It's a familiar Purim story: Esther, a young Jewish woman, famous for her beauty, is selected to become the new queen by King Achashverosh, and with assistance from her cousin Mordechai, later saves the Jewish people from annihilation by the wicked Haman.
As this ancient story is retold each year on the 14th of Adar, youths and the young at heart dress up — usually as characters from the story — and partake in three-sided treats called hamantashen, baked in assorted flavors.
But a closer examination of the Esther text — moving beyond the yummy cakes, noisy groggers and revelry commonly associated with the joyous holiday — reveals a sobering account of Jewish life in the Diaspora, suggested Judaic scholar Hindy Najman during a timely pre-Purim lecture at the Gershman Y in Center City.
Najman, an associate professor of ancient Judaism at the University of Toronto, offered a different take on Megillat Esther to about 30 people gathered on March 19, the night before erev Purim, in a lecture sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. The presentation was part of the center's 2008 lecture series and was co-sponsored by the Kehillah of Center City.
Najman's presentation, titled "From Exile to Diaspora," fit in with the theme of the center's focus of study, which is the religious and cultural development of Judaism during late antiquity — also known as the rabbinic period — which extended from roughly 200 to 700 C.E.
The Megillah speaks of sadness and mourning, but also humbles and reassures its listeners, and gives them a sense of empowerment. Once again, Najman said, the Jewish people come close to destruction, overcome it, and then use that tension to recover and build anew. She noted that the Megillah is the only biblical book outside of the Torah that explains the origin and creation of its text, set forth in the letter sent out by Mordechai to the rest of the empire, which tells future generations to remember this important moment.
The playful presentation when the Megillah is recited, she said, allows for it to be as serious as it is farcical, and provides an optimistic picture of Jewish survival and success in a foreign land.
This success can first be seen in the biblical story of Joseph in Genesis, as he was the first Jew to overcome struggles as a foreigner in another land. Najman offered several instances where the tale of Esther mimics the tale of Joseph. In both stories, she said, the Jewish characters retain their heritage while becoming immersed in their new homes, all of which shows that the Jewish people can live in the Diaspora "without giving up their strange customs."
Another connection, she added, was that Joseph's brother, Benjamin, gave his name to the tribe that Mordechai, who came centuries later, was a member of.
Najman also pointed out that the Megillah, like other biblical texts, is often called into question by historians when they compare it to secular texts in order to ascertain when the actual events took place. But Jews, she said, need to read the biblical texts, and "understand who they were written for and why they were preserved."
Esther, she said, is similar to other Second Temple Judaic texts, such as the sagas of Ezra and Nehemiah, usually identified as contemporaneous with Esther, in the message they give the reader, but truth be told, scholars are still unsure where to date Purim — "this near tragedy of the Jewish people."
Though the festival has now become mainly a celebration — with little emphasis on the seriousness of the Purim story — "the goal of the scroll," concluded the professor, is to learn about anti-Semitism in the Diaspora — and to recall and rejoice over a fragile survival.