Book Review By Philip Marcus
In these times of instability and unpredictability in Western democracies and in the Middle East, as well as the rise in anti-Semitism, the Book of Esther as always gives comfort and encouragement to the Jews.
The Book of Esther is beloved by countless generations, appealing as it does to Jews and gentiles alike, with its story of bravery and the defeat of the evil by the good. It has been commented on and dissected and presented in ways that are palatable to tiny children and to learned adults alike.
Yoram Hazony is one of a new generation of thinkers who distinguish themselves by shining new light on old themes, and enlivening discourse by combining established learning from many disciplines.
What distinguishes Hazony’s recent book G‑d and Politics in Esther (Cambridge University Press), which builds on The Dawn, his 1995 book on the same theme, is that he applies the disciplines of political theory, morals, and ethics to the original text, without in any way diverging from the authentic interpretations of the Jewish sages throughout the generations. He brings to bear the great thinkers of the world, like Machiavelli, frequently cited in the book, and at the same time drives home the point that G‑d, despite the absence of His name from the text, is continuously present.
Hazony presents the tensions between man’s free will and Divine providence and the covenant as an unbreakable bond. He highlights the challenges faced by a Jew in gentile society, and the special tensions faced by a Jewish courtier, who is responsible for the welfare of the Jewish people but subject to the policies and whims of his non-Jewish king, and especially the courage needed to deal with the unpredictability of events and identify the personality traits and flaws of rulers and those who aspire to rule. All these are described by analyzing Mordechai’s role as Jewish leader, and Esther’s contacts with Ahasuerus and Haman, in reference to the biblical accounts of Joseph and Moses, Daniel, and Nehemiah.
Hazony shows that Mordechai and Esther are able to overcome what appear to be insuperable odds by virtue of precisely those attributes of Judaism and Jewry to which Haman points when presenting his genocidal plan to Ahasuerus: “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of other peoples…” (Esther, III, 8).
Those attributes are identity and self-esteem. Despite their dispersion in all 127 provinces, the Jews are identified, by themselves and by others, as being one people, different from all others, by reference to their specific way of life according to the halachah. And despite oppression and dispersion, they do not abandon their devotion to their laws, and this is what keeps their self-esteem intact. Esther has to pay a huge price: not only is she required to conceal her identity as a Jew, she has to abandon her self-esteem as a person and subject herself to the whims of a drunken and rather stupid despot in the harem where women are mere playthings. But she maintains her dignity, and her devotion to the halachah. Mordechai (unlike many or most of his co-religionists) refuses any compromise with the idolatry and immorality of the court, and risks his life by doing so openly. It is his strength of character, and his keen observation of the mores of the Shushan ruling clique and the foul appetites of Ahasuerus and Haman, that enable him to have the self-esteem needed to develop a potentially disastrous scheme.
Mordechai is a politician who uses all the tricks and subterfuge of the politician’s trade. Hazony shows that halachic Judaism does not preclude the righteous Jew from engaging in politics. The Written and Oral Torah deal with all human activity, as he writes: “This ability to distinguish spheres of greater purity from other, lesser ones is what allows mankind to step into civilization, leaving behind the physical organs and bodily fluids, decay and illness, the corpse, and death itself, in order to enter into a ‘safe space’… in which it is possible to concentrate on things which are at once more essential and more personal… The same may be said concerning the accepted behaviors of politics. Here, too, many of the activities are brutal… Participating in the ways of the political world as one finds it is not inherently immoral, any more that the activities of the lavatory are immoral. In neither case does the pious person desire to behave in such ways; he does it neither for pleasure nor for some kind of personal gain, but because presumably there is no choice…” (p. 154).
Machiavelli’s politics and those of Mordechai are alike, in that they are founded on the principles of investment and boldness: investment in people and situations in order to direct future events by taking advantage of knowledge and contacts, and boldness in taking the risks inevitable to achieving objectives in unclear situations.
But Hazony tells us that Mordechai’s leadership is based on a third principle, absent from Machiavelli—the principle of faith. Only on the firm foundation of belief in G‑d and His Torah, and faith that G‑d would listen to Mordechai’s wailing in the streets of Shushan, the lamentations of the schoolchildren, and the fasting and prayers of Esther, were Mordechai and Esther able to plan and carry their courses of action. The price of failure would have been their own execution, but also the mass murder of the entire Jewish nation.
Thus Hazony’s conclusion that there is nothing coincidental in the Esther story, and that the Megillah enables us to recognize that G‑d’s involvement in the world arises from and is dependent upon the actions of men and women—as Hazony puts it, His action is emergent upon human and physical causes.
The story of the Megillah is situated outside the Land of Israel, after the end of the era of prophecy, when the Jews are a vulnerable minority. That is why hearing the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim is compulsory for all Jews in all places and at all times.
But this year, with the Arab countries in violent conflict causing huge shifts in populations, with France and Holland in unusually divisive election campaigns in which chauvinistic and racist candidates are prominent, and with uncertainty as to the intentions of the White House in almost all fields, we can be comforted by the message of Esther and Mordechai—that G‑d grants the Jews the talents and faith needed to protect ourselves.
Philip Marcus served as a Family Court judge of the Jerusalem Magistrates Court in Israel for 17 years, and was Deputy President for Family Matters from 2001 to 2006. Since his retirement, he has become a consultant and lecturer, speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to senior representatives from many countries about the Israeli judiciary’s unique approaches to domestic violence, surrogacy, trafficking, etc. He also gives workshops to students, psychotherapists, family counselors and community groups. To learn more, visit www.philip-marcus.com.