use some pretty strong convincing to persuade her: (4:13 &14) “Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows whether at a time like this you will retain the kingdom?”
Mordechai and Esther do become our heroes in the end, but what’s the moral of the story? Jews wanted to vanish into their new surroundings, but God wanted them around, so the neighbors become restless, forcing them to confront their own Jewishness. This has happened endless times throughout history.
Many Jews in medieval Spain superficially converted to Christianity to become part of country, but the Inquisition weeded them out. Some reform congregations in Germany in the 19th Century moved the Sabbath to Sunday in order to fit in; that didn’t work out too well for them either.
Were Charlottesville and Pittsburgh wake up calls for us too? Is this what it means in the Haggadah, “In every generation, they try to destroy us, but God saves us from their hand”, because if there were no destroyers, Jews would lose their identity?
Theodore Herzl came from an assimilated family in Vienna. When the outright perversion of justice occurred in the Dreyfus Affair, he felt there was no other option for the Jews but to have their own country. That no matter how much they tried to assimilate into European culture, they would not be accepted.
A clear message from Megillat Esther and our history in exile is that God wants us to persevere; we add something vital and noble to the world. But is it possible for Jews to live in foreign lands, become an important contributor to the country and still maintain their identity? Is it necessary for us to have an external enemy “in every generation” to remind us that we are Jews?”
I would hope that through Jewish education and pride we can accomplish both, maintain our identity and contribute to society. History seems to say otherwise. What do you think?