Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: The Queen You Thought You Knew

Disclaimer: I work for the Orthodox Union and this book was published by OU Press. I received a review copy which I did not have to pay for. While I do not think this affects my judgment, you should keep it in mind when you read this post.

Rabbi David Fohrman's book The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther's Hidden Story is an easy-to-read, engaging, compelling and thoughtful work. However, I think some of his points are not shored up as much as they could be or require a stretch of the imagination to accept. My favorite part of the book (it was divided into three sections) was 'Deja Vu All Over Again' which focused on the connections between Esther, Judah and Benjamin. Honestly, the book is worth buying for that last section alone.

So which parts did I think needed work? Well, here's one.
    The queen, as object of beauty, is almost like a statue- a statue of the new Persia. We have a statue like that in modern times, too, right here in the United States, a female statue that embodies the aspirations, values, nobility and beauty of our people; a statue that boldly and elegantly invites poor, huddled masses to find shelter beneath her outstretched arm. That statue strikes a resonant chord for most Americans. It means something to them. Americans do not think it strange to harbor a visceral, emotional attachment to Lady Liberty (37).


    Here's a theory: Maybe it was Esther's refusal to talk about where she came from that helped endear her to the king. In the wake of the Vashti debacle, the king sought a girl who would succeed where his last wife failed, a girl who would be everything Vashti was unable or unwilling to be. The king was looking for a woman who would effortlessly and unreservedly slip into the role of Mother Persia, who would happily and convincingly become the feminine symbol of his new empire. As such, Esther's recalcitrance might well have been alluring. Every time Esther changed the subject when the king asked here where she was from, she would have played into the king's dream-like vision of the perfect queen: an utterly stateless girl, a woman who completely transcended whatever local or provincial identity that fate had bequeathed her. Every time she smiled and said: "Why do you ask me so much about my past? Let's talk about the future" - she would have seemed more and more like precisely the woman he was looking for. Esther could be from anywhere- or everywhere. Esther brimmed with possibility. She could be anything he wanted her to be (39).
Rabbi Fohrman then goes on to suggest that because Esther had carefully shrouded her identity in order to fit into this Mother Persia identity, she was taking a great risk in connecting herself with the Jews.

The problems with this approach are multi-faceted. Here are a few:

1. After dismissing Vashti from the post of Queen, the King sent out certain letters declaring that "every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people." If Achashveirosh really has plans of having all the nations come together under a Mother Persia motif, it makes no sense for him to order that all his subjects ought to speak the language of their particular people. Rather, they all ought to speak the language Achashveirosh speaks, whatever that might be. Clearly, the provinces and locales having their own individual identities is not something that Achashveirosh sees as a threat.

2. Esther tells the King in Mordechai's name about the plot to murder him. Hence the King is aware that Esther has some sort of association with Mordechai, who is a clear Jew. True, it could be simply that of a Queen and a subject. But Esther's servants realize that is not so. This is obvious from Esther 4:4. Though Esther may not have explicitly told anyone that she is a Jew, her maidens and chamberlains see Mordechai the Jew in sackcloth and immediately come to tell her. Thus it is clear that they may have had some inkling that she cares for the Jews. You see she is not hiding it when she sends Hathach, a chamberlain the king appointed and thus someone who might report to the king, to speak with Mordechai.

3. The Lady Liberty analogy is not apt and in fact hurts R' Fohrman's point. The idea of a melting pot of cultures which all come together and share with one another under one 'American' label is a uniquely modern one. To try to apply a concept from the future to the past seems to speak to an innacurate understanding of history. While it's certain that people were subsumed into their host cultures in the past, this very much varied depending on who the conqueror was and how strong their presence was throughout the empire. It seems clear from the Megillah Achashveirosh is not this sort of king; he doesn't favor his provinces all becoming alike or emulating his culture alone. He doesn't see diversity as a threat so long as his subjects are all still loyal to him as King, something which is not necessarily connected with viewing the queen as 'Mother Persia.'

It falls to R' Fohrman to address these questions to the reader's satisfaction in order to support his hypothesis. He does not do so; thus I remain unconvinced. The subsequent portion of the book that tried to persuade me that Esther was in grave danger when she seemed to be giving up her Mother Persia identity did not speak to me because of this.

The second point R' Fohrman makes addresses the language Mordechai uses when speaking to Esther and where we have seen it before. He connects statements and concepts like "na'arah," a married woman, guidance concerning relationship with a spouse, the "na'arah" being in her father's house, silence and a short window of time to a passage in Tanakh. I will not tell you which one because that would ruin a fun 'Eureka!' moment for you. His drush on the passage is interesting but weak because it requires removing a very important mapik hei in order for it to work. This removal changes the entire word to mean something different. As any Dr. Steiner Biblical Hebrew survivor will tell you, removing mapik heis to make up Torah is nice, but midrashic and doesn't seem to be the most solid way to give over a point.

So where does R' Fohrman outdo himself? In the last portion of the book. Here is where R' Fohrman comes into his own, connecting the story of Purim to a long-forgotten tale that took place in Egypt. In this tale, Benjamin was allowed to venture into the lion's den by his father, Jacob, who stated, "And if he is lost, he is lost." Curiously parallel words to those of Esther, who also states, "And if I am lost, I am lost." However, Judah comes to the rescue, defending Benjamin and offering to become a slave in his place. Ever wonder about the constant emphasis on Mordechai Ha-Yehudi in The Megillah? R' Fohrman explains that Yehudi in this context actually refers to the exiles of the Southern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah. This is a story of redemption and rectification. Esther, who hails from the tribe of Benjamin, is going to save her brethren, the Yehudim, in thanks to Judah who saved Benjamin all those many years ago. This last, poignant, breathtaking point, presented with many word and sentence parallels and offering a resounding and meaningful new way of looking at the text is what made the book powerful.

So read this book. Learn something new as you sit at your Seudah, sharing Divrei Torah. Take a look at The Megillah with fresh eyes. And enjoy the journey.


Shimon said...

Got the book (mostly because of your previous post about it) and it was indeed money well spent.
I agree that it is problematic to just erase a mapik hei but I also didn't think that that particular meaning was so crucial to the derasha. So what if it doesn't refer specifically to a 'woman'. It is still the 'spouse' who has to play the pivotal role.
More comments later...

Benjy said...

The deja vu all over again, is not his chidush. The Gemarah in megila notes the returned favor, and meforshim discuss the particulars.
Rabbi Fohrman also totally disregards the dikduk of several sentences that disprove his whole theories.
Overall it was an interesting read.