The Talmud re-reads Esther to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false gods and re-appropriate Jewish tradition from the ruling culture
War by word, not sword, in exile
The prophets talked to God. The ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah), the patriarchs and matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.), and prophets (Moses, Miriam, Devorah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) had a direct line. They conversed with Him like an intimate.
There was a second way to talk to God. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore a mystical Breastplate of Judgment (the choshen or the Urim v’Thumim), an array of jewels that would light up, like a mystical computer, receiving coded transmissions directly from God.
In 536 BCE, the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon and eventually rebuild the Temple. But when the High Priest dons the urim v’thumim again, he finds that the line is cut (or a local call has become a long distance one). So the High Priest mostly wears it as a symbol of authority, aspiration, and perhaps nostalgia, hoping it will one day ring again. It never did.
When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, prophecy is completely lost. The Romans martyr the great rabbis horribly and scatter the Jews into another exile, worse than their first in Babylon. Fearing that the Jews will disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah the Prince compiles the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness. Over the next 300 years, rabbis gather in academies in Babylon and what’s left of them in what is now called Palestine (the Romans renamed Israel after her enemies, the Philistines, to humiliate her). These sages elucidate the Mishnah in a long, hypertextual, and incredibly complex symposium. The thousands of pages recording their stories, debates, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries across centuries and countries is called the gemarah. Together, the mishnah and gemarah comprise the Talmud, which has been the foundation of Jewish life, thought and religion in the Diaspora, along with Zionism, the hope of returning to Israel.
The sages of the Talmud are prescient. They anticipate that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is going to be a long one. So they transmute Judaism into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. They transform the authority of the Temple, the physical home for God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, discourse, and exegesis. Architecture becomes architexture, a sprawling text, a vine with many roots and branches sprouting, intertwining, and still spreading. One offshoot may die out but another springs up somewhere else. Burn it, eradicate the people attached to it, and still a single Jew (and a donkey or two) could transport the Talmud to revive the Jewish legacy.
In this milieu, a charismatic Jew might arise and declare he has a new vision of God’s instructions for us and pose a serious threat to the Jews, vulnerable because they are exiled from their spiritual and geographical home. By the time of the Talmud, this threat has become the problem. Christianity becomes ascendent throughout Palestine and the Roman Empire is transforming into the Holy Roman Empire. So the sages now have a dilemma. It is urgent to address the threat, but they obviously have to do so furtively. After all, they are living precariously as guests of idolators and Christians. They often have to speak about it in code. They remember how gruesomely the Romans martyred the rabbis and leaders of the Jews. They are witnessing Romans slaughter Christians around them, many of them former Jews. Although Judah the Prince may have enjoyed periods of peace under enlightened rulers like Marcus Aurelius and even been his personal friend (“Antoninus” in the Talmud), it could all turn on a dime (or rather, a denarum). Too much is at stake, and the people are slipping away. Now more than ever, in the face of Christianity, they must explain how to tell false prophecy from true. So they wage a war, not by sword but by word.
For this, they summon Esther, the queen of living precariously, and press her into service. What better story than hers? It is all about disguise, furtiveness, veiled meanings and hidden identities. Further, it marks the very moment that prophecy departs from the Jews. The chronicle of the events in Persia historically coincide with the return of the Jews to the Second Temple to discover that the choshen, the urim v’thumim is broken. But finally, according to the sages, Esther experiences this disconnection from God, this loss of prophecy, as a personal tragedy, a heartrending loss. She is avatar and paradigm of the Jews.
And then, in a stunningly bold or perhaps foolhardy move, they put in Esther’s mouth the single most dramatic sentence from the other team’s story, a line the gospels say Jesus cries out while he is being crucified. What were they thinking?
To answer this question, we have to put it in context of the texts that bring these stories to us.
Esther gets and then loses her mojo
Purim is the story of how the Jews of Persia during their exile there survive a terrible threat. The villain Haman plots to kill all the Jews throughout Persia’s vast kingdom, and he has the ear of King Ahashveros. Esther is a Jew, but the King doesn’t know it. Now she’s in an awful existential dilemma. If she exposes herself, especially by coming to the King unbidden, she is pretty sure the King will kill her like he did her predecessor, Vashti. If she doesn’t, the Jews will be exterminated. Mordechai, who is either her beloved or her uncle – the Hebrew ‘dod’ (דוד) is a pun – and a leader of the Jews, tells her, “Perhaps you have been put in this position for just this moment.”
At this moment, the sages tells us, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, God speaks to Esther. This detail is missing in the Megillah’s original text, but the Talmud devotes an entire tractate, also called Megillah, to uncovering the hidden messages and elaborating the transcendent impact of the Purim story. God gives her 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. Jews til this day do, too, in the most festive day of the year.
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. She is completely forlorn. The sages tell us that she cries out:
The Divine Presence departed from her and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.
Masechet Megillah (Talmud) 15b:
True and False Prophets
Now to the most shocking part of this. What Jews in the marketplace of the time Rabbi Levi, the Talmud sage who teaches this around 225 CE, would hear in Esther’s cry is a clear echo of a line from the pop culture surrounding them. Rabbi Levi’s expansion of the Megillah is not a casual bit of tale-telling (aggadah), and their recruitment of Esther is not just a convenience. Rather, as we peel back the layers of references in Esther’s cry, they have waged a profound and complex and dangerously aggressive war with the text of Christian gospels.
According to the Gospels, Jesus cries out during his execution:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
- Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46
In other words, Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are virtually identical!
Mark and Matthew are among the earliest of the gospels, composed around 70- 90 CE, so they would have had both profound resonance and enough of a history to be widely known among the Jews. For a century after Jesus, his story and Judaism may even have been entangled in the minds of most average Jews. By 200 CE, the real threat of a “new covenant” replacing the Torah would have been quite clear, as an unknown number of Jews became Christians.
How could the sages be so bold to steal signals from the opposing team? Why would they cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs? What message are they sending? Obviously, the sages are deliberately contrasting Esther’s prophecy to Jesus’.
On second look, however, there is even more than meets the eye, like everything else in the Purim story.
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 (Tanach) and re-purpose it. The Seder becomes the Last Supper, Isaac is the sacrificed son and sacrificial lamb, Moses the archetype for the messiah, etc.. In short, the gospels craft a comfortingly familiar and accessible way to deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God. The Torah becomes the “Old” Testament, an honored but obsolete allegory of the “New” one, which is filled with echoes and cribbings and appropriations of the symbology of the Jews.
So it is not surprising that we find Jesus’ cry has its true source in the stunning opening line of Psalms 22, one of the soaring poems by King David (10th C BCE):
“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Psalms 22:2
[אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי – Eli, eli lama azvata?]
When the Talmud tells us Esther says the same thing, far from plagiarizing the gospels, they are loudly taking back the Jewish narrative and calling out the original act of plagiarism.
But this opens a whole new textual terrain to scan for what the sages are after, because the Talmud is surely pursuing something less trivial than a copyright claim, and so we peel back yet another layer in this intertextual war.
Psalms 22 has the aura of a general prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel. He has put her at the mercy of animals and scavengers, symbols in the Talmud of the pagan nations who will mock Israel if she falls:
“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
Matthew also borrow this image. According to Matthew 27:35-37, just a few lines before the lament he echoes from Psalms, Roman soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes right beneath where he is hung to die. Now this gambling for spoils had ancient legal status in Jewish and pagan traditions: when two parties have equal claims to booty of war, the goral was an official method of divvying them up. But the soldiers’ craps game also invokes the image of the whole empire of Rome despoiling Israel.
In case we think it’s a coincidence, remember Purim is named after the casting of lots. Haman casts lots to choose the date on which to execute the Jews. Yes, it’s a completely different word – פור (‘pur’), not ‘גורל’ (‘goral’). But, when we look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the text uses both words:
“And [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.” – Megillat Esther 9:24
We could have called Purim Goralim!
Prophecy in Exile?
The sages are clearly addressing and blocking the gospels’ attempt to steal the Purim story, to appropriate it for what the sages would certainly find deeply offensive: the ruling culture that committed near genocide and sent them into exile now adds insult to injury. Their oppressors have taken the Jewish story of narrow escape from genocide and put it in the mouth of their hero. By connecting to the centuries-older Esther story and connecting hers to the yet centuries-older Davidic psalm, they also show off their Jewish interpretive (exegetical) prowess by sending many intertwined and cryptic messages at once. They reflect on Jewish exile in Persia as an analog their own in Rome. Dogs and scavengers gamble over the remnants of Jewish glory after prophecy has departed from us. Israel is defeated and exiled.
But finally, the furtive battle against Christianity is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own.
Although the Name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, God’s role in the story is invisible but ubiquitous and omnipotent. He may be nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet He is everywhere at once behind it. And His plan for history trumps Haman’s anarchic and hateful plan to drive Jewish destiny by mere chance. Haman’s just another pathetic dog soldier gambling over the remnants of Jewish subjugation.
To prove the point, what day does the lot fall on? A day, like everything else in the Megillah, of doubled and paradoxical symbolism: Haman exults because the lottery has chosen the day of Moses’ death. But he doesn’t know it’s also the day of Moses’ birth! Doom seems imminent, but redemption will triumph.
After the drama is over, God withdraws from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever. Purim, the Talmud tells us, is about this loss of prophetic power. Esther’s struggle, like ours in our diaspora, is to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and attention, however heartbreaking that loss. The sages thus erect the Purim story as bulwark against their – and our – compromised historical condition. Like Esther, they and 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, always fighting the temptation to assimilate to false prophets and strange worship.
In other words, we are all Esthers today. Prophecy may have 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 we are right – nonetheless, Talmud tells us, legitimate prophecy doesn’t come to us now. But instead of hopelessness, Purim tells us that the Finger of God continues to stir the pot, that His will in our affairs acts invisibly and ubiquitously behind the scenes, and there is an unfolding plan for our fates that is cosmically better conceived than a mere casting of lots.
Original draft, Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo – Purim, 5780
Thanks to Rabbi Yossi Marcos of Chabad NP (San Mateo) whose new edition of Megillat Esther includes the chasidus underlying my insights.
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 my many friends and erstwhile editors, including Ron Kardos, Marcos Frid, Yael Esther and Eddy Berenfus]