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 ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah), the patriarchs and matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.), and prophets (Moses, Miriam, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) had a direct line. They conversed with Him – some more than others – like an intimate. When God appears atop Mount Sinai, all the Israelites have the chance, technically speaking, I suppose, to be prophets. But they’re not up to it and they beg Moses to intercede – to interlocute – for them.

The second way to talk to God was through the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who consulted a mystical computer, the Breastplate of Judgment (the choshen or the Urim v’Thumim) that he wore.

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

When the Babylonians conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE, this line to God was cut. In 536 BCE, the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon. They eventually rebuild the Second Temple. But when the High Priest dons the Urim vThumim again, he finds that the signal is noisy and unreliable. A local call has become a long distance one, and from a tricky payphone at that. So the High Priest mostly wears it as a symbol of authority, aspiration, and perhaps nostalgia, hoping it will one day ring again.

Now, two millenia after the Temple was destroyed and one and a half millenia after the Talmud was codified, will prophecy ever 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 writings by inspired individuals? And if so, who can authorize the visions of these modern self-styled prophets as authentic and not heresies? Does anything go? Can anybody who has received smicha (ordination; literally, “laying of hands”) from another rabbi make up whatever and run with it?  What does that portend for the integrity and even the survival of the Jews, especially as they’re immersed in and compromising with host cultures?

According to the Talmud, Esther, that exemplar of the diaspora Jew, is briefly possessed of prophesy. Her story has answers for us.

When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE,  prophesy seems completely lost. The Romans martyr great rabbis horribly. The Jews are exiled again, but this time deliberately scattered. Fearing Jews will disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah HaNasi (The Prince) compiles the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness. Over the next 400 years, rabbis in Babylon and what’s left of them in Palestine (the Romans rename Israel after her enemies to humiliate her) 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. So they transmute Judaism into something portable. They transform the authority of the Temple, the home for God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, textual discourse, and exegesis. Architecture becomes architexture, a sprawling discourse that spans centuries and continents. It’s not a building but a rhizomatic vine, with many roots and branches rooting and spreading. One may die out but another sprouts up somewhere else. Burn it, eradicate the people attached to it, and still a single Jew could transport the Talmud, containing a comprehensive genetic code, to revive the legacy.

Perhaps that why when you read the Talmud, though it never seems to be in a rush, it seems to have an urgency: to preserve the connection to the time we had prophecy, now desperately attenuated.

Esther Loses Her Mojo

In this milieu, the threat of a charismatic Jew declaring he has a new vision of God’s instructions for us, is a problem. Perhaps it is THE problem. Jewish sages address it furtively. After all, they are living precariously as guests of idolators, Christians, and Muslims. They often have to speak about it in code. They remember what how gruesomely the Romans martyred the rabbis and leaders of the Jews, 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 all turn on a dime (or a rather, a denarum). It’s precarious, but too much is at stake, and the people are too vulnerable. They must understand how to tell false prophecy from true. They summon Esther, the queen of living in code, into service.

Queen Esther is the central figure of the Purim, she is elevated to the throne of Persia, yet she is incognito. Her powers and true identity are obscured not only to the King, but to herself. Yet, the Talmud tells us, at a decisive point in history, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, prophecy descends on her.  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 then speaks to God. Then she finds the courage to reveal herself to her King. Her intercession saves the Jews. Haman and his ten sons are executed and the Jews throughout Persia celebrate.

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:

Esther and the False ProphetScreen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.57.55 PM

It goes without saying that the exemplar of the false prophet for the Sages was Jesus. A Jew, he and his disciples expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures and borrow all its symbols to craft a comfortingly familiar message that contains a radical re-interpretation of how to relate to God. They compose a New Testament, and the call the Jewish one the Old.

The Talmud is eager to re-appropriate the Jewish narrative for the Jews, but it has to do so carefully, furtively, carefully hiding it in code. So they wage one of these secret inter-textual battles over a dramatic moment.

According to the Christian Gospels, 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’, it is the Aramaic equivalent of azvatani from the Greek root shebaq = σαβαχ = סבאח = “abandon”).

The Sages of the Talmud  deliberately place Esther’s true prophecy as counterpoint. Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are identical:

Eli, eli lama azvatani

Remember, though Esther doesn’t have these lines in the Megillah (written centuries earlier) but is attributed to her by the authors of Talmud in the 2nd century CE, some decades after the Gospels of Mark and Matthew). 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.

But the furtive battle against Christianity is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about prophecy in exile. Part 2 tries to decipher what they’re after. It traces the provenance of the line we hear from both Esther and Jesus. Along the way, it encounters some interesting questions about prophesy, fate, and the role of chance in the divine plan.

Prophecy, “Why have you forsaken me?”

The original source of the lament 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 her at the mercy of animals and scavengers who now demean them, the other nations:

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 copy 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 Gospel story plagiarizes 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 two parties have equal claims to booty or spoils of war, the goral was an official method of divvying them up. Casting dice or lots was common throughout ancient civilizations, including Persia and Rome. So while much of the Talmud involves intensely detailed rulings of relative liabilities and claims between parties, the casting of lots – pure chance – seems to compete with the Talmud’s rational system with a wild, esoteric, metaphysical parsing of justice.  The larger message is clear, with peace to Einstein: Sometimes, God does roll  the dice to determine the outcomes of history or justice! Chance might be 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 the gentiles’ narrative. 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 invisible gnats –  the “noseeums” as they call them in the South – arise from dust, the wizards declare, “This is Etzbah HaShem – the Finger of God!” Although invisible, God 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.]