The Book of Esther is traditionally read as a story of Jewish redemption and, arguably, creativity in narrowly escaping genocide. As such, it has particular power for many Jews today given the Holocaust. It also can be drawn on as a means of offering hope in challenging times such as these. David Clines, in an article titled “Reading Esther from Left to Right: Contemporary Strategies for Reading a Biblical Text”[i] argues that Esther is a “reactionary rather than progressive” narrative. He maintains that what the story actually celebrates and uplifts is co-operation and complicity not resistance. Rather than challenge and resist power, the goal and outcome of the story is that Mordecai, the Jew, becomes part of the power structure. He moves from being an outsider to an insider. And Esther’s job on the inside is not to overthrow the powerful, but to harness the support of the powerful to protect the disenfranchised Jews (but not all disenfranchised others in the society). This is a very pragmatic and realistic response—accept what you can get, cuddle up to those in power, don’t ever challenge power directly, keep yourself safe, settle for incremental power and minor changes because nothing can ever be fundamentally transformed. We could call the Book of Esther—Be Realistic!
The Book of Exodus provides a contrary story. In the Exodus, Moses used his prior insider status to challenge and ultimately overthrow Pharaoh. YHVH (i.e., God) represents that energy or force in the universe that says to Moses – go tell Pharaoh to let my people go. YHVH does not say, ask Pharaoh to give the Hebrews a day or two off, better pay, or let you, Moses, back in the castle so you can provide some minimal protections for the Hebrews! Moses is not encouraged to cuddle up to the forces of power and domination. Moses is told to directly challenge and confront Pharaoh knowing full well that Pharaoh’s heart will harden and he will impose even harsher work on the Hebrew people, which is exactly what happens. At no point does Moses become complicit with Pharaoh. He stands his ground and asserts the dream, the vision, the possibility—slaves can be set free. Unlike Esther, in which YHVH is nowhere to be found in the story, YHVH is a powerful presence in the Book of Exodus. The story teaches that the world can be fundamentally healed, repaired, and transformed. YHVH is that force in the universe that shows that the world can be fundamentally transformed – power imbalances and systems and structures of oppression can be overthrown. YHVH’s message is that you do not have to become part of and play a role in unjust systems and structures and in fact, you should not. YHVH is the voice of liberation. We could call the Book of Exodus – Be Idealistic!
And perhaps this is why YHVH is absent in Esther and so prevalent in Exodus. Maybe the author of the Book of Esther did not believe in YHVH, i.e., did not have faith in the possibility of a truly transformed world. He was a realist! Rather than being a book of redemption, because the Jews are “saved” and/or because the story shows how disempowered Jews can draw on stereotypes of the ruling imperialist power to mock them, I would argue that the Book of Esther is an anti-liberation theology text and is in many ways a very disempowering text that undermines and weakens the liberatory voice of our Torah.
The contrasting worldviews portrayed in these texts manifest also in the political debates of our times. We can see this in the conflicts within the Democratic party between moderates and progressives. Moderates want to alleviate some of the suffering caused by the capitalist system but to do so in a way that does not threaten or challenge the fundamental structures of wealth and power imbalances in our country. They argue that making things somewhat better for people in this society can only be achieved by scaling down one’s political programs to what they believe can be realistically achieved at this particular historical moment. Their view of what is realistic is shaped, in part, by their certainty that Americans could not be rallied to support a transformative vision that would require significant changes in the allocation of wealth and power. Progressives, on the other hand, have faith that a dramatically different social and economic order will serve the economic, psychological, spiritual, and ethical needs of the American people and is the only hope to reverse climate disaster and save the life support system of the planet.
We have a choice: Do we welcome the possibility of a fundamentally different world or do we stick with incremental changes? Are we willing to imagine and fight for a world in which the possibility of healing, repair, and transformation are alive and well or do we settle for what we are told is realistic by those with power and the media that back and are owned by them? Can we embrace hope and love or do we cocoon ourselves in fear and despair?
If we choose fear and narrowing our vision of what is possible to what is deemed realistic, we run the risk of not only sustaining but entrenching the status quo. We provide the opportunity for the ruling elite to strengthen their hold on power, squeezing middle class and working class people even more. We run the danger of maintaing racist policies and practices. And, we undermine the capacity to take the radical steps needed to reverse the climate disaster and save the life support system of the planet.
To choose the path of visionary transformation, to be idealists, requires a leap of faith, a willingness to walk across an abyss uncertain where we will arrive. So it is not surprising that people turn to contraction and fear in times like these. And when we make decisions from a place of fear we often prioritize achieving what the elites and the media tell us is possible and realistic, rather than going for our highest vision and ideals. People are understandably and genuinely afraid. Choosing the known, familiar path, even with its broken neoliberal policies, feels comfortable and safe—it is a known entity. When we are in a place of fear and told by progressives to take a leap of faith to the worldview of love, we need scaffolding to get us there. We have all grown-up in a society that prioritizes selfishness and greed, that tells us we need to take care of ourselves, even at the expense of others. Self-interest is equated with sordid selfishness. We treat the interests of others as necessarily in conflict with our own. Our comfort and success can only be achieved at the expense of others. These are the messages we have been taught since our childhood and reflect the society in which we live. And because this actually is the society we live in, it is in many ways true that we need to maximize our own self-interest. Without a meaningful social safety, taking care of ourselves, even at the expense of others, can be deemed to be a ‘rational’ choice. Those fortunate enough (or privileged), have built (or inherited) some savings to protect themselves in down times.
Few of us have had the experience of living in a society that has policies and practices that care for the well-being of all. So the thought of giving up even the little security we have managed to achieve is scary—how can we trust we will actually be there for one another when we have never really had that experience? Sadly, a lack of trust in fellow Americans impacted black and white voters alike. In an article in the Nation[ii] on March 2nd, Elie Mystal argues that “Black voters [in South Carolina] opted for Biden because they have no faith that white voters will do the right thing and vote for a true progressive.” She goes on to say that large portions of the black community believe that most white people are selfish and if forced to choose between their money or morality, they will choose the former. Yet hundreds of thousands of white people in fact did vote for Bernie and, according to one radio report I heard, white voters in Massachusetts and Minnesota looked to Black voters in South Carolina to help them decide whom to support. Commenting on the vote on Super Tuesday, a young progressive white man, feeling disheartened, said to me “you can’t count on other Americans to do the right thing because they are dumb and racist”. What these comments point to is that portions of the population do not have faith that a progressive candidate can win. This is a self -fulfilling prophecy. What this belief fails to take into account is that millions of people throughout the country desperately want a different world (yet often fear that they are alone). And even more desperately want Trump out of office. These people believe they cannot both get rid of Trump and have a radically changed society, so they settle for what seems realistic. It is not that those who chose to support a more moderate candidate don’t care about others, it is (1) they don’t believe others care enough about the well-being of others and (2) they actually want the pain and suffering of themselves and others, caused by the current administration, to cease.
We rarely question spending billions of dollars on wars and weapons or bailing out corporate banks, but when politicians propose social programs on a grand scale to take care of the members of our society, such as universal health care, ending our reliance on fossil fuels, forgiving student debt, or providing a minimum income to everyone in our society, suddenly we ask how we are going to pay for that. Even as the coronavirus spreads in our country and shows how profoundly interconnected we all are, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that our own wellness is dependent upon the wellness of all others in our society, the debate about whether we can afford universal healthcare continues.
So how do we proceed? What might be a path forward? Instead of demeaning those with these fears, we who want to build a truly transformative movement need to speak to people’s fear and do so in a loving, compassionate way. We need to offer them, through lived experiences, actual acts of collective caring—not just individual acts of caring. And we need to reassure people that in the creation of a collective, caring society, they will still have their individual autonomy and freedom. We need to confirm that their personal needs will still matter and that many of us will prioritize morality above money. We need to build trust across the gulf that divides us by countering, through acts and deeds, the view that everyone only cares about themselves and hence can’t be trusted. This will not be easy given history and the ethos of selfishness and greed in our society. It will not be easy given that, at this moment, there actually is not much, if any, social safety net. So, let’s acknowledge it is a leap of faith.
In the Book of Esther, Esther and Mordecai were unable to make that leap of faith. They did not trust the Persian people to care about the Jews. They did not seek to mobilize the Jewish people living under Persian domination to reach out to all the others similarly situated to join them, or to the many Persians who were not being treated with care and respect. So instead of going for their highest good and pushing for a deeply and fundamentally transformed society, they compromised and settled for self-preservation. In the Book of Exodus, on the other hand, Moses and the Hebrews took a dramatic leap of faith. They responded to Moses’ message that there is an energetic force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which can and ought to be, and chose, perhaps were called, to enter the unknown waters of the Sea of Reeds. Miraculously when they did so, the seas parted and they began their journey to true liberation. In every age, we have to choose again, either to stay within the confines of a fundamentally unjust and oppressive reality, making small incremental changes when we can, or to promote a vision of an entirely different world and seek to actualize it right here on this planet and in our own lifetime. One of the most challenges aspects of liberation is to remain compassionate and empathic to those who are not yet ready to believe in a world of love and justice, to those who simply cannot yet make that leap of faith.
Which path will we choose? That is what is at stake in American politics today and it is what is at stake when many Jews take a path of challenging the world as it is and allying ourselves with the revolutionary energy of Torah and the prophets, defying those who, from a place of fear, continually tell us to “be realistic.” Which path will you choose?
[i] Originally published in The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of Shefﬁeld (ed. David J.A. Clines, Stephen E. Fowl and Stanley E. Porter; JSOTSup, 87; Shefﬁeld: JSOT Press, 1990), pp. 22-42.