Tag Archives: Esther

Sinning for God

Esther’s Purim message and how women save the world

Using Esther and other Biblical heroines we explore a feminist take on a Rabbinic theme of women sinning for the sake of heaven and for a greater good….

Listen to the madlik podcast:

The podcast was recorded in front of a live audience at a Kavanah session at TCS – The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT.

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notes:

Esther

Esther sent a message to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise, and so will I go in to the king, not according to the custom” (Esther 4:16). Rabbi Abba said: It will not be according to my usual custom, for every day until now when I submitted myself to Ahasuerus it was under compulsion, but now I will be submitting myself to him of my own free will. And Esther further said: “And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). What she meant was: Just as I was lost to my father’s house ever since I was brought here, so too, shall I be lost to you, for after voluntarily having relations with Ahasuerus, I shall be forever forbidden to you. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 15a)[i][ii]

לך כנוס את־כל־היהודים הנמצאים בשושן וצומו עלי ואל־תאכלו ואל־תשתו שלשת ימים לילה ויום גם־אני ונערתי אצום כן ובכן אבוא אל־המלך אשר לא־כדת וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי עד אשר לא כדת אמר רבי אבא שלא כדת היה שבכל יום ויום עד עכשיו באונס ועכשיו ברצון וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי כשם שאבדתי מבית אבא כך אובד ממך

Tamar

Ulla said: Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with her father-in-law, Judah (see Genesis, chapter 38),] and Zimri ben Salu also engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with a Midianite woman (see Numbers, chapter 25).]  Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse and merited that kings descended from her and she also merited to be the ancestor of prophets [e.g., Isaiah, who was related to the royal family]. Conversely, with regard to Zimri, several multitudes of Israel fell due to him.

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Greater is a transgression committed for its own sake, i.e., for the sake of Heaven, than a mitzva performed not for its own sake.

The Gemara questions this comparison: But didn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav said: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot even not for their own sake, as it is through acts performed not for their own sake that good deeds for their own sake come about? How, then, can any transgression be considered greater than a mitzva not for the sake of Heaven?

אמר עולא תמר זינתה זמרי זינה

תמר זינתה יצאו ממנה מלכים ונביאים זמרי זינה נפלו עליו כמה רבבות מישראל

אמר ר”נ בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן

Yael

Rather say: A transgression for the sake of Heaven is equivalent to a mitzva not for its own sake. The proof is as it is written: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Hever the Kenite, above women in the tent she shall be blessed” (Judges 5:24 Etz Hayim p 425), and it is taught: Who are these “women in the tent?” They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Yael’s forbidden intercourse with Sisera for the sake of Heaven is compared to the sexual intercourse in which the Matriarchs engaged.[iii]

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: That wicked one, Sisera, engaged in seven acts of sexual intercourse with Yael at that time, as it is stated: “Between her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; between her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27). Each mention of falling is referring to another act of intercourse.

אלא אימא כמצוה שלא לשמה דכתיב (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נשים שבאהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

א”ר יוחנן שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותה שעה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כז) בין רגליה כרע נפל שכב בין רגליה כרע נפל באשר כרע שם נפל שדוד

Lots Daughters         Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa said: A
person should always come first with regard to a matter of a mitzva, as in reward of the one night that the elder daughter of Lot preceded the younger for the sake of a mitzva, she merited to precede the younger daughter by four generations to the monarchy of the Jewish people. The descendants of Ruth the Moabite ruled over the Jewish people for four generations: Obed, Yishai, David, and Solomon, before the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose mother was Naamah the Ammonite. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nazir 23:b)

א”ר חייא בר אבין א”ר יהושע בן קרחה לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשכר לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה

זכתה וקדמה ארבעה דורות בישראל למלכו’

Eve

Starting with Eve and that damned apple, women have been depicted (and mostly condemned) as the willful and wily seducers of men: …Even the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, a woman who is the apparent victim of rape, is blamed by some of the more misogynistic rabbinical sages for provoking her rapist. And a minority tradition in the rabbinical literature reaches a similar conclusion about Lot’s daughters: “Lot is a warning example to men to avoid being alone with women, lest [they] should entice them to sin, as did Lot’s daughters.”

However, “an open-eyed reading of the Bible reveals that women play a crucial and dynamic role in the destiny of humankind, in both Jewish and Christian tradition. Inevitably, a woman figures decisively in the recurring theme of “the birth of the chosen one,” starting with the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible and culminating with the Virgin Mary in the Christian Bible. As we have already seen, Lot’s daughters and Judah’s daughter-in-law are examples of how the bearer of the “chosen one” is not passively impregnated with the seed of a patriarch; rather, these women take it upon themselves to defy the will of powerful men and sometimes God himself in order to bring about the crucial birth. Indeed, the Bible frequently singles out “the woman as initiator of events,” as Ramras-Rauch puts it. “From Eve through Sarah and Esther, women have shaped sacred history through word and deed.””[iv]

Contemporary Feminist Interpretations of the “Sin” of Eve [v]

Mieke Bal[vi] does not see the action of eating the fruit as sin. Rather, Bal views the woman’s choice to eat as a way to gain the wisdom that will make her like God. Ironically, her choice also fulfills God’s intention of humanity made in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). By choosing to eat and gain knowledge, including sexual knowledge, the woman makes the continuance of the species possible, even though the individual will not be immortal. Her choice is a choice for reality. Her choice puts an end to the fantasy of individual immortality. It opens up reality as we know it.

Lyn Bechtel asks, why, if humans were created immortal, were they also created sexual? If they were created immortal, why were they made of finite clay? Why after eating the fruit do the humans fear their nakedness rather than death? Why is it considered punishment for Adam to be sent into the world to be a farmer, when Genesis 2:5 tells us that humans were intended to cultivate the ground? Bechtel interprets the Adam and Eve story as the story of human maturation…. Thus it is better to interpret this to mean that those who eat will become aware of the reality of death. That is what gradually happens as we mature. … After the humans mature, they are ready to enter the world where they will take up their life’s work, the work God intended them to do from the beginning. Although Bechtel sees the story as androcentric, she does not believe it is sexist. In addition, her reading has the advantage of placing life in the real world in a positive light. It is not a punishment for sin, but the world God created for mature men and women to share as partners.

Dutch scholar Ellen van Wolde discusses this problem in her treatment of the Adam and Eve story, which is similar to Bechtel’s. She sees the clue to the whole story in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” She writes: As man leaves his father and mother to become independent, so man, male and female, leaves YHWH God by means of his transgression of the prohibition in 3:1–7 to become independent. . . . The realization that verse 2:24 presents man’s process of development in a nutshell and the realization that a similar behavior can be observed in man’s attitude towards YHWH God, makes the reader aware of the fact that Gen 2–3 is really one extensive description of this growth.  Van Wolde sees the transgression as a necessary disobedience, because freedom is the one thing that God could not build directly into the universe. Freedom cannot be conferred. It can only be grasped.

Carol Meyers, one of the most important recent interpreters of the Adam and Eve story, treats Genesis 2–3 as a narrative of human origins, as a story that explains why certain human conditions are as they are, and as a parable or wisdom tale.  … The prominent role of the female rather than the male in the wisdom aspects of the Eden tale is a little-noticed feature of the narrative. It is the woman, and not the man, who perceives the desirability of procuring wisdom. The woman, again not the man, is the articulate member of the first pair who engages in dialogue even before the benefits of the wisdom tree have been produced. This association between the female and the qualities of wisdom may have a mythic background, with the features of a Semitic wisdom goddess underlying the intellectual prominence of the woman of Eden.

[i] See also Tosefot Ketubot 3b “Lidrosh”

[ii] According to Rabbinic tradition, Esther was married to Mordechai: The verse states: “And when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). A tanna taught a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: Do not read the verse literally as for a daughter [bat], but rather read it as for a home [bayit]. This indicates that Mordecai took Esther to be his wife. (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 13a)

ובמות אביה ואמה לקחה מרדכי לו לבת תנא משום ר”מ אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית

[iii] Alternative reading in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Horayot 10b: Who are these “women in the tent”? They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and Yael is more blessed than they are. Apparently, a mitzva performed not for its own sake is a negative phenomenon.

אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקיני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נינהו נשים באהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

[iv] Kirsch, Jonathan. The Harlot by the Side of the Road (pp. 58 and 251-252). Random House Publishing Group.

[v] See: Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes – Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible by Alice Ogden Bellis, 2007 chapter 2 The Story of Eve

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purim torah

parshat zachor – purim

You think that Purim is about a mad cap plot to get the Jews?  Think again.  It’s actually, by my count, the third holiday we have dedicated to the giving of the Torah.

 No… I’m not making this up. You see… according to the Talmud, the original acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, was under duress and therefore non-binding or at least subject to review:

And they stood under the mount (Exodus 19:17)

R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.
Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]

[Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath 88a]

Another holiday to celebrate the giving of the torah.. you squirm? First there is Shavuot – Originally an agricultural celebration of the the first fruits …. Co-opted by tradition (not biblical) and transformed into a commemoration of matan torah – the giving of the torah. Then there is Simchat Torah… again a pre-existing agricultural harvest festival (think: Thanksgiving) morphed again by post biblical tradition into a celebration of the Torah and the annual public reading cycle. And now… there’s Purim which was a pre-existing end-of-winter day of revelry (think: St. Patrick’s and Mardi Gras) made by the rabbis into a celebration of the final acceptance of the Torah…

Ignoring the more basic question of why the Torah itself did not specifically mandate a holiday to celebrate its revelation…. I can understand how Shavuot and Simchat Torah could be linked to the receiving the Torah. The Jews of the Exodus had paid their dues and were entitled, like a farmer to celebrate the fruits of their labor… in this case by receiving the Torah. In the Exodus the Jewish People collectively experienced the necessary purification.. out of the furnace of slavery. But what is it about Purim, an end-of-winter Feast of Fools, that provides the rabbis with a link to the revelation at Sinai?

Well I suppose that all three holidays have as their raison d’etre’ … pure JOY (Simcha). Two harvest festivals and one survival narrative (Purim). and after all, isn’t that a nice message?

When we experience the pure, unadulterated joy of survival such as only a farmer … totally dependent on the whims of nature and the survivor of a near massacre can experience.. only then can we understand the joy of receiving the Torah.

Kudos to the Rabbis! Just as the joy of survival is accessible to everyone so too is the joy of receiving the Torah! You don’t have to be a Torah scholar to celebrate the fruits of your labor or the sheer exhilaration of surviving a catastrophe nor must you be a scholar to celebrate the giving of the Torah. Nice…..

Wow! The whole Purim experience has been transformed. …. Simchat Torah is proceeded by a period of repentance starting with Rosh HaShannah and culminating with a day of repentance (Hoshannah Rabbah) and Shavuot is preceded with seven weeks of repentance (Sefirat haOmer)… But it is only Purim that is preceded by a fast day (fast of Esther) in remembrance of a three day period of sanctification requested by Esther and identical to that commanded before the giving of the Torah:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19: 12)

‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ (Megilat Esther 4:16)

In Synagogue on Shavuot we read relevant portions of the Torah and on Simchat Torah we finish and begin the Five Books of Moses, once in the evening and again the following morning….but on Purim we read an entire scroll … with narrative and plot from beginning to end. …

IF Purim is the ultimate revelation holiday.. THEN what you will experience during the reading of the Megilah this Purim will be transformed. .. Think of the audience participation… the shouting, cheering and booing as a variation on the custom to solemnly stand as the Ten Commandments are read. Needless to say, that standing next to a cross-dressing Jew whose had a few too many drinks, while listening to the revelation of the law gives the www.sawyouatsinai.com dating site new meaning!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We still haven’t cracked open this Hamantash. If the Simcha of survival is the criterion for declaring a giving the Torah holiday… then every Jewish holiday should be a Matan Torah celebration. After all “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” describes pretty much every Jewish Holiday…. right?

The truth is, there’s something special about the Esther Megillah. The scroll that we read on the evening and morning of Purim is actually the last book of the Torah. Purim is The Simchat Torah… not just the Five Books of Moses.. but of the whole shebang!

What makes this celebration of the last book of the Tanakh even more impressive is that the Book of Esther was a little controversial. It does not contain God’s name, was not written in or mention, the Promised Land of Israel and includes highly unorthodox behavior including Esther’s marriage to a non-Jew, probable ingestion of non-kosher food (Megilah 13a) and no reference to any Jewish practices or the Temple. (see A Jewish Reading of Esther, Edward L. Greenstein, pp 231 – 233 in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).

It’s inclusion is the Canon (Torah, Prophets and Writings – Tanakh) was debated. Reb Judah said in the name of Samuel “The scroll of Esther does not defile the hands (unlike a Sefer Torah) and as such was not divinely inspired [Megilah 7a). “All of the Hebrew scripture is represented at Qumron (Dead Sea Scrolls) except for the Scroll of Esther [and] it is possible that the sectarians did not observe the Purim festival and rejected the book which enjoins its observance. (see pp 106-107, 113 – 114 and note 301, The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture by Sid Z. Leiman, Archon Books, 1976)

The winning Talmudic argument for including the Scroll of Esther is actually the clue which explains why Esther is so important, why we celebrate Purim and why with the Megilla, we finally have a Torah. The Rabbis ultimately understood that with Esther we finish what we began in Genesis and why Purim is The Matan Torah holiday.

What is the source in Torah for Esther? “ve-Anochi haster aster panai ba-yom ha-hu” [I will surely hide my face from you on that day. (Deuteronomy 31:18 cited in Talmud Hullin 139b).

In a brilliant essay, Richard Elliot Friedman identifies four “unifying components of plot which provide the commonality necessary among the texts (of the Tanakh) to enable them to join in meaningful continuity.” These are: monotheism, nationalism, the historical sense and covenant. Friedman continues: “Still, all of these factors together… would not have produced a continuous literary work…. What was still needed was to make the collection into a continuous story – in literary terms, a plot. The record of the relations between Yahweh and the human community provided the plot. Specifically, the major unifying component of the biblical plot is the phenomenon of the continually diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh among humans from the beginning of the book to the end, the phenomenon of Deus absconditus or, in the book’s own terms, Yahweh hammastir panav…”. Over a number of pages, Friedman shows how there is a clear transition, from Eden, when God takes care of everything through Noah, where Noah must build his own ark and to Jacob where Jacob must steal his own birthright. “Something is happening. For whatever reason, Yahweh is transferring (relinquishing?) ever more control of the course of human affairs to members of the human community.” “In Moses’ own time, ..the people’s experience of the divine is mediated through Moses, or “masked” through the Kabod and the anan, or channeled through a series of layers…. Finally, Yahweh’s last words to Moses before summoning him to Abarim, he says, “I shall hide my face from them..” “After Moses, prophets are to experience only dreams and visions….” The last major public miracle… is that of Elijah at Carmel (Kings 1:19). … In a fascinating juxtaposition.. is followed by the portrayal of Elijah at Horeb. Again we see a lone prophet on Horeb/Sinai, but Elijah’s experience there is a reversal of Moses. In the place of the supreme theophany come three phenomena… (earthquake, wind, and fire), each followed by the specific qualification “Yahweh was not in (it),”.. With the destruction of the Temple at the conclusion of the Book of Kings, the last channel is removed. The prediction that Yahweh’s face will be hidden is fulfilled… Yahweh plays no apparent role whatever in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and he is not mentioned in Esther. The narrative from Genesis to Esther has come full cycle from a stage on which God is alone to one on which humans are on their own. Through no longer in control of miraculous powers, humans have arrived at complete responsibility for their fortunes.”

“One can derive a range of interpretations from this total book (Tanakh) perspective. Consider the case of Esther,…. Seen in the light of diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh through the course of biblical narrative, through it is an appropriate and striking concluding book for the narrative, portraying the people of Israel in a hostile world in which one can no longer count on miraculous divine intervention for rescue. Seen in the light of the increasing responsibility ascribed to humans through the course of the narrative, Esther is no less interesting,… Woman, Eve, has been blamed for millennia for entering upon the course of action that brought humans out of their initial state of harmonious relations with Yahweh (Genesis 3). It seems only fair, ironic, and appropriate that the narrative concludes with a story in which humans, now in a world, in which the presence of god is hidden, turn to a woman as their chief hope of rescue. One may interpret the Eve-to-Esther connection differently, but one can hardly ignore it. Each of the Bible’s bookends has a woman’s face carved on it.” (see The Hiding of the Face: An essay on the literary unity of Biblical Narrative, by Richard Elliot Friedman in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).

How appropriate in a week where we saw a devastating earthquake in Japan and a horrific and savage slaughter of a Jewish family (infant to adult) in Itamar, we are asked to accept and celebrate the Torah in its entirety.

On Purim we are asked to remember like Elijah, that God is no longer in an earthquake. With the Torah complete, it is now entirely our human responsibility to prepare for acts of nature as best we can and to help the survivors mourn and rebuild.

And on Purim… when it comes to the savagery of our fellow man.. here too, we must remember that the Torah is complete…. We live in a time where not only is God no longer present, but also in a time where tribalism, racism, fanaticism, blood feuds and Promised lands must disappear. Yes, we have to remember the evil done, but we are no longer commanded to hunt down and expose Amalekites. Amalek is no more. We are rather commanded to remember what Amalek did.. so that it can be a lesson to us and our neighbors. The lesson of Zachor is that tribalism, racism, fanaticism, blood feuds and Promised lands only lead to the type of genocide proposed by Haman.

The lesson of reading the Megillah, with a blessing, evening and morning of Purim is to finalize what began at Sinai. On Purim we accept the completion of the Torah and our responsibilities as humans. We masquerade to remember, that at this giving of the Torah, we do not see or hear God, He is hidden from us and maybe we from Him. We exchange food with each other in the way that two humans touch. Whether lovers, neighbors or strangers, that touch, hug or box of welcome-brownies shows that we are not alone. We experience real Simcha knowing that we as a people and as individuals have survived against all odds. And…. We celebrate women.. who may get us into trouble.. but more often… like Esther… save us.

And most important to me… we drink and are frivolous not because we are superficial or escapist but rather precisely because we recognize our situation. “real celebration, rather than a retreat from the reality of injustice and evil, occurs most authentically where these negative realities are recognized and tackled, not where they are avoided (Harvey Cox, Feast of Fools p 25).

So this Purim, more than ever, let’s strap on a mask, share some food and take a stiff drink… the Torah has been completed, God is completely hidden and now it’s our turn – Ve-Nahafochu …

haRav Moshe Wolfson, circa 1970’s – Purim Seudah

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