THOUGHTS ON PURIM

THOUGHTS ON PURIM
THOUGHTS ON PURIM Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom evanhoffman@gmail.com Purim 2017 – פורים תשע"ז   This essay is sponsored by Josh Adler in memory of his mother שרה בת מנחם ורבקה; and by Suzy Levin in memory of her father יוסף דוד בן עזריאל. Who were the Mityahadim? The Jews of the Persian Empire were elated upon the thwarting of Haman’s genocidal plot and the issuance of a royal decree permitting them to engage in active defense against their would-be attackers.  Their archenemy was dead and their kinsmen now occupied high positions in government.  “And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.  And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them (Esther 8:17 JPS translation).” Esther 8:17 is famously difficult to translate because the key word of the latter half of the verse, מתיהדים, is a hapax legomenon, appearing only once in Scripture.  The author of Esther took the root lettersי-ה-ד meaning Jew and transformed it into a third-person plural denominative verb.  Precisely what did these mityahadimdo?  Scholars have variously interpreted the verse to mean that they either became Jews, pretended to become Jews, imitated the Jews, sided with Jews, lived as Jews, or adopted Jewish practices. The Talmud presents a debate about the validity of certain types of dubious conversions.  According to Rabbi Nehemiah, the Jewish community is bidden to reject someone who converts for matrimonial, pecuniary, or honorific purposes.  Nehemiah explicitly denied the legitimacy of those who converted in the days of Mordecai and Esther.  He insisted that converts are accepted only when Israel is in a debased national circumstance, as this tends to confirm the religious sincerity of the proselyte.  But when Israel is a political juggernaut, on the ascendancy, or experiencing salvation, converts are suspected of switching allegiances for non-spiritual, and hence unacceptable, reasons.  Rav, who rejected the extremely harsh and unwelcoming position of Rabbi Nehemiah, ruled that ex post facto all conversions are valid even in cases in which the proselyte had less than pristine motivations (Yebamoth 24b). Rashi, in his commentary on the Megillah, claimed that the mityahadim were full-fledged converts.  Tosfot, starting with the premise that converts are not accepted at politically auspicious moments for Israel, claimed that the mityahadim converted on their own (e.g., not in the presence of the requisite court of three).  Thus, they were not really Jews. According to Professor Itamar Varhaftig, Maimonides adopted a middle ground legal position concerning the mityahadim:  neither unqualified acceptance nor definite rejection.  Maimonides noted that in the days of David and Solomon proselytes were not accepted lest their conversions stem from their fear of Davidic militarism or the allure of Solomonic prosperity.  Despite the official policy of rejection, nonetheless gentiles converted under the auspices of lay tribunals.  Officialdom did not automatically reject these proselytes.  Instead, they were subjected to a probationary period during which they could prove the sincerity of their religious convictions (Hilhot Isurei Bi’ah 13:15).  Varhaftig suggested that Maimonides’ “wait and see” approach applied to the mityahadim.  The Megillah sets forth who is obligated to observe the rites of Purim.  “The Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days (9:27).”  The term נלוים seems to have been a Late Biblical Hebrew one for those who attach themselves to the Jewish community (see Isaiah 14:1, 56:3).  The neophyte proved his Jewishness by celebrating a holiday that commemorates the victory of Israel over its oppressors.  His observance of Purim is evidence that he has extirpated all vestiges of his former heathen identity. From an historical perspective, I reject the notion that the mityahadim were individual converts.  Recent scholarship has shown that religious conversion to Judaism did not exist prior to the Hellenistic period (2nd century BCE).  The scholarly consensus is that the Book of Esther was composed during the Persian period (5thcentury BCE), not long after the return of the Jews to Israel under Ezra and Nehemiah. The older recension of Greek Esther 8:17 reads: “And many of the nations were circumcised and became Jewish (ioudaizon) because of fear of the Jews.”  Just as it is uncertain how to interpret מתיהדים, so is it unclear how to interpret ioudaizon.  In the New Testament, the word appears in Paul’s criticism of Cephas’ observance of the dietary laws.  “Why compellest gentiles to live as do the Jews (Galatians 2:14)?”  The Vulgate renders Esther 8:17 this way: “Insomuch that many of other nations and religions joined themselves to their worship and ceremonies.”  Does the adoption of Judaic practices necessarily mean fully embracing Jewish identity and becoming a convert?  Conventionally, it is assumed that circumcision is the hallmark of outright conversion, while the taking on of other practices like observing the Sabbath or dietary laws is indicative only of a gentile’s being a God-fearer.  Malka Simkovich has argued that even circumcision did not always mean full proselytism.  Accordingly, Greek Esther could simply be identifying one of the more important Jewish ceremonies practiced by the gentile mityahadim in solidarity with Jews. Were the mityahadim religiously or politically motivated?  Gillis Gerleman argued, based on the Septuagint’s embellished mention of circumcision and the Masoretic Text’s use of the purportedly religious term Am Ha-Aretz, that the mityahadim had godly intentions.  Further evidence for this view might be adduced from other Scriptural passages that, like Esther 8:17, include the expression נפל פחדם, “fear fell upon them,” and in which the fear rises to the level of awareness of the hand of God in human events (see Exodus 15:16, Joshua 2:9, and Psalms 105:38).  On the other hand, the word כי suggests that the mityahadim altered their behavior only because of mundane dread of politically ascendant Jews and that their lifestyle change lacked a theological dimension.  Kristine de Troyer argues in favor of this reading, noting that the author of Esther uses no overtly religious terms in describing the popular reaction to the survival of the Jews.  The areligious character of 8:17 appears to be reinforced by an adjacent verse of similarly secular flavor: “Indeed, all the officials of the provinces showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them (9:3).” David Daube contrasted the Book of Esther with the Book of Judith, an Apocryphal work written in the 2nd century BCE and similarly featuring a female heroine who saves the Jews from grave peril.  Unlike Esther, who does not observe Judaic rites and has carnal relations with a heathen man, Judith is a supremely pious woman who maintains her chastity and religiosity even while in the camp of the Assyrian general Holofernes.  Daube contrasts the mityahadim with Achior the Ammonite.  The mityahadim were fakers.  They professed Judaism only from expediency and did not long maintain their new identity.  Achior, who was impressed profoundly by Judith’s heroism, experienced a real internal change.  “And when Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God.  So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day (Judith 14:10).” Jon Levenson posited that the mityahadim identified with the Jews out of fear of being associated with anti-Semites.  They did not convert; rather, they attempted to pass as Jews.  The narrative thus comes full circle.  In the beginning Esther the Jewess suppresses the truth about her national origins and passes as a heathen (Esther 2:10).  In the end the heathens are afraid to be identified as anything other than as Jews during the spate of anti-anti-Semitic revenge attacks. The LEH Septuagint Lexicon renders ioudaizon as “to side with Jews.”  In this view, the gentiles in question adopt no Judaic practices nor do they assume, whether sincerely or fraudulently, a Jewish identity.  They simply pick sides in a contentious public matter.  The Jewish Question in history occasionally did not allow for neutrality.  The wider world was divided between pro- and anti-Jewish factions.  The situation in 1890s France between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards is an example of that phenomenon. The Alpha Text (AT) of Greek Esther 8:17 reads: “And many of the Jews circumcised themselves and no one opposed them.”  This represents a radical reinterpretation of mityahadim.  They were not gentiles, but Jews who had forsaken their religious heritage during the Hamanite tyranny.  Upon seeing Haman’s downfall, Mordecai’s political elevation, and the vastly improved prospects for Jewish survival, these circumspect Jews returned to ritual observance.  The Talmud preserved this view in a homiletic exposition of the verse “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor (8:16).”  Light is Torah study; gladness is the festivals; happiness is circumcision; honor is phylacteries (Megillah 16b).  Maharsha commented that Haman intentionally prohibited Jews from observing those commandments that are signs of the covenant – e.g., the Sabbath, phylacteries, circumcision.  Yet the Book of Esther describes no tradition of Hamanite religious persecution, but only his plan of genocide.  It seems more reasonable to interpret the Midrash along the lines of the Alpha Text.  A modern era equivalent was the resurgence of Jewish pride, and interest in Jewish religious practice, after the Six Day War (1967), especially among Jews living behind the Iron Curtain.   At the most basic level, the mityahadim were fair-weather friends.  The fickle nature of public servants and public opinion is an important lesson of the Megillah.  Attitudes can change quickly.  Certainly, we would prefer to have a preponderance of mityahadim rather than raving bigots.  But we must understand the limited value of friendships that are predicated exclusively on our perceived political strength.