Esther Contra Torah, Christianity’s Net Effects, Individual Communalism

1. Roger T. Beckwith, “Formation of the Hebrew Bible,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 67.

“The grounds upon which Esther was disputed were different again…The two which are explicit occur together in the Palestinian Talmud, where they are reported under the name of third or fourth-century rabbis who state that when Mordecai and Esther wrote to the Jews to enjoin the feast of Purim upon them, there was at first widespread resistance on the twin grounds that so nationalistic a feast would make them hated by foreigners, and that one should not make additions to the Mosaic law” (P.T. Megilla 1:4).

These may be reasons that Jews were skeptical of Purim when the festival was first instituted, in the eyes of certain rabbis. But I have a hard time believing that such reasons formed the basis for some rabbis’ opposition to the Book of Esther. First of all, the Jews already had nationalistic festivals. Passover is as nationalistic as you can get! I remember Jon Levenson saying that traditional Judaism doesn’t exactly encourage Jews to invite Gentiles to their seders, since the holiday commemorates Israel’s deliverance. Maybe the rabbis were saying that there was initial skepticism about Purim because the holiday commemorated events that had recently occurred: the rescue of the Jews from the the Persians and other genocidal foreigners. That could make the Jews’ contemporaries pretty mad, especially when the Jews’ victory was fresh in their minds! But I don’t think the Book of Esther was rejected by Jews because of its nationalistic festival.

Second, the Jews felt free to innovate festivals that were not in the Torah. Zechariah 8:19 states: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace” (NRSV). Some fasts of the Jews are tied to this passage, which goes on to say that God will create new festivals in the future. So I have a hard time believing that there were Jews who rejected Esther because it promoted a festival not in the Torah. But who knows? Rabbis disagreed among themselves, so maybe some had a problem with Purim on that ground.

One thing that’s interesting about Esther: it may subordinate the Days of Unleavened Bread to Esther’s decree. Now that would be a challenge to the Torah! In Esther 3:12, we read that the king’s decree to kill the Jews was sent out on the thirteenth day of the first month. Mordecai hears the news and tells Esther. Esther then proclaims a three day fast.

The Passover fell on the fourteenth day of the first month. Did Esther’s three-day fast occur on the Days of Unleavened Bread? If so, then Esther was contradicting the Torah. The Torah says that the Israelites are to eat unleavened bread for seven days (Exodus 12:15). Esther said eat nothing.

I wonder if the rabbis addressed this issue. They may have said that the decree went out on the day before Passover, but Mordecai heard of it after the Days of Unleavened Bread were over. Or perhaps they allowed an exception for emergencies. The Pharisees allowed Jews to lift their ox out of the ditch on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), and Judas Maccabeus let them fight on that day (I Maccabees 2). I also vaguely recall reading that Judaism doesn’t require Jews to eat unleavened bread on all seven of the days. But I don’t remember the source.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 385-386.

“Under the inspiring influence of the spotless purity of Christ’s teaching and example, and aided here and there by the nobler instincts and tendencies of philosophy, the Christian church from the beginning asserted the individual rights of man, recognized the divine image in every rational being, taught the common creation and common redemption, the destination of all for immortality and glory, raised the humble and the lowly, comforted the prisoner and captive, the stranger and the exile, proclaimed chastity as a fundamental value, elevated woman to dignity and equality with man, upheld the sanctity and inviolability of the marriage tie, laid the foundations of the Christian family and happy home, moderated the evils and undermined the foundations of slavery, opposed polygamy and concubinage, emancipated the children from the tyrannical control of parents, denounced the exposure of children as murder, made relentless war upon the bloody games of the arena and the circus, and the shocking indecencies of the theatre, upon cruelty and oppression and every vice, infused into a heartless and loveless world the spirit of love and brotherhood, transformed sinners into saints, frail women into heroines, and lit up the brightness of the tomb by the bright ray of unending bliss in heaven.”

Earlier in the book, Schaff says that the even the anti-Christian emperor Julian (see The Julian Narrative) acknowledged that Christians “nourish not only their own, but even our own poor” (377).

Has the net effect of Judaism and Christianity been good or bad for the world? It depends on what you look at! On the negative side, Christianity has contributed to its share of religious wars. Sure, non-Christians also had their warfare, but Christianity imbued war with a sense of self-righteous fanaticism and zealotry that others may not have had, at least not as fiercely. There’s also Christian anti-Judaism to consider, which eventually led to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the eyes of Christian Europe.

When the Old Testament religion is compared to other ancient Near Eastern cultures, it doesn’t always come out looking too good. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures allowed women to inherit property. The Torah only permits it when a man has no male heirs (Numbers 27, 36). To some, the Torah looks more sexist–as a step down for women rather than a step up.

At the same time, Schaff does well to list Christianity’s valuable accomplishments. It did oppose abortion, the abandonment of children, the bloodthirsty arenas, and the dehumanization of the vulnerable (i.e., slaves, women, and children) when Greco-Roman culture largely did not. It was a light to the Greco-Roman world in terms of charity for the poor.

Christian zealotry can have a positive and a negative side. C.S. Lewis said in Reflections on the Psalms that people should count the cost before they become Christians. Christianity has led some to be like Mother Theresa, and others to become the Grand Inquisitor! And Jesus likewise appeared to have two sides to him. He could be rigid, inflexible, and dogmatic. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). At the same time, compassion, love, and charity form huge parts of Jesus’ teaching.

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 158.

“In their actions Adam and Eve made their own what was explicitly denied them. The Aggadah would classify their action as theft. In its repose Israel gives up ownership in its own domain in order to share that domain among others.”

Neusner is still talking about the eruv, in which Jews share their property on the Sabbath day (see Canon Mavericks, Economic Sex Ethic, Eruv). While Adam and Eve took what was not theirs as their own, the Jews on the Sabbath relinquish their claim to private property to move about more freely.

I like communalism, and I also dislike it. I suppose I’d like a combination of individualism and communalism. For example, I wouldn’t want to share everything with everyone. I’d hate it if I had to live in a place with only one television, and we all had to agree on what to watch. But I wouldn’t mind if each person had his own television and could watch what he wanted within the privacy of his own home. Of course, for all people to have a good standard of living to do that, some may have to sacrifice a little, or so some have argued. Does one person really need millions of dollars? What’s wrong with spreading that wealth around so others can eat and enjoy life?

I know I’m sounding socialistic here. I do think that people should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, since that’s an incentive to work. I also have doubts that funnelling money through authoritarian, incompetent bureaucracies is the best way to help the poor. So I guess I contradict myself on this issue.

One more thing: a lady said at Harvard that, if we take care of the we, we will take care of the me. I get a bad taste in my mouth when I hear such communitarian sentiments, since communities usually leave me out. But maybe there’s something to that: we truly help ourselves when we try to help the whole. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean I want some authoritarian body ramrodding its conception of how to help the whole down my throat.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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