The classic age of Jewish Exile began with the story of the Book of Esther, which perhaps for that reason is the most controversial book of the Bible. Neither G-d or the land of Israel are mentioned in that Book. And although the story of Joseph in Egypt already adumbrates the laws that govern the life of the Jews in the diaspora, it still deals only with the fate of one individual, while the story of what happened in Shushan relates to the collective fate of diaspora Jews. It is certainly no accident that the hero of the Book of Esther, MORDECHAI THE JEW (note this qualification - the first time it occurs in our literature) was from the tribe of Benjamin, that is a remote descendant of Joseph. Another characteristic they, Joseph and Mordechai, have in common is that both are referred to as ZADIKIM, as righteous men, to stress, as it were that although both served foreign kings they nevertheless remained righteous...And if they were so righteous, why did they stay in the diaspora rather than come to the land of Israel? Clearly in order to save the Jews of the diaspora in their hour of need.
Ostensibly we have here the beginnings of Jewish assimilation. Note that the names of the two main protagonists - Mordechai, after the Babylonian god Mardukh and Esther after the Babylonian Istar, who is the Canaanite Ashtoret. Their parents still bare Jewish names: Mordechai was the son of Yair, Esther the daughter of Avihayil. But names are not a safe indication. Early Jewish tradition clearly tells us who is considered more of a Jew, Manasseh, a king of the House of David, who worshiped foreign gods, or Mordechai who bore a heathen name but remained faithful to the one G-d? Nevertheless, both sociology and history tend to show that assimilation begins either with a change of name, or of dress. There is nothing in the Book of Esther to tell is what clothes Mordechai wore, and although Itzik Manger in his "Megille Lieder" visualized him as wearing a Streimel and a Kaften, and so do Lilien and Chagall in their paintings, these are but the visions of artists who deliberately look upon the heroes of the past with the eyes of the common people, attributing to them as great as possible an external resemblance. This is perfectly legitimate. The artist's truth is not the truth of the archeologist. It is the truth of life.
About Esther we are told explicitly and at length what she wore and how she made herself up. But in this she only did her duty as the future reigning queen. Nor does the Torah forbid this practice. There is, however, nothing in the Book of Esther to tell us what she ate at the court Ahasuerus. It can hardly be assumed that he kept a kosher kitchen. Since she said nothing about her Jewish extraction, she could also hardly have asked to have special food prepared for her. Possibly she pretended to be on a diet as an excuse not to eat unclean food - and being a righteous woman the chances are that this was what she did - incidently improving her figure and enhancing her beauty, which was one of her main strategic weapons.
Nevertheless, there still remains the fact of her marriage to a gentile. Could this not be regarded as a legitimation of mixed marriage? Of course the text has it that she was "taken" or abducted, but what about "Kiddush HaShem", that is, preferring martyrdom to abjuring the name of the L-rd? Yet in her case Divine providence intervened to save the entire diaspora through her, and this was her martyrdom, for she did not marry Ahasuerus out of love. What fun could she have had, living with this drunken brawler who on top of everything, according to Jewish tradition, was also a fool?
We can only hope that there will be few Jewish girls in the diaspora who go and marry Gentiles, on the excuse that they might thus have a chance of saving their brethren, and if they do, let them at least marry some ruler or king to make it worthwhile. Who knows whether a beautiful Esther might not help change Kosygin's policy, even today? Hardly. For not every king is as stupid as Ahasuerus was, and miracles of that kind do not happen nowadays, And above all, what guarantee have we got that a contemporary Jewish beauty will behave as Esther did?
This, in fact, is the first lesson we may learn from our two protagonists: Their assimilation was only in external things. Inside, in their heart and in their being, they remained loyal Jews. Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, even when Haman became the all-powerful prime minister, and Esther risked her life and her position to save her people, This may be the reason why Purim has become the day of eternal appearances. This is to teach is that loyalty to the Jewish people is tested in the hour of danger and need, at those times when the weak in spirit, the cowards and the traitors try to run away...often even join the other camp, the camp of the Hamans. For can you imagine a Mordechai and an Esther who would be willing to attend an anti-Zionist press conference and make anti-Israeli declarations there, as is happening now in Soviet Shushan where Haman is still high on his horse?
Before we come to Haman and his doctrine there still is one point to clear up concerning Mordechai. Mordechai saves the life and the throne of Ahasuerus. He discovers a plot against the king, and since the story is told in romantic-poetic and not in political-historical terms, we are not told whether this is an imperialist, fascist, or Trotskyist-Maoist plot. Or perhaps it was a plot instigated by Haman himself?
And now we come to the central theme which is the first presentation of anti-Semitic theory and practice. Thousands of anti-Semitic books have been written since them in every country and every language, which are all nothing but a repetition and amplification of the same basic theme stated by Haman: "There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that is not to the king's advantage to tolerate them." (Esther 3:8)
No clearer, more succinct definition of anti-Semitism has been formulated since. All the three elements are there: Desire for domination, particularism, disloyalty. But Haman was not only the first anti-Semite theoretician, he was also a man of action who submitted to his king, and to all the kings and rulers throughout the ages, the model plan for the FINAL SOLUTION -- this time not in Berlin and not at the Kremlin, but at Shushan: "To destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, and plunder their goods" (Esther 3:13).
There are those that for years have been rightfully denouncing the use of the term "anti-Semitism" on the grounds that there are ultra-Semites who are among the worst enemies of the Jews. and the ultra-Aryans who are the friends of the Semitic Arabs who provided they help them get rid of the Jews. The alternative term is HAMANISM, after the father of the anti-Jewish doctrine and of the final solution.
Legend has it that Waisata, the last of Haman's ten sons, managed to tear himself away from the scaffold and escape. It was created to account for the fact that despite the hanging of the original Haman and his sons his descendants keep cropping up again time after time, in every country and in every age.
There are some hints in the Talmud that not all Jewish Leaders at that time -- the period of the Second Temple when most of the leadership was spiritual rather than political-secular -- were happy with the story of Shushan and the behavior of Mordechai and Esther. It is said that when Esther wanted "to be written down for the generations to come," that is, to have her codified part of the Bible, when at first met with a blank refusal, Nevertheless, she finally managed to convince them. (Perhaps she threatened to cut off United Jewish Appeal funds which no doubt were being raised in Shushan at that time, the rich diaspora, for the residents of Jerusalem, who were economically much worse off). Still, according to the halacha the sanctity of the Book of Esther is not the same as that of all the other Scriptures.
Purim, however, soon became a popular folk festival, and once the people accepted it, "the heaven followed suit", despite the ideological qualms. A wise act indeed, for it is a good thing that the Jews, doomed to so many centuries of exile, should have one holiday that is sheer fun and delight when it is almost a virtue to get drunk; all the more so as it tends to inspire the optimistic Jewish soul with the belief that all the enemies of the Jewish People are bound to end up in the same way as Haman, though not so speedily and miraculously. Hitler's end was in fact delayed, but with Stalin we almost experiences a similar miracle. After the famous doctors' trial he had intended to exile all the Russian Jews to Siberia -- dispatching them to their certain death, but it was his death that intervened.
By the way, it was on Purim that he died. Be that as it may -- the sages of the Talmud expressly provided that one cannot and should not rely on a miracle.
If not miracles, what is there to rely upon? For Mordechai, the Jew of ancient Shushan, it was not enough to have the anti-Jewish decree revoked. He also realized that it was necessary to pray and fast -- and pray and fast he did. He saw that it was necessary to plead with the king, and so he sent a certain lady to plead with him. Ultimately, he also asked the king's permission to destroy and kill all of Haman's followers, and if the Book of Esther says that he killed seventy-five thousand men that day it means that Haman has a whole party behind him a kind of Persian SS or El Fatah, through which he had intended to implement his final solution.
This is a good thing to keep in mind. For of course there were people in the ghettoes and in the forests who fought back and took their vengeance. But they came too late. Most of the Jews of Europe were exterminated. This is a good thing to remember -- lest once again we be too late. What Mordechai did in Shushan was to set up a Jewish Defense -- and Revenge -- League. The Book of Esther, which was compiled in Persia, says that he did so with King Ahasuerus' consent. But who can tell. Queen Esther certainly could not tell the whole truth, how Mordechai had set up this organization long before he got official permission for it, so that it was ready when he needed it. Certainly no democratic regime can suffer in it midst an illegal organization for armed defense. On the other hand -- one cannot always rely on the "establishment" and on the police. Sometimes they come too late. Nor can one always rely on the democracy of a city like Shushan.
Therefore a people that has a leader like Mordechai, a leader who can follow the triple course of faith and prayer, of political action and active defense may call itself truly blessed.
Dr. Israel Eldad was one of the leaders of the Lehi. This article was written in 1972 and appeared in The Jewish Echo, a New York newspaper.