Purim again

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As I return to the Book of Esther for Purim every year, I often ask: what does it say to me about living as a Diaspora Jew? There are few Scriptural stories about Diaspora Jews, after all, and if you leave out those that are about leaving from or returning to the Land, it’s pretty much Mordechai and Esther.

This year, I had kind of a slanted angle on that question, which is: what does it mean to say that Mordechai and Esther were Jewish at all? What does being Jewish mean to them?

Digression: in our shul’s annual purimspiel, Haman sings a song about how much he hates the Jews, and the finale is about how proud we are to be Jews, and in both cases there’s a good deal of identifying Jewishness with, say, bagels and lox, or using Yiddish words. It’s embarrassing to me, every year, mostly because it never scans properly, but also because (a) it has been at least twenty years since bagels were a food mostly eaten by Jews, and (2) there exist in the world Jews who are not Ashkenazim. In fact, there generally are Jews in that synagogue at that moment who did not grow up with Ashkenazic/New York traditions. I don’t mean to harsh on silly songs, but yeesh. End Digression.

So, let’s look at the text.

The first time that anyone mentions Jews or Jewishness is in 2:5, when we meet a Jewish man named Mordechai. We learn his lineage going back to the Babylonian exile—I want to take a moment and look at 2:6, where the text describes Mordechai’s great-grandfather “had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.” That’s the KJV, but all the translations have trouble with the fact that the word galah in various forms is used four times in that verse. So the identification is two-fold: there’s a bloodline and there’s an experience of exile.

The next reference to Jewishness is in 2:10, when Esther does not announce “her people nor her kindred”, neither her am nor her moledet. What is the difference? An am is a unit of people, a tribe or nation; moledet is specifically the genetic relations (as the word is related to childbirth). To some extent, “people and kindred” seems to be a kind of stock phrase, but I think it’s worth noticing that the two are used together to mean something more than either alone. But it’s also worth noticing that while am means a group of people, it is etymologically rooted in a ‘gathering’, in the act of coming together. While of course Esther’s am are in exile, and not gathered together at all.

The next big reference to Jewishness is in the part of the story where Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman—and when I was reading this closely, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before: Mordechai never directly tells Haman that he’s a Jew, and never directly says that he refuses to do homage because he is Jewish.

“And all the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence. Then the king's servants, which were in the king's gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king's commandment? Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai's matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.” (3:2-4)

Mordechai in fact never speaks to Haman directly, and we don’t even hear Mordechai telling those other unnamed people that his disobedience is connected to his Jewishness. He had, at some point, told them he was a Jew (or so they said) and they revealed that to Haman (the same verb is used there as with Esther not revealing it in the previous chapter) to see what would happen. And Haman decides to destroy all the Jews, not just Mordechai alone, because of what they said.

When Haman goes to Ahasueros to destroy the Jews, he defines them: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws”. So there are two important things here: they are scattered and dispersed, and they have strange laws. There is no mention in this bit about their blood, just their peoplehood (am echad).

Then the story moves on, and there is very little about who is Jewish or not or what that means until a slight reference that Haman’s wife makes to Mordechai as “seed of the Jews” in chapter six, which is very clearly a bloodline/genetic comment. And then in Esther’s plea to Ahasueros (7:4), she says “I and my people” (anee v’amee) are sold to slaughter—it is just her people, not her people and her kindred. But after Haman has been killed, in the plea for all the Jews, she reverts to both amee and moladetee, people and kindred.

Which is all fine, so far—that is, it’s a complete muddle, and Jews are both a kindred and a people, and they are dispersed and have strange laws, but it isn’t made clear what they are or what that means, and also people talk about them in different terms than they use to talk about themselves. But basically, like it is now, Jews are both a “race” in some vaguely genetic sense of that extremely fraught word, and also a “people” who are defined by their adherence to each other despite geographic dispersal. Right? And the details of it are extremely vague.

Now it gets more interesting. Well, to me, anyway.

When the Jews are given permission to kill their putative slaughterers—they are specifically told to gather themselves together and kill and despoil their enemies—there are many “people of the land” (amay ha’aretz) who become Jews—it’s an odd sort of verbing-noun that kind of means they are Jew-ized (8:17). This, on the face of it, means that they are “Jews of choice”, that they are non-Jews who become part of the Jewish people without the genetic part. Right? That’s a big emphasis shift. Or, perhaps, it isn’t—in later usage, an am ha’aretz is an uneducated and non-observant Jew. Perhaps this is an early version of that usage, and they are actually saying that Jews who had assimilated were inspired to become, well, Jew-ized, to learn and to do what Jews do. Maybe not! But maybe.

Which leads back to the question: What do Jews do? Because so far (and we’re nearly done) there really isn’t anything that is clearly done by Esther or even by Mordechai that is Jewish, specifically. They don’t, at least that is mentioned in the text, keep kosher. They don’t, at least mentioned in the text, wear different clothes. They don’t go to shul—this is before the siddur, but they don’t gather with other Jews to perform any permitted rituals outside the (currently destroyed) Temple. They don’t pray. They certainly don’t eat bagels and lox. What do they do? When all those people became Jews, how did their lives change? Did they become exiles in their own land? How could anyone tell?

And then, after the narrative is over, almost at the very end of the book, we have this:

And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, To stablish this among them, that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. And the Jews undertook to do as they had begun, and as Mordecai had written unto them; […] Wherefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year; And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed. 9:20-23, 26-28

I think that’s probably as good a model for Diaspora Jewishness as anything else. Celebrate the holidays. Remember the stories. Share food.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

6 thoughts on “Purim again

  1. irilyth

    For the longest time, I thought Judaism was a religion. I’m still not entirely over that, I don’t think.

    You don’t use the term “religion” anywhere in here; nor, for that matter, “Judaism”. What do you make of that?

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The text doesn’t mention the Divine Creator. What do you make of that?

      It’s not wrong to think of Judaism as a “religion”, so long as you don’t think of “religion” as a totally different thing from “tribe” or “ethnicity” or even “race”. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t entirely separate, either.


      1. irilyth

        Yeah, I feel like they’re less separate for Jews than for Christians — like, I know tons of people who describe themselves as atheist Jews, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe themselves as an atheist Christian.

        I don’t think I’d ever realized (or had pointed out to me) that there was no mention of the Divine in Esther (or if I did, I certainly forgot). Interesting. Is that true for any other of the canonical Books?

        1. Chris Cobb

          Given that the basic tenet of Christianity is the divinity of Jesus, that doesn’t leave much space for someone to profess themselves to be an atheist Christian. It’s pretty tricky to both accept and reject the reality of divinity at one and the same time! My guess would be that the nearest correspondence in Christian contexts to people calling themselves “atheist Jews” would be people who would describe themselves as “ethical Christians,” meaning that they believe the teachings of some version of Christianity about how to live but don’t accept the divinity of Jesus, or “cultural Christians,” meaning they like the kind of community that comes from belonging to a church, but they don’t really believe in its religious teachings.

          There are atheist Quakers, but that’s its own thing, and I don’t have a good sense of how it works for them.

        2. Vardibidian Post author

          The thing is, I feel like there are a lot of white Christians in the US who perhaps aren’t quite atheists, and who perhaps don’t call themselves Christians very often, but who are clearly in the Tribe of Christians, and who would be astonished to have to work December 25th, or who swear by saying “Jesus!” and “Christ!” and who have a lot of tribal overlap with the white Christians who attend church.

          There are also a _ton_ of people for whom their particular Christian sect/group is hugely tied up with their race/ethnicity, whether that’s Latine or Polish or Irish Catholics, or whether it’s AME churchgoers, and who may share religious tenets with some Lutherans or Anglicans or whoever, are separated from them culturally. Are the Latter Day Saints a religion? Yes. Are they an ethnicity? I think so. Do people’s attitudes toward Mormons have much to do with the actual religious beliefs of the Latter Day Saints, as opposed to the cultural habits of the families involved? Ehhhhhh.

          In my opinion, it’s more helpful to think of _all_ religions as being combinations of “religious beliefs and practices” and “ethnic traditions” and “tribal loyalties/hatreds” than to think of Judaism as being particularly special in that regard.

          1. Chris Cobb

            Saying “all religions” are this way or that way seems too broad a generalization to be accurate. While I think that it is fair to say that, in general, people’s religious beliefs and practices tend to be informed and influenced by ethnic traditions and tribal loyalties/hatreds as well as religious beliefs and practices as such, I think it confuses more than it clarifies to say that religions themselves are such combinations. The alignment between religious groups and ethnic group or a tribal group may be more or less exact and more or less co-determined, and one would need to distinguish between a religion as a system of beliefs and practices, a religion as an institution, and a religion as a self-identified community or congregation of believers.

            These matters are further complicated, of course, by the considered intention of the two most actively proselytizing religions–the major historical sects of Christianity and Islam–to transcend ethnic or tribal affiliations. This effort at transcendence may result, in the manner of white privilege, in the members of the community of religious privilege not seeing themselves as “ethnic” or “tribal” but as “normal,” thus legitimizing their own tribalism while stigmatizing all other tribal loyalties. But I don’t think it follows that the relations among coreligionists will be tribal in nature. Some will be; others will not.

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