Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Exodus 27:20 - 30:10
February 27, 1999 11 Adar 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Many a busy street corner of Manhattan has served on occasion as the stump of a preacher who speaks in the name of God. With the countdown to the millennium, the scene will only occur with greater frequency. Yet most passersby don't tarry for a moment. The mere claim to revelation carries no weight.
Then what does constitute an authentic word of God? How does a teaching or text acquire the status of being revealed? The admission of the Scroll of Esther into the Bible may give us a fleeting insight into an opaque process. For the Talmud seems to retain fragments of an ancient debate that took generations to resolve.
The book named after the Jewish queen of Persia was not a likely candidate for the biblical canon. Its dramatic tale of an impending national calamity averted through individual courage occurred far from the land of Israel and bears no trace of divine concern or intervention. If the redemption from Egypt displayed God's power at every step, the narrative of Esther unfolds naturally, devoid of any miracles, divine communications or even mention of God's name.
According to a talmudic debate (B.T. Megillah 7a), two different objections, one prudential and the other theological, were raised against the inclusion of the book of Esther. In the first setting, the Talmud describes the queen approaching the rabbis of her day with the request to establish the rescue of Persian Jewry from Haman as an annual day of commemoration for all time. But they do not take kindly to the idea: "You arouse the enmity of the nations in whose midst we live." In that crisp rebuff I hear the concern of the leadership of Persian Jewry. "We are a tolerated minority in a land of non-Jews. Our redemption is their humiliation. We can't afford to flaunt our victory and power in their face. Too many non-Jews died when we took up arms in our self-defense. Let sleeping dogs lie. It is in our national interest to bury this book."
The theological objection is of another order. In this setting, rabbis from different generations converge to counter the characterization that "the book of Esther was transmitted without divine inspiration." Each rabbi struggles to find textual evidence of God's hidden presence, one more forced than the next. But each is frustrated by the implacable secularity of a book in which God is simply not an active verb. Finally, the Talmud introduces the voice of Samuel, the head of the Babylonian academy in Nehardea in the first half of the third century.
The reason that Samuel's view prevails is because he gives up looking for a prooftext for divine inspiration. Instead, he suggests that it was by popular acclaim that the book became sacred and gained admission into the canon. By way of proof, Samuel cites a verse from the end of Mordecai's letter to all the Jews in the realm of Ahasuerus which reports that "the Jews undertook [kiyemu] and irrevocably obligated [ve-kiblu] themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year (Esther 9:27)."
In a deft exegetical move, Samuel goes so far as to propose that God even confirmed what the people had chosen to do: "Kiyemu lemala ma-shekiblu lemata [they in heaven confirmed what had been adopted on earth]."
In other words, once the Jewish people saw fit to embrace the book and its festival as sacred, the inclusion of Esther into the Bible was inevitable. Heaven deferred to the will of the people.
More generally, Samuel implies that the final determination of any text as divine is a decision to be made by a faith community. Without acceptance, there is no revelation. Remarkably, the Talmud elsewhere (B.T. Shabbat 88a) singles out the verse used by Samuel in order to apply it to the revelation at Sinai. God approached Israel with great trepidation. Suppose the people would reject the Torah? To coerce their acceptance, God lifted the mountain menacingly over their heads. But a covenant entered under duress is hardly binding. This is the deeper meaning of the verse in Esther already cited (9:27), which is to be understood that in the days of Mordecai and Esther Israel "affirmed [kiyemu] voluntarily what it had agreed to [kiblu] under duress at Sinai." This time both verbs relate to the actions of Israel. The faith community that validates revelation cannot be compelled into submission.
This midrashic fantasy is not far from the plain meaning of the underlying biblical narrative. After encountering God atop the mountain, Moses returns to Israel to gain its formal compliance. In the spirit of full disclosure, he reads the covenant aloud to the entire assembly, whereupon the people acknowledge their assent: "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and obey (Exodus 24:7)."
As if to convey God's gratitude for their acceptance, the Talmud has 600,000 angels descend from heaven to crown each Israelite twice, once for each expression of consent. All of us who care deeply about the integrity of Judaism as a joint venture between God and the Jewish people continue to wear those two crowns proudly.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,