The Rabbis of the Talmud Reflect on Dreams, Fear, Nationhood and Homeland

Ammon1Between the Jewish holidays of the fall, on the one hand, and those of the spring and summer, on the other, lie two additional holidays which seemingly have nothing to do with each other: Hanukkah and Purim.  Despite their many obvious differences, Hanukkah and Purim share a number of characteristics.  They are the two primary post-biblical holidays, nowhere even hinted at in the Torah.  And in terms of their political implications, they are opposite sides of the same coin.  One focuses on Jewish survival through the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem; the other focuses on the challenges of Jewish survival in the Diaspora.  Thus, both raise the critical question of why the Jewish people still survives, when so many other ancient peoples have disappeared.

Purim is therefore an appropriate time to consider a delightful rabbinic passage that reflects on the challenges involved in surviving without sovereignty.  It suggests how land and nation, so completely interwoven in contemporary Zionist thought, were seen as inextricably linked long ago, when the restoration of Jewish sovereignty was but a dream. 

As the biblical Book of Esther (1:10-15) relates,

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded . . . the seven eunuchs who ministered to King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was very beautiful.  But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command . . . ; the king was incensed, and his fury burned within him.  Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times . . .  What shall be done to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of King Ahasuerus?

For the rabbis, this passage was an invitation to interpret; in the talmudic tractate which deals with Purim (Megillah 12b), we find the following:

“And the king said to the wise men.”  Who are the wise men? — The Rabbis.  “Who knew the times”: that is, who knew how to intercalate years and fix new moons.  He said to them: Try her for me.  They said [to themselves]: What shall we do?  If we tell him to put her to death, to-morrow he will become sober again and he will require her from us.  Shall we tell him to let her go?  She will lose all her respect for royalty.  So they said to him: From the day when the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land, wisdom has been taken from us and we do not know how to judge capital cases.  Go to Ammon and Moab who have remained in their places like wine that has settled on its lees.  They spoke to him thus with good reason, since it is written (Jeremiah 48:11): “Moab hath been secure from his youth, and he is settled on his lees, and has not been poured from vessel to vessel, neither has he gone into exile.  Therefore his fine flavor has remained, and his bouquet is unspoiled.”

It is a playful passage.  The rabbis, who are mere subjects of idolatrous Babylonian rulers, use this passage from the Book of Esther to allow themselves a flight of fancy.  Like children who imagine themselves as sports heroes or the president, the rabbis ask, “Who were those wise men with whom the King consulted?” “Us!” they insist.  “We, the rabbis, are those to whom Ahasuerus turned.”  In their reverie, they have become insiders in the king’s court, valued for their counsel.  They based this, in part, on the somewhat obscure phrase “who knew the times.”  What does the Bible mean when it says that the king’s advisors were men who “knew the times?”  It means, the rabbis imagined, those who knew how calculate the dates of the Jewish calendar year.  And who was that?  The rabbis, of course.

But the rabbis don’t allow themselves to daydream for long.  So fear-filled are Jewish lives that even their reveries are littered with the dangers that life regularly forced them to confront.

The king is furious with Vashti, who humiliated him by refusing to appear in his court (the rabbis explain her refusal by assuming that he had wanted her to appear naked), and now must decide how to deal with her. So he turns to his new trusted advisors, the rabbis, and asks them what to do.  The request for counsel scares them, for the king’s request for advice draws them into an impossibly dangerous situation.  If they suggest that he pardon Vashti, he may think that they have impugned the authority of the throne.  If they suggest that he execute her, however, what will happen to them when the drunkard Ahasuerus sobers up and asks for the Queen?

The rabbis, therefore, have to escape the very predicament their reverie has created.  Having imagined a world in which they have insinuated themselves into the king’s court, they now have to escape from it.  To do that, ironically, they must disparage themselves and suggest that the king turn to the Moabites, synonymous in biblical parlance with implacable enemies of the Jews.  And why do the rabbis suggest the Moabites?  Because unlike the Jews, Moab has never been exiled from its land.  Like a fine wine which has aged on its lees, Moab has not moved for eternity.  Exiled from their ancestral homeland to Babylonia, the Jews are not a fine wine.  They are a cheap version, no longer able to adjudicate capital cases.  If the king wants real experts, he ought to turn to Moab, their mortal enemies.

It’s a charming tale, but also a devastatingly self-deprecating one.  The emotional need for an adolescent reverie in which one genuinely matters is itself a sign that maturity and self-confidence are either yet to come or already lost.  But to then be terrified of the very imaginary world one has created is even worse. And, finally, to escape that artificial world by granting your mortal enemy the coveted position you just imagined for yourself makes the entire affair even more demeaning.

This rabbinic tale, though, is no mere child’s play.  It is, in its own way, derivative of an ancient Jewish political philosophic tradition which, like modern nation-state theory, argues that the ideal for human beings is one in which peoples disperse “by their lands, each with their language, their claims, and their nations.” (Gen 10:5)  The rabbis are painfully aware that even the most alluring of fantasies of power and normalcy, as long as Jews are bereft of sovereignty, will remain just that—fantasy.  Exile, by its nature, robs them of ethnic authenticity.  Genuine peoplehood requires homeland and sovereignty; even the powers of reverie can do nothing to change that basic facet of the human condition.

In typical rabbinic fashion, however, this sobering rabbinic fantasy cannot help but close with a redeeming glimmer of hope.  In offering Moab as substitute adjudicators, the rabbis have injected Moab into the very peril from which they had to extricate themselves.  Now Moab will have to deal with the king’s wrath, whether they pardon Vashti or execute her.  Moab will meet the nasty end that the rabbis barely avoided.

The rabbis even cite a biblical basis for this prediction.  The very chapter of Jeremiah which asserts that Moab has “settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel,” foretells a very different end for Moab:

On all the rooftops of Moab and in its squares, there is nothing but lamentation; for I have broken Moab like a vessel no one wants, declares the Lord. . . .  Moab shall be destroyed from being a people, because he hath magnified himself against the Lord. (Jeremiah 48:38, 42)

Even in depths of the Jews’ exile, to which no end was in sight, the rabbinic tradition could not help but imagine a day in which the enemies of the Jews would be subdued and the Jewish people would return, sovereign, to its ancestral homeland.  Their fundamental political claim, that ethnicity and its culture can best thrive in what today is called the ethnic nation-state, is out of vogue today.  The awarding of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is perhaps the most obvious reflection of this contemporary disposition.

Holidays like Hanukkah and Purim, despite appearances to the contrary, are anything but child’s play.  They are serious and political, and ought to be seen as persistent, annual rejoinders to the implicit dismissive attitude to the nation-state so common today.  They are, in fact, also reminders that the political worldview at the heart of Zionism, marginalized precisely because of its abiding insistence on the link between ethnicity and territory, is not nearly as new in Jewish consciousness as many people like to suggest.

The rabbis of the Talmud would not be in the least bit surprised that precisely because of its renewed sovereignty, the Jewish people can now dream with a self-confidence that the rabbis themselves could scarcely imagine.

This column first appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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