Can There Be Prophesy in Exile? Esther’s Lament

What is the status of prophesy for Jews today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who speak with inspiration and profound insight channeling the Divine, or is it soothsaying? Are modern day prophets mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?

(Today, July 17th, 2014, Israel has been forced to invade Gaza to stop the thousands of rockets Hamas are raining down on almost the entire country. There are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel violent riots in France and attacks on Jews in the Netherlands and protests in the US. This blog is dedicated to the bravery of the soldiers and reservists of the IDF who are defending their homeland and families.)

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Urim v’tumin, the Kohen Gadol’s prophesying machine

When King Solomon erected the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, used his transcendent machine, the Urim v’Thumim, to communicate directly to God. When the Babylonians conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE, the phone line that was cut to the Temple was still open for prophets, who spoke and wrote magnificent poetry with Divine Authority.

Many things changed during this era in Jewish history, our exile to Babylon. Like our first wanderings in the desert, it is a model for all the Diasporas to follow.  On the other hand lies despair in media res, the Decline of the Generations (Yeridas HaDoros): we are stuck in reality of here and now, inevitably declining, losing power, becoming more corrupt, winding down. On the one hand lies hope: though the exile is punishment, redemption and the Promised Land wait for us at the end of a long and tortured journey, if we keep the faith. But what happens to prophesy in Exile?

When the Jews return to Israel in 536 BCE, they speedily rebuild the Second Temple. The Kohen Gadol eagerly dons the Urim v’Thumim. But he finds it’s mostly inert, diminished. Though there’s some connection, it’s noisy. There’s lots of static on the line. To use an obsolete metaphor, a local call has become a long distance one. He can no longer receive direct prophesy from God, at least not reliably. So he mostly wears it as a symbol of lost powers and nostalgic costuming, hoping it will one day ring again.

But then the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Great rabbis are martyred horribly. Their remaining few and students are exiled along with most Jews. Reading the Talmud which was compiled beginning after this exile and for the next 400 years, the Sages seem to know, prophetically, that the wait for the next redemption, the reconstruction of the Temple in the time of the Messiah, is going to be a long one. They struggle to reconstruct the legacy of Jewish law and lore, the Mishnah and make it meaningful for a portable civilization. They transform the authority of the Temple and its fixity, the architectural glorification of God in Jerusalem, into an enduring and portable form of inquiry, textual discourse and exegesis, an architexture that spans centuries and continents. Their urgency is to preserve the spirit of prophesy – the meaning and intent of God’s words codified as a guide for religious observance, halachah – so the Jews can adapt and move from country to country for millenia, but still retain both their character and the essence of their relationship to God’s will as He expressed it in Torah.

So what happens to individual prophesy in this exile? Has it been completely supplanted by wrangling over and interpretation of the Torah, written in a Hebrew whose original meaning is always receding? Is the Talmud going to be enough to sustain a wandering, shrinking, scattered people? To answer these questions we turn to the last of the prophets, one who enacts the dilemma, Queen Esther.

Esther is the seventh prophetess. She is the last of the women who speak to God, after Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, and Holda.  She is distinguished by living, literally, next to the throne of exile. Ahashueros, King of Persia, takes her for a second wife after he executes Vashti for dissing him. He is smitten by Esther’s beauty but has no idea she is a Jew. Her very essence and name means “Hidden.” She is in disguise, not only to the King but perhaps to herself. Yet, at a decisive point in history, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, prophesy descends on Esther. According to the Talmud, she speaks to God, whereupon she outs herself to her King and to herself. Led by Mordechai, she intercedes to save the Jews. Then, after the storm we celebrate on Purim, when she reaches down to operate her personal line to God, she discovers that it was only a one-night stand.

The Divine Presence departed from her and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.

Eli, eli lama azvatani

TALMUD Masechet Megillah 15a-b:

As Ziva pointed out, Esther, besides being the last, is also qualitatively different from the other women prophets who preceded her and indeed all other prophets. Her direct communication with God is only a temporary condition. Ziva quotes

When prophesy yields to interpretation, the Temple and homeland give way to Talmud and exile,

As Avivah Zornberg points out in The Murmuring Deep, when Esther is anointed a Prophet in exile “it gives way to the possibility, however uncertain, that it is now possible for all of us to be seized by occasional glimmers of Divine insight, even while immersed in a secular world.”

Living in the New Edom of Europe and the US, dominated by Christianity, we are hopeful that like Esther, prophesy can and will descend on us, even if only in fleeting, blinding moments of inspiration?

To answer the question fully, we must take another detour to explain the context we’re in today.

Jesus and Esther 

The Sages of the Talmud seem deliberately to place Esther’s prophesy and lament in the context of Christianity, though in a veiled way, as they do so many times throughout the Talmud when referring to the other nations on whose hospitality they depend. There is a striking parallel between Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross. Esther, according to the Rabbis, laments

Eli, eli lama azvatani

Remember, this isn’t said by Esther in the Megillah but is rather attributed to her by the authors of Talmud after the Second Temple is destroyed and our current long exile begun. It is clear they are trying to use the first, Babylonian exile of Esther to say something about the second one that has, so far, extended for almost two thousand years.

Jesus in Gospels of Mark 15:34 (ca 70 CE) and Matthew 27:46 (ca. 80-90 CE) is reported to echo Esther’s plaint:

Eli eli lama sabbachthani?

Were the rabbis borrowing from the Gospels, or did the Gospels borrow from some earlier Jewish source? Are Chazal even aware of this echo? And if so, what are they saying about Esther? Are they trying to draw some uncomfortable parallel with the false prophet of the Christians and their last, true prophet? To untangle the answer, we have to look at the timeline and intertextuality of the lamentation.

The original source of both is Psalms 22, where the Hebrew ‘azvatani’ is used, as it is in the Talmud.

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי;

(Psalms 2:2)

The Christian version in the Gospels uses the word ‘Sabachthani’, but it is the Aramaic equivalent of azvatani (from the Greek root ‘shebaq” = σαβαχ =סבאח abandon.

So the sequence of the cry is:

  1. Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which often quote the Tanach, late 1st century CE (75-90 CE).
  2. Psalms 22, attributed to David but at latest, composed in its final version in the Second Temple period, around 5th century BCE.
  3. Talmud Megillah. The Gemara is attributed to R. Elazar in the name of R. Chanina, one of first generation Amoraim and a student of R. Judah HaNasi. So this would place the reference to around late second century CE (180-200 CE)

The original, in Psalms, has the aura of a prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel, in fulfillment of the Prophets:

Many bulls have encompassed me; strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.

They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and a roaring lion.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my throat; and Thou layest me in the dust of death.

For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evil-doers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet.

I may count all my bones; they look and gloat over me. They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots.

The Gospels echo the last image in a strange, dense implication of Jesus with more Purim iconography : the soldiers under the cross, according to Matthew 27:35-37, gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Obviously, Matthew is echoing Psalm 22 again, but is he also thinking of Purim? Probably. For their part, the Rabbis certainly cannot help but to think of Purim. They are drawing a subtle but profound contrast between the two forms of conversation with God, Jesus’ and Esther’s.

Psalms use the special word ‘גוראל’ (‘goral’) , not פור. When there are spoils to which there are equal claims, the goral was an official method of divvying them up by means of casting die or lots, common throughout ancient civilizations, including Persia and Rome. (Ironically, the Talmud replaces the casting of lots with legal decisions involving intensely detailed rulings of relative liabilities and claims between parties. See, for instance, Bava Kamma.)

But if we look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the actual term for this special casting of lots is

 v’hipil pur hu ha’goral

Megillat Esther 9:24

which should be more literally translated “and [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.” We could have called Purim Goralim, were it not for the power that would be lost in the echo of its doppelganger, Yom [Ha]Kippur[im].

In this light, the reflection of Christianity is quite clear. If we look a few lines above in Megillah, we see further contexts from Psalm 22:

R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: God will in the time to come be a crown on the head of every righteous man, as it is said, In that day shall the Lord of Hosts be for a crown of glory

We now can see the imagery here is dramatically full of reflections on Christianity. “A crown on the head of every righteous man” echoes Isaiah 28. Gospels borrow it in its story of the transformation of Jesus’ crown of thorns into an icon of his supposed divinity. But the Sages re-appropriate it quite deliberately, one has to believe. The Talmud continues:

Israel busy themselves with the Torah, the other nations do not busy themselves with the Torah — He replied to Him, But these also reel through wine, and stagger through strong drink, they totter in judgment.

Israel occupies itself with Torah, exactly the practice that Jesus was attempting to overthrow in favor of a more Platonic God. In the Talmudic version, Esther thinks God has forsaken her because she compared Ahashveros to a “dog” (again echoing Psalms 22). She hopes by changing the comparison of him to a “lion” it will bring God back to her.  Of course “lion” is praise, but it is also an allusion to the failed nations that beleaguer Israel, “who go down to the dust [and] kneel before Him.” [Psalms 22:29].

So Can There Be Prophesy in Exile?

So what does this furtive reflection on Christianity suggest the rabbis were thinking about Esther and more importantly, prophesy in exile? As Ziva Hassenfeld points out, Esther’s prophesy is different. It is the prophesy of a people in diaspora. After all, Esther is the archetype of the figure of Israel in galut: she is female, and thus not much better than chattel to her Persian king, and thus doubly subservient. She discovers from Mordechai that she is the avatar and the final hope of her people, who now face extermination. From this dual subservience, she becomes doubly heroic, and thus is worthy of inclusion in Tanach, worthy of her own holiday – the only holiday devoted to the actions of a single person – and her story is worthy of an entire masechet of the Talmud. Esther is moved by the discovery of her heritage to confront Ahashveros, and more importantly, to have the mantle of prophesy descend on her, if only for an instant.

The Amoraim were keenly aware of the parallels between Esther and Jesus, even though they submerge it for obvious reasons. After the horrible martyrdom of the ten rabbis, including Akiva, in the 1st century CE, the Amoraim were enjoying unprecedented peace under Marcus Aurelius (“Antoninus” in the Talmud) in the second century. So in treading on the  ground considered sacred by their hosts, they trod lightly, but they forge on nonetheless. Too much is at stake. Jews must understand how to tell false prophesy and more importantly, false prophets – from true.

When HaShem withdraws from Esther, she feels so great a pain that she is provoked to cry out in heart-rending lamentation.

We all know or have heard of stories of people who went along all their lives thinking they were Christian, only to discover they were born Jewish or had a Jewish parent. I’ve heard from three people with this history in the last month alone. They all reported the seizure of recognition that flooded them, and I imagine it must be pretty universal. Among the many conflicting emotions is the sudden recognition of desolate exile: they are transported in place, suddenly surrounded by strangers, cut off from their “true” origins. This must have been Esther’s shock of recognition, a tearing of consciousness, a sudden dizzying exile-in-place. And it is also ours, when we let seep into consciousness exactly what it means to be Jews in a foreign country, however patriotic we may be, as opposed to breathing the free air of our own nation.

Although the name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, that Name is like the kinim in Pharaoh’s court: upon seeing the third plague performed by Moses and Aaron, the wizards declare, “This is etzbah HaShem – the Finger of God!” Although invisible, He is as ubiquitous and omnipotent in the court of Ahasheveros as He is in Pharaoh’s. He is nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet everywhere at once. But there is no doubt He has withdrawn from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever. She is left to confront Ahashveros, and save her people, on her own, bereft. Her struggle is now to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and support for her cause.

Esther’s prophesy is the kind of prophesy that is suited to exile and to the demotic, secular world we find ourselves in today, as Ziva pointed out. It is the kind of prophesy that is accessible to and might descend on any person, if only to be withdrawn as quickly as it is gifted to us. It is the kind of prophesy that equates to courage, as it finds us in the lion’s den or surrounded by bulls and dogs or an evil persecutor like Haman who seeks to eradicate all Jews. It is the kind of prophesy that Chazal erect as bulwark against their – and our – historical condition, finding ourselves, like Esther, in a foreign domain, unsure when and if prophesy will return to Israel, consigned to trying to read His mind as best we can from the fragments left behind, and yet continuing to believe and act, even in the absence of sustained proof. That is Esther’s final distinction: like Devorah and Hannah, she changes history through her personal actions. She does, in the hope that one day she will again hear.

Nonetheless, however much we yearn for prophesy, and our actions are shaped to deserve it, and we may feel personally the mantle of prophesy descend on us, and we may seek an audience to affirm it, and we feel a tearing pain at the removal of prophesy, legitimate prophesy doesn’t come to us now.

[Thanks to Ziva Hassenfeld, Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, for inspiritng this question and providing the halachic context for it in a siur she gave our Talmud class, Feb 19, 2014.]
  • David Porush
  • Mountain View, 2014