Esther: An American Queen

For much of their history, Americans have been a Bible-reading people. Biblical references and themes have been woven into the fabric of American life and culture, leaving an enduring mark on language, arts and letters, law, politics, and the public imagination more broadly. Americans have enlisted the narratives, characters, themes, and symbols of the sacred text to make sense of and give meaning to their experiences.

Perhaps no biblical text has been referenced more frequently in American civic culture than the exodus narrative chronicling the Children of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Americans have recurred to this story at decisive moments in their history, beginning with the 17th-century Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England who believed they had escaped religious oppression in the Old World in pursuit of religious liberty in a new “promised land,” and continuing with the 18th-century patriots who fought the “tyranny” of George III (their Pharaoh), 19th-century abolitionists who sought to end chattel slavery, and 20th-century activists who struggled to secure the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities. The exodus story represents poignant themes of liberation and liberty that have resonated through the centuries in the experiences of diverse peoples and communities.

Another biblical text to which Americans have turned to understand and give meaning to their experiences is the book or scroll of Esther. The story told in this book, like the exodus narrative, is about deliverance and liberty—recurring themes in the stories Americans have told of their own experiences in the New World. These themes, many Americans have come to believe, define their identity and shape their aspirations and pursuits. Esther in America, a new collection of essays edited by Rabbi Dr. Stuart W. Halpern of Yeshiva University, explores how these Americans—both Jews and Gentiles—have seen themselves in and interpreted their world through the Esther story.

Esther: A Persian Queen

The book of Esther, in brief, tells of Esther (or Hadassah, as she was known in Hebrew), an orphan girl of uncommon beauty in the Jewish diaspora in Persia who was raised by her cousin Mordecai. When the Persian king Ahasuerus banished his queen, Vashti, because she refused his command to exhibit her beauty publicly at a palace feast, Esther was chosen to be the new queen, although at the time she did not reveal her Jewish identity. Mordecai learned about a plot against the king, told Esther of the conspiracy, and she, in turn, informed the king, giving Mordecai due credit. The plot was thwarted, and the plotters were put to death.

Some time after the plot was foiled, the king promoted a man named Haman to the position of his chief minister and instructed those serving the king, including Mordecai, to bow before Haman. Mordecai refused to bow because he was a Jew. Enraged and vindictive, Haman secured the king’s approval to issue an edict to annihilate all Jews in the land and plunder their goods. When Mordecai learned this, he implored Esther to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews. Esther responded by first urging the Jews to fast and pray for deliverance. Then, risking her own life, she courageously approached the king without invitation as part of her plan both to save the Jews and to expose Haman’s wickedness.

She invited the king and Haman to a banquet where she revealed her Jewish identity and Haman’s diabolical scheme to destroy her and her people. The king, angered by his minister’s machinations, ordered that Haman be hanged from the same gallows Haman had built to execute Mordecai; and Mordecai, who had been belatedly rewarded for thwarting the plot to harm the king, was elevated to the high office formerly held by Haman. A new decree was issued allowing the Jews to defend themselves on the day Haman had set for their extermination—a deliverance commemorated with the feast of Purim.

The story of Esther and Purim has been a lens through which Americans—especially Jewish Americans—have viewed power dynamics in civic culture.

This is a thrilling epic brimming with suspense, shocking plot twists, ironic reversals, and remarkable acts of heroism and villainy. It is also a tale with unsettling ambiguities. Is Ahasuerus, for example, a foolish, easily duped, or out-of-touch ruler? Or is he a “politically cunning,” perhaps even wicked, king? “Is Esther merely an object of the men in her life (Mordecai, Ahasuerus),” Rabbi Shmuel Hain asks, “or is she the paradigm of Jewish female agency and heroism?”

The story as recorded in Scripture, to give one more example, makes no explicit mention of God. What role, if any, does God play in the story? God, some argue, is the central character, playing an active, even if hidden, role to protect His people in fulfillment of His providential will. Others argue that God is not merely hidden, God is absent. God is not mentioned because the deity played no role in these events. Rather, this is the account of a people whose survival depended on their own initiative, ingenuity, and fortitude; they did not have the luxury of waiting for the intervention of a hidden or absent deity. The story is made even more difficult at the end by vexing ethical questions arising from a decree, authored by Mordecai in the king’s name, granting Jews the authority to slaughter many thousands of people—including children and women—who hated them and sought to harm them.

Esther: An American Queen

The story of Esther and Purim has been a lens through which Americans—especially Jewish Americans—have viewed power dynamics in civic culture; religious, racial, and ethnic identity; the uncertainties and vulnerabilities faced by diaspora communities; and the struggles for religious and civil rights and against bigotry and slavery. In 28 essays written by a company of gifted scholars and commentators, “Esther in America traces the story’s interpretation in and impact on the United States.”

These illuminating essays, on a broad range of topics organized around selected themes, offer commentary on the book of Esther and interpretations Americans have brought to the story. They examine the appropriation of the narrative in American arts and letters (including visual and cinematic arts), political culture, and other contexts. Among the themes explored are Esther in literature, Esther and feminism, the dual identities of diaspora members, Purim in pop culture, and the Esther narrative in presidential politics. Time and again, the reader is reminded how this story has given comfort and courage to immigrants and diaspora communities, shaped political pursuits, challenged ethics, informed Jewish identity and culture, and inspired individuals and communities to act courageously on behalf of others and the common good.

Esther and Purim resonate in the deepest recesses of Jewish memory, and their presence and significance in Jewish American culture, as explicated from a Jewish perspective, are a running theme in many of the essays. Esther also makes appearances in the broader culture, most interestingly in politics from early in the colonial era to the present. Consider these examples:

Both Esther and Lincoln were masters of statecraft who made their plans and then seized the opportunity at the right moment to achieve their political (and moral) objectives.

In his essay, “Haman in the American Revolution,” Eran Shalev highlights references to the king’s minister in revolutionary rhetoric. “[E]mphasizing the king’s villainous counselor Haman . . .  (who acted as an allegory for George III’s ministers and advisers) allowed colonials [early in their conflict with Great Britain] to protect a seemingly duped king while severely criticizing his policies. It also further underscores,” Shalev continues, “the attraction and benefits that Patriots found in the years and months preceding Independence in using the Bible as a guide and manual on oppositional politics in a still monarchical political culture.”

In an essay on statesmanship, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik recounts how abolitionist clergymen from Chicago in September 1862 petitioned President Abraham Lincoln at a White House meeting to use his wartime powers as commander-in-chief to emancipate southern slaves. In their accompanying memorial to the president, they prefaced a quotation from Mordecai’s appeal to Queen Esther to act expeditiously on her people’s behalf (Esther 4:13-14) with these words: “At the time of the national peril of the Jews under Ahasuerus, Mordecai spake in their name to Queen Esther, who hesitated to take the step necessary to their preservation.” Identifying themselves with righteous Mordecai, loudly protesting evil in the land (Esther 4:1), the clergymen implored the seemingly hesitant president to act urgently to bring emancipation and justice to those in bondage. Lincoln, like Esther, had been miraculously elevated to high office; and he had the power, the memorialists believed, to abolish slavery, and yet he had failed to act. The clergymen wanted action now, and they chastised Lincoln for not acting promptly and decisively to end slavery, possibly suggesting that the president was apathetic to the abolitionist cause. The clergymen, like Mordecai, had a moral vision and were impatient and uncompromising in advancing it.

Soloveichik argues, however, that like Esther, Lincoln understood that boldly embracing a great moral vision is necessary but perhaps not sufficient to achieve a desired political goal. Great statesmanship requires the combination of a moral vision with the sound political judgment and “craftiness” to devise and execute a plan to obtain the desired result. Both Esther and Lincoln were masters of statecraft who made their plans and then seized the opportunity at the right moment to achieve their political (and moral) objectives. In Lincoln’s case, he embraced the abolitionists’ moral vision, labored months to craft a plan for emancipation, but then waited until the opportune political moment—after the Union “victory” at Antietam—to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Nineteenth-century advocates of women’s rights grappled with the question of whether the Bible advanced or inhibited the cause of women’s equality. Many were ambivalent about the Bible’s contributions to their cause, believing that distorted interpretations of Scripture through the centuries had denied women their dignity and equality and had been used to oppress and subjugate womankind. Despite this criticism, prominent female reformers, such as the Grimké sisters and Frances E. Willard, saw in Scripture examples of strong women who rose above patriarchal oppression and served as models of female empowerment, dignity, and equality. Among the biblical characters often extolled were Miriam, the sister of Moses; the Old Testament prophetesses Deborah and Huldah; and Queen Esther.

Queen Vashti, who King Ahasuerus deposed after she rebuffed his command, also emerged in feminist literature as an exemplar of female agency. In his essay, “Vashti Comes to America,” Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky notes Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s observation in The Woman’s Bible, which she edited at the end of the 19th century, that “We have some grand types of women presented for our admiration in the Bible. Deborah for her courage and military prowess; Huldah for her learning, prophetic insight and statesmanship…; Esther, who ruled as well as reigned, and Vashti, who scorned the Apostle’s command, ‘Wives, obey your husbands.’ She refused the king’s orders to grace with her presence his revelling court.” Lucinda B. Chandler, in her commentary in The Woman’s Bible, similarly remarked that “Vashi is conspicuous as the first woman recorded whose self-respect and courage enabled her to act contrary to the will of her husband. She was the first ‘woman who dared.’”

Esther: A Queen for Such a Time as This

Esther in America gives evidence of the Bible’s persistent presence in the life of the nation and richly illustrates how Americans have summoned biblical narratives and themes to understand and explicate their own experiences. It also engages the ambiguities of and ethical challenges posed by the book of Esther, and it invites readers to reflect on the book’s essential themes, especially as applied to the American experience. Among these themes are the nature of righteous and evil authority, the demands of religious and civil rights, the essence of national identity, and the challenges faced by diaspora and minority communities, including contending with bigotry and persecution. These are, to be sure, themes that transcend time and culture, explaining the resonance of Esther’s story through the ages and assuring its relevance for ages to come. It is remarkable that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds and across the generations have thought that this ancient text speaks to their moment. This collection of essays is recommended reading for students of the Bible in the New World, Jewish identity and culture in America, and the insights and lessons to be learned from the Esther story as applied to the American experience.