A whole lot of very nice folks, most of a scholarly bent, had their Purim celebration ruined this year by Jeffrey Goldberg’s gratuitous assertion on the New York Times Op-ed page that the holiday was commemorating something that never happened. All of them, apparently, have my phone number.
Goldberg’s trump card in support of flushing the royal tale down the drain is the fact that the ancient Persian kingdom was very tolerant of other religions and cultures, not likely to indulge a spasm of rabid anti-Semitism. His retroactive certainty was in no wise shaken by the observation that Iran was a very philo-Semitic country until 1979 when the Shah was deposed.
In fact the book of Esther is most remarkable for its scrupulous recording of the multicultural tableau of Persian society. It is very clear from the outset that the Jews enjoy full freedom and live as equals. Esther and her adoptive father, Mordecai, are not outwardly identifiable as Jews. Mordecai does not tell that he is a Jew until the king’s courtiers pester him for days to explain why he defies Haman. Esther does not reveal her national identity until the critical moment when she can use it to foil Haman’s plan.
The Talmudic tradition adds the information that the Jews participated fully in King Ahasuerus’ national feast; he even provided kosher food “to do in accordance with the will of each person”. Clearly there is an effort in this recitation of events to hew closely to actual detail. This is hardly the stuff of bogeyman myths. Remember, too, that this is the same Biblical record that reported the generosity of Cyrus in allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple – a piece of history that Goldberg chooses to believe.
The book of Esther notes that this Persian decree against the Jews was an aberration, incited by Haman, a descendant of King Agag of Amalek, who had been defeated and killed by King Saul five hundred years earlier. Haman wended his way into Ahasuerus’ good graces, among other ways by political fundraising, and got the king to sign on to his family’s vendetta against the Jews. Once Esther helped restore her husband to his senses, things went back to normal: the king ran a benevolent regime with his Jewish wife, and Mordecai was given a prestigious position, supplanting Haman’s influence.
One last point is critical in appreciating the painstaking honesty of the Jewish tradition in this matter. The Talmud (Megilla 7a) admits that the Rabbis were not inspired on their own to declare a holiday, or even to write up the story in Scripture. It was Queen Esther herself who approached them and made the argument that this was a watershed moment that should not be allowed to fade in the historical memory. They examined the case she presented and conceded that she was righter than their initial assessment.
It is not clear to me why Jews are intimidated away from their patrimony by the flimsiest evidence. If anything, we should ascribe much more credibility to the Jewish version of their experiences, because Scriptural texts consistently reveal the unflattering side of Jewish conduct while crediting all the positive players on the other side. By contrast, the other nations of antiquity never publicized their shortcomings, which would explain why Persia would not stress this one-year blip of hostility in an otherwise tolerant reign. (Still, the book of Esther concludes with the statement that all the facts were available in Persian and Medean royal annals.)
When we see today’s Iran sliding down the slippery slope into anti-Semitic vitriol, and threatening to back that up with weaponry, this is not a case of life imitating art but rather an instance of history repeating itself.