Sunday, March 15, 2009

Velveteen Rabbi on Esther

Amongst the many blogs listed on my blog roll is Velveteen Rabbi. I strongly recommend regular visits to her site. You will not be sorry. One post that particularly caught my eye is her recent post on the book of Esther, in particular chapter 9 in the Hebrew version, The End of Esther. It was Purim last week and the Esther Scroll is read for the Purim observances. Indeed Purim is a kind of Jewish Feast of Fools. The Babylonian Talmud even says that at Purim a person must get so drunk "...that we cannot tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai" (B.T. Megilla 7B). The book of Esther is written for Purim and in chapter 9 contains an account of how Purim was instituted as a feast for the Jewish people on the authority of both Mordecai and Esther (Esther 9.18-32). Greek Esther concludes with a postscript authentication the account and the authorisation for the celebration of Purim (Gk Esther 10.3k).

The Book of Esther is about reversals, comedic reversals. Velveteen Rabbi cites Marc Zvi Brettler who calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce." An appropriate text for a Feast of Fools. Chapter 9 recounts the ultimate reversal in which the Jews attack and kill their enemies following the undoing of Haman's plot against them. Haman himself was hanged on the gallows he had built for the had built for the execution of Mordecai The name of Purim is derived from the word for lots, the lots that Haman cast to determine the date for his planned massacre of the Jewish people.

As Velveteen Rabbi observes, chapter 9 is about comedic reversal expressed through revenge. It's over the top, an essential quality of comedy, but it is a bloody comedy, which in our time must be handled with care. She reminds us it was on Purim 1994 that the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre took place at Hebron, carrried out by the Kach extremist and settler, Baruch Goldstein, in which approximately 50 Palestinians were killed and over 120 wounded. Goldstein had clearly broken the Talmudic injunction and had gotten drunk on hate rather than drunk on wine.

What I found most interseting is what Velveteen Rabbi recounts of contemporary Jewish practice in dealing with chapter 9 in such a way that it does not become a licence for revenge. I was most struck by the practice adopted in some synagogues: "Others have taken to reading it in Eikha trope -- the sorrowing minor melodic mode we use for chanting Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, instead of the happier tune we use for chanting Esther on Purim."

She goes on to note that some have even called for the passage to be excised from Esther. Her response is as follows:

But when we studied this text at the end of the Biblical History class I took this past fall, my teacher Reb Leila Gal Berner argued that we can't excise these verses from our text -- nor should we. We have to grapple with the end of the book, and even if we breathe a sigh of relief when we say "this didn't really happen," we have to ask ourselves why this violent end to the story is in our text, and how we want to address the reality that it is there.

I would agree. There is a tendency in many religious communities to want to excise texts that make us feel uncomfortable, to only use texts that 'feel good' and where they don't exist to compose them and add them to our canons. I have a problem with that sort of approach. It creates a kind of vanilla world in which we always feel good and are never confronted by the depths of life in all its messiness and, oftentimes, nastiness and brutality. We are not angels yet! Furthermore we do not know what horrors we might be encoding for future generations in what to us seems noble and uplifiting.

Most importantly, Veleveteen Rabbi demonstrates the importance of the way a text is received and read by a community. No one reads alone but reads according to conventions of meaning taught to them by their community. Baruch Goldstien's community was a fascist and racist one hence he 'performed' Esther as racist massacre. Many rightwing evangelical Christians read texts like this in bloodthirsty and oppressive ways. Even worse they deny that they are reading to conventions shared and taught in their communities - homophobic, misogynistic, racist conventions, and in the US imbued with a US exceptionalism ideology that confuses Jesus with Superman as the one representing the "American Way."

Those Jewish communities who read Esther 9 with tone of lamentation provide models for us all in reading texts that disturb, the bloodied texts, which are found in abundance in the biblical texts and other scriptures too.

1 comment:

  1. Here via the Biblical Studies carnival and wanted to thank you for this thoughtful response to my post about the end of the book of Esther. I'm really glad the point about reading texts in communal contexts came across. Thanks for giving me more food for thought!