A Plea to Stop Underestimating Purim: The Most Modern Jewish Holiday

Mar 11, 2014 | Updated May 11, 2014

Though we don't often speak of ourselves this way, we as American Jews live in the diaspora, one might even say, exile. Whether we quite like it (as I do), is, in some sense, entirely beside the point. We live outside the land of Israel, at the amiable mercies of a host culture which does not believe or practice as we do, and though we may have risen to great heights outside of the Land of Israel, we are always, in some sense, strangers in a strange land. We speak in Christian idioms -- we say "he walks on water", we say, "knock on wood", we say, "water into wine" and as we do, we forget that this is not our language and these are not our myths; it's Jesus who did these things, who, though he may have started out as a Jew, ended up the progenitor of a religion that thinks him divine. We don't believe people walk on water, that they turn water into wine, and we should know better than to knock on wood. In any case, we use this language unthinkingly. We marry non-Jews. We eat non-kosher food. And, since the Holocaust, we live in a world largely bereft of God. The most recent Pew poll shows that only 27 percent of American Jews believe in God -- a number that is lower than any other religious group, including Buddhists who, at least according to Buddhist doctrine, don't believe in God at all.

Some believe that this straying from traditional observance is a sign of Judaism's imminent demise, small scale tragedies that, someday, will result in a far larger one -- a slow and steady slide into obsolescence, Jews, the "ever-dying" people. But I think they're wrong. I think, quite frankly, "How do we possibly think it could be otherwise?" We have been through too much, and, in the case of American and Canadian Jews, been too lucky, for any other eventuality.

Which is why I love The Book of Esther, and the holiday of Purim (which begins this weekend), and always have, and why I think we should pay closer attention to Purim than we do. The implicit questions that The Book of Esther struggles with: how to survive in diaspora and navigate its halls of power, how to retain Jewishness outside the land of Israel, and what it means to live in a world where God appears to be hidden -- these are our questions. This is our world. Esther might have been written as a satirical fairy tale, or a wish-fulfilling fantasy of revenge on those who would kill the Jews, but, as the fool in King Lear shows, it is often our folly that holds the deepest wisdom.

Esther, the only book in the Biblical canon where God is never mentioned, and never makes an appearance, reflects contemporary Jewish anxieties. We are a people who feel, I believe, profoundly and desperately ontologically alone. We (or at least our grandparents) looked into the abyss of the Holocaust and, some 70 years later, continue to struggle mightily with what we found there -- a knowledge of the worst of human potential, and a thundering silence from the heavens. And yet we persist as a people -- Jewish atheists attend High Holiday services with stunning regularity -- and we insist (really, insist) on hoping that our ancestors were right: Redemption is possible, and God is with us, even, especially, in exile. Many of us don't believe it -- but that doesn't stop us from praying for it anyway.

Which is why, I think, Esther is our book, and this is our story.

Esther is constructed entirely around essential absences, a story despite; Redemption despite God's absence, Judaism's continuity despite powerlessness, and Jewish survival despite those who would have it otherwise. And so I believe that Esther is not, as many contemporary commentators suggest, a solely satirical book. Esther, like most carnival tales, is also existential, a commentary on the unique and torturous challenges of Jewish history, a fantasy for a people without a land, an interrogation of power and its discontents, and, most of all, a reconsideration of the role and presence of the Jewish God in history. Therefore Esther, despite being canonical, is, I believe, anti-Biblical. It denies God her traditionally salvific role, going so far as to ignore Her completely and champion human agency. It tells us that even in God's absence, we can save an entire people. That we, alone and nearly powerless, can change the world -- regardless of our gender, regardless of our age, regardless of our wealth. And in the doing, Esther becomes an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on God's apparent Absence in our own lives and times, and our own existence in diaspora.

I believe that the unique challenges of Esther, can be, in the retelling, opportunities to think about ourselves differently. So this year, when we retell the story of Esther, let us use the story as an opportunity to reconsider how we, too, deal with a world where God is hidden, where Jews are a small minority, and where, in some parts of the world, they still face very real existential threats. And as we do, let us be grateful for how far we have come, how blessed we are to live in North America, and how wonderful it is, that Esther is, in the final analysis, still only a fairy tale.