Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther

What is the status of prophecy today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who claim to be modern prophets, though they speak with inspiration and profound insight, really channeling the Divine, or are they mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?

The Torah tells us there are two ways to talk to God: the first is directly as did the ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah, etc.) patriarchs, matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.) and prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah). The second is through the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who used his transcendent telephone, the Urim v’Thumim,to communicate directly to God.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 1.36.59 PM
A cartoon of the Urim v’Tumim.

When the Babylonians conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE, this second line to God was cut. In 536 BCE, when the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon, they rebuild the Second Temple. The Kohen Gadol dons the Urim v’Thumim again. But he finds that though there’s some connection, it’s noisy and unreliable. To use an obsolete metaphor, a local call has become a long distance one. So he mostly wears it as a symbol of lost powers and nostalgic costuming, hoping it will one day ring again.

Meanwhile, though prophecy – magnificent poetry with Divine authority – continues after the Babylonian exile (Zechariah and Malachi), this peters out by around 440 BCE, too.

When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE it ends what little prophetic communication was left trickling from the diminished Urim v’Tumim. Canonical communications from God is now completely lost. Great rabbis are martyred horribly by the Romans. Their remaining few and their students are exiled along with most Jews. In the early third century CE, fearing Jews would disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah HaNasi (The Prince) compiles the Oral Law, the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness and which, the Rabbis believe, also were brought down by Moses from Sinai. Over the next 400 years, scattered across centuries and continents, rabbis debate the Mishnah in a long, hypertextual, and incredibly complex symposium, the Gemarah. Together, the Mishnah and Gemarah comprise the Talmud, 63 volumes of interpretation.

The Sages of the Talmud seem to know, prophetically, that the wait for the next redemption and the reconstruction of the Temple in the time of the Messiah, already half a millenium, is going to be a long one. They reconstruct the legacy of Jewish law and lore and make it meaningful for a portable civilization. They transform the authority of the Temple and its fixity in Jerusalem, the architectural glorification of God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, textual discourse, and exegesis, an architexture that spans centuries and continents. Though the Talmud never seems to be in a rush, the whole sprawling project nonetheless seems to have an urgency: to preserve the relevance of prophecy, if not its practice. The Sages debate the meaning and intent of the Torah as a guide for religious observance, halachah, so Jews can adapt and move from country to country for millenia and still retain both their character and essence of their relationship to God’s will as He expressed it in Torah.

Now, two millenia after the Temple was destroyed and one and a half millenia after the Talmud was codified, is there any chance prophecy will return? Or has prophecy been completely supplanted by wrangling over the meaning of Torah? Is the Talmud going to be enough to sustain a wandering, shrinking, scattered people? Or can Judaism continually revitalize itself with prophecy by inspired individuals? And if so, who can authorize the visions of these modern self-styled prophets as authentic and not heresies?

Esther Loses Her Mojo

Obviously, the dilemma of false prophecy, of Jews declaring they have a new vision of God’s instructions for us, is not a new one to the Sages. Maybe it is THE problem. But they address it furtively. After the Exile they are living precariously as guests of idolators, Christians, and Muslims. They often have to speak about what they consider to be false prophesies in code. The Romans martyred the Rabbi gruesomely, including Akiva. Although the Amoraim may have enjoyed periods of peace under enlightened rulers like Marcus Aurelius (“Antoninus” in the Talmud) in the second century, it could turn on a denari, so they trod lightly. Yet they forge on nonetheless because they must, especially in exile, especially when they live so intimately among other faiths. Too much is at stake. Jews must understand how to tell false prophecy and more importantly, false prophets, from true. One of the most subtle but striking of these occurs in the volume of the Talmud concerning the Purim holiday, tractate Megillah.

Queen Esther is the central figure of the Purim story told in the Megillah. She is also the last prophetess after Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, and Holda.  She is distinguished by living, literally, next to the throne. Ahashveros (Xerxes or Ataxerxes), King of Persia, takes her for a second wife after he executes Queen Vashti for disobeying him. He is smitten by Esther’s beauty but has no idea she is a Jew. Her very essence and name (“Hadassah”) means “hidden.” She is in disguise, her powers and true identity are obscured not only to the King but to herself.

Yet, at a decisive point in history, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, prophecy descends on Esther. Haman wants to kill all the Jews, and he has Ahashveros’ ear. Esther’s uncle (or lover), Mordechai, tells her it is time for her to step up and reveal herself. She is frightened that Vashti’s fate awaits her. But Mordechai tells her, “Perhaps you have been put in this position for just this moment.”  According to the Talmud’s elaboration of detail missing in the Megillah, she speaks to God, whereupon she reveals herself to her King. Her intercession saves the Jews. Haman and his ten sons are executed and the Jews celebrate.

But when the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther reaches for her personal line to God only to find that it was a one-night stand.

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

 Masechet Megillah (Talmud) 15a-b:

Jesus and Esther   Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.57.55 PM

According to the Gospels of Mark 15:34 (ca 70 CE) and Matthew 27:46 (ca. 80-90 CE),  Jesus cries out during his execution:

Eli eli lama sabbachthani?  –  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Mark and Matthew use the word ‘sabachthani’, but it is the Aramaic equivalent of azvatani from the Greek root shebaq = σαβαχ = סבאח = “abandon”).

The Sages of the Talmud seem deliberately to place Esther’s prophecy and lament in the context of Christianity, though in a veiled way. Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are identical:

Eli, eli lama azvatani

Remember, this isn’t said by Esther in the Megillah (written no later than 2nd century BCE) but is attributed to her by the authors of Talmud in the 2nd century CE, three or four hundred years later, and some decades after the Gospels of Mark and Matthew). In other words, one is written while the Jews had their own kingdom, and the other after the Second Temple is destroyed and our current long exile begun. It is clear the Sages are trying to use an event in the first exile, Esther in Persia, to say something about the later one in a Christian and pagan milieu.

What were they up to? Were the rabbis borrowing from the Gospels? Are the Sages 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? And if so, what are they saying about prophecy in exile? To untangle the answer, we have to look at the hidden source of both texts and their timeline.

Appropriating and Re-appropriating Jewish Prophecy Intertextually

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

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי;

Psalms 22:2

The original, in Psalms, has the aura of a general prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel by putting it at the mercy of other nations, animals and scavengers who now demean them:

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 (‘goral’ – גורל).

Psalms 22:17-18

The Gospels echo this image, too: according to Matthew 27:35-37, just a few lines before Jesus’ lament, soldiers under the cross gamble for Jesus’ clothes. So the tale now entangles the Gospel story with the prior text of Psalms on two touchstones at least – the lament of Jesus, and the image of conquering pagans (in this case the Roman soldiers) gambling over – and thus befouling – a martyr’s clothes. The Talmud then answers the challenge of this appropriation 0f Psalms in Matthew and Mark by re-reading the Purim story. Literary scholars call this interplay of allusions in texts intertextuality.

Purim is named after the casting of lots, a common practice in idolatrous cultures, by which Haman was supposed to determine the date on which to seal the fate of Jews. Psalms use the special word ‘גורל’ (‘goral’) , not פור (‘pur’). 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. By contrast, much of the Talmud involves intensely detailed rulings of relative liabilities and claims between parties that is meant to replace the casting of lots – pure chance – with a rational system based in metaphysical parsing of justice. (See, for instance, Bava Kamma.) The larger message is clear, with peace to Einstein: God does not roll dice to determine the outcomes of history or justice! These are meaningful and systematic systems, part of the fabric of Creation.

If we now look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the actual term for this special casting of lots is also ‘goral’

V’hipil pur hu ha’goral 

And [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.

Megillat Esther 9:24

We could have called Purim Goralim! The Sages of the Talmud are drawing out a hidden echo of the Psalms in Megillat Esther: dogs and scavengers, gamble over the remnants of our glory after prophecy has departed from usIsrael is defeated and exiled to a nation, Persia, where we are subject to the casting of lots that determine our fate. And on top of it all, the Sages are also furtively reflecting on their exile, again to Babylon and now to growingly Christian Roman Jerusalem.

So let’s review the sequence of these texts.

  1. Psalms 22, attributed to David but composed in its final version no later than the 5th century BCE.
  2. Megillat Esther – The Story of Esther and Purim, composed no later than 2nd century, BCE.
  3. Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which often quote the Tanach, late 1st century CE (75-90 CE).
  4. Talmud: Masechet Megillah. The Gemara is attributed to R. Elazar in the name of R. Chanina, one of first generation commentators on the Mishnah (Amoraim) and a student of R. Judah HaNasi, around late second century CE (180-200 CE).

So Can There Be Prophecy in Exile?

The Sages, by re-appropriating Esther and erecting her as the counterpoint to Jesus, are making a connection between the pagan use of lots and the Gospels’ dismay at the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes. What are they trying to say?

Although the Name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, God’s role in the story is invisible but ubiquitous, like the kinim of Moses’ third plague in Pharaoh’s court. Upon seeing the noseeums arise from dust, the wizards declare, “This is Etzbah HaShem – the Finger of God!” Although invisible, He is as ubiquitous and omnipotent in Ahashveros’ court as He is in Pharaoh’s. He is nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet everywhere at once, the original Deus ex machina.

But after the drama is over, He has withdrawn from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever. Her struggle, like ours, is to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and interest. Perhaps the Sages are saying that Esther’s prophecy is the kind that is suited to exile and to the fragmented, secular world we find ourselves in today, as Ziva Hassenfeld* points out. It is an insight that the Sages erect as bulwark against their – and our – ongoing historical condition. Like Esther we inhabit a foreign domain, unsure when and if prophecy will return at any time, consigned to trying to read His mind as best we can from what He has left behind, and tempted to assimilate to false prophets and strange worship. Yet even in the absence of direct proof – miracles and prophecy – we should continue to believe in and act on God’s sustained interest in our fates.

We are all Esthers today. Prophecy has withdrawn, lamentably. However much we yearn for it, and however much we shape our actions to deserve it, and however much we are seized by inspiration – to the point we want to convince everyone – nonetheless, Talmud tells us, legitimate prophecy doesn’t come to us now. Anyway, we have no one with the authority to declare that anyone else, however charismatic and persuasive, has it either. Instead, we are caught in the spin cycle of history’s washing machine. We have to trust that the Finger of God continues to stir the pot, that His Will in our affairs, like the kinim in Pharaoh’s court, acts invisibly but ubiquitously and with a reasonable plan for our fates that is better than a mere casting of lots.

Mountain View 2014 and San Mateo 2016


[Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha for teaching me about the status of the Urim v’Thumim in the Second Temple
*Thanks to  Ziva Hassenfeld, Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, for inspiring this question, leading me to Ziv and providing the halachic context for it in a shiur she gave our Talmud class on Feb 19, 2014.]

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