Thursday, March 14, 2019

Who is Achashveirosh?

Originally posted in March 2014
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And now for a different take on Achachveirosh.

Achashveirosh is most often seen as a bit of a bumbling fool. He is easily manipulated by his advisors, as is seen in his impetuous decision to banish Vashti, and in Haman's easily won decree to kill all the Jews.

He seems entirely oblivious when Haman comes to the royal chambers late at night. He already KNOWS that Haman plans to kill the Jews. He KNOWS Mordechai is a Jew. and yet, before Haman has a chance to speak, he cluelessly tells Haman to lead Mordechai around on a horse in honor! Is it any wonder that we see him as buffoonish character?


And yet, there's another possible way to view Achashveirosh - that of a shrewd politician.
The best (read: most successful in maintaining power) kings in history are often the ones that can play to the masses, and though they have absolute power, still maintain a popular base with the people. But, being kings, they still use their dictatorial powers strategically, when they need to.

Let's look at Achashveirosh and reinterpret his actions assuming he was that kind of king.

The first incident is obvious. Vashti disobeyed him. He needed to show his empire that he could not be disobeyed. So he follows the advice to send her away and confiscate her estate for the next queen.

But that left a vacuum. Think of the role of the First Lady in America. She humanizes the President, and often helps with his popularity. Achashveirosh knows he needs a queen. So, again with advice of his counsel, he immediately launches a search for a new one. And not just from among the aristocracy, but among the population at large. Any supporters of Vashti would likely have been pacified by the excitement of the possibility that their daughters might become queen. The year-long search distracts and entertains the empire. And the search itself humanizes and makes the king seem more accessible to the people. He's looking for his queen. That's something that the people can find relateable.

But here things go slightly awry. Perhaps the king planned to pick a young woman from a prestigious family. But he was smitten with Esther. In this case, the story doesn't really differ from our traditional understanding. God's hand is hidden, but guides the king's heart towards Esther.

That's all preface. Then the action picks up pace. The Jews are pretty numerous in the kingdom. So are Haman's people, the Agagites, and his allies. These are two power bases, both potentially supportive of the king. Achashveirosh decides to promote Haman to be his second in command, an extremely powerful position. By doing so, he's also symbolically showing favor to the Agagites and their supporters. This is a clear move to show them that they are in his favor. And in return, Achashveirosh hopes for their support. There are no polls, but a partisan base doesn't hurt. Plus, they are well-off, and some "campaign contributions" to the royal coffers certainly won't hurt either.

Achashveirosh has made his choice between these two groups and makes it clear that everyone else knows it too. The Agagites are the winners, the Jews are the losers, and he hopes that the Jews will know their place and stay subservient.

Haman's thrilled, except for one thing. Mordechai doesn't seem to understand that the political sands have shifted. He's not acting subservient and doesn't seem to know his place. We know this part of the story. Haman devises his plan.

Achashveirosh grudgingly goes along with the plan. He was hoping the Jews would know their place, but since that's not happening, well, best to go along with Haman and eliminate them completely. He can't have a "third column" undermining his authority. Plus, Haman's "campaign contribution" is very appreciated.

Here's where the politics really start. One night, Achashveirosh can't sleep. He's tossing and turning. Perhaps he drank too much at Esther's banquet that day. But he's also preoccupied with the decree to kill the Jews. It's certainly not pangs of conscience. Like most rulers in the ancient world, Achashveirosh is pretty ruthless when he needs to be, and genocide doesn't really bother him.

But it's a shame to let a perfectly good power base go to waste. The Jews are smart, well connected, and, as he was just reminded by the story of how Mordechai foiled the plot against him, potentially loyal. If they could become part of king's power base too, he would truly be secure on his throne.

Then Haman shows up, and the king has a brainstorm. How to convince Haman that the king also favored the Jews? How to make a public display that the Jews and the Agagites could work together? The answer? Send Haman out leading Mordechai's honor guard! This would make it clear to Haman that he wants Jews and Agagites to work together and support the king together. It would also show the public that it was a new day.

Unfortunately, Haman's anger burns too bright. The king is a pragmatist, (albeit a ruthless one). Haman is not. He hates the Jews as deeply as any Anti-Semite in history. He's not willing to compromise.

The next day, at the second wine party, Esther reveals all. She's a Jewess. And Haman wants to destroy her people. Upon this revelation, Achashveirosh storms out to the garden to think. According to one midrash, he's already decided to kill Esther and side with Haman. But when he comes back in, the pragmatism leaves him when he sees Haman seemingly assaulting his woman on the bed. And like Helen of Troy earlier, or Ann Boleyn later, the fates of empires often rested on love of a woman. That's the turning point, and Achashveirosh the politician is replaced by Achashveirosh the jealous monarch. So Haman's fate is sealed.

But now the king as a problem. He was hoping to keep his monarchy shored up by the support of the powerful Agagites. Now he's had their leader executed, and they're sure to be very, very angry. So Achashveirosh does the only thing he can do. He pivots his favor towards the Jews, wholeheartedly. They're back in favor, and Mordechai is elevated to the top spot. He allows the Jews to defend themselves, and conveniently, this eliminates those now-furious Agagites.


וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר, וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה, וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן; וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן, צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Happy Purim!

Friday, January 4, 2019

What if Rome had adopted Judaism?

Originally posted in June 2014

A historical "what if" question.

Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. But in prior centuries, Judaism was a massively proselytizing religion, in Rome and beyond. And though the historicity of this is doubtful, according to the Talmud the emperor "Antoninus" (identification uncertain) actually did embrace Judaism.

So here's the question. What if, instead of converting to Christianity, the Roman Empire had become Jewish?

What would the world look like today?

Would Judaism and Islam have been the great historical rivals, instead of Christianity and Islam? Would Islam even have existed?

What would Judaism look like?

Would a Jewish Rome have rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem? Or would they have shifted the centrality of the religion to Rome itself?

Would Judaism still be a religion of shuls and Torah learning? Or would it look very much like the Catholic Church, with grandiose Cathedrals and a pope-like figure in Rome, but with some version of halacha and a different dogma?

Would Hebrew still be our Lashon Kodesh? Or would it be Latin?

Would Judaism still exist?

It's impossible to know any of this, of course. But it's a fascinating thought experiment.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What if your morality conflicts with the Torah?

In an attempt to revive my blog a little (as much as one can years way past the heyday of  the JBlogosphere) I'm digging up some of my old posts and will be reposting them on a semi-regular basis.

This one is from June, 2009

In my discussions with Charedim, (and some Centrist Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox) both online & offline, we often come to an impasse when I realize that one of the basic assumptions they’ve made is that I, as a kipa wearing Jew, take all my cues for morality, ethics, and values from the Torah, and that there can be no other standard.

Even if one accepts that premise, there are far reaching disagreements on what the Torah has to say when it comes to value judgments. But leaving that aside, in any case I reject the basic premise. I see no reason that the Torah should be the only arbiter of my moral being. I may be a Jew, but that’s not the only thing I am. I’m also a human being.

When the Charedi I’m talking to realizes that I’m not on the same wavelength when it comes to this issue, he will often engage in circular arguments:

“How can you not see the Torah as the final word on every issue? The Torah says you’re supposed to see it that way, and therefore, as a Jew, that’s what you must do!”

Aha – that’s one of the very (supposed) “Torah values” that I reject, that the Torah is my only moral guide. So that argument holds no water with me.

I am a committed Jew. I keep kashrut & shabbat, daven, study Torah, wear a kipa, etc. But that’s not all I am. I’m also a human being who attended college, reads voraciously, has friends who have all sorts of beliefs and lifestyles, and is affected by contemporary western moral values.

An example: recently I was talking to a relative, and she referred to a cousin who “nebach”, married a non-Jew. As is her wont, she said this in a low voice as if mourning a tragedy. I used to think the same way. Anyone who intermarried was destroying the Jewish people, and voluntarily doing Hitler’s work.

But as an adult, I got to know people who were intermarried. And you know what? Most of them are happy, raising well adjusted kids, and leading a meaningful lifestyle in their own way. Many of them even raise their kids with a strong Jewish identity, with the non-Jewish spouse attending synagogue along with the rest of the family.

And so I realized, why is it my place to judge these people and say that they’ve taken the wrong path in life? Am I so arrogant that I know the one and only true path and that they’ve abandoned their only route to some heavenly salvation? Why not just be happy for them that they’ve found happiness, something that’s hard to find in this world for so many people?

So what do I do with the halachic opposition to intermarriage?

One possible solution is to dig down deep into the mists of early Judaism and argue that the Torah doesn’t really prohibit intermarriage and that it’s all a Rabbinic innovation. And there may be some truth to that. But I’m a firm believer in Judaism as an evolving religion. And as such, it would be disingenuous to claim that traditional Judaism hasn’t had a major problem with intermarriage for at least 1 ½ millennia. And in any case, if I use that sort of argument, I’m boxing myself in and making it a requirement to find some sort of historical-religious justification for any personal moral value I hold that on the surface disagrees with tradition.

Instead, I prefer to concede that, yes,Rabbinic Judaism prohibits marriage to a non-Jew who hasn’t sincerely converted. But that’s irrelevant. I’m not intermarried and so it’s not a personal issue. And the Torah’s opposition? It is what it is. But I, as a human being with values that are a result of my almost 40 years of life experience, see nothing wrong with it for other people who’ve chosen that path. I don’t uphold it as an ideal, but once they’ve chosen such a romantic partnership, let them be happy! So I’ve gone to weddings and danced for Jewish brides and non-Jewish grooms and vice versa, and celebrated their unions. The Torah may say it’s wrong, but so what? Not every one of my values has to be from the Torah.

I have a similar attitude towards homosexuality. Admittedly, I’m not gay, so I can’t really understand the struggle that a gay Jew who was raised Orthodox must go through. Still, I can’t deny that the Torah calls homosexuality “toevah”, often translated as “abomination.” But when it comes to my gay friends? As long as they’re happy, I’m happy for them.

A few years ago, a co-worker to who I was close died young. Her funeral was held in a catholic church. I felt no need to ask a Rav whether I was allowed to enter for the funeral, because the answer would have been irrelevant. It was far more important to attend her funeral and be there to say goodbye in the manner her family chose.

It seems to me that giving over all of one’s decisions to what the Torah says (or some Rav’s interpretation of what it says) makes one a poorer human being. Struggling with ethical dilemmas and thinking for oneself, based on the richness of one’s own experience is part of life. And I think even most Charedim absorb ethical ideals from contemporary notions even as they deny it. For example, the Torah talks about slavery (yes, yes, I know the apologetics, it’s indentured servitude, not much better), but do any Charedim believe in slavery? Wouldn’t most recoil at the idea? We all get our morals, values, and ethics from various sources, often unconsciously.

So where does your value system come from?


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Any good blogs still out there?

This blog (like many of the old Jblogs) has been mostly dormant for a while. All the good conversation has moved to Facebook. But the format at Facebook isn't as friendly for intellectual discussion as the blogs were in their heyday.

Plus, Facebook is way too addictive, and the conversations, over religion and especially politics, get way too heated and angry. And there's way too much obsession over Trump everywhere. (Other than keeping up with the basic headlines, I want to think about that man as little as possible). I decided I needed a break from Facebook - a very extended one. Additionally, too much Facebook takes time away from being a father, which is my most important job in life right now.

But I do need some good intelligent conversation online occasionally.

If anyone's actually reading this, is there any corner of the Jblogosphere that's still alive? Any good blogs with lively comment sections? Anything like what we had back in the mid-00's?


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Intermarriage

A new article in the Forward asks 22 rabbis (of all denominations) "Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?".

Here are my own thoughts on the topic, as a halachic Jew who generally (but not exclusively) affiliates with Orthodoxy.

It's a difficult balance. Intermarriage in Judaism should be managed through a positive process - that of raising children to be Jewishly engaged and literate, and to value the Jewish community. With that done, a child will hopefully choose to marry someone who will be a partner in the Jewish journey, and that will typically be another Jew, though not always. But people are not statistics. As adults they have individual autonomy and will choose who to marry on their own. Instilling them as children with Jewish values will inform the choices they make when dating.

A bigger issue than intermarriage is Jewish engagement, and while that may have some correlation with intermarriage, intermarriage is more often a symptom, not the cause of Jewish disengagement. And there are certainly some intermarried couples whose children are very Jewishly engaged.

The issue of the Jewish status of children of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman is, I admit, a more serious question. How should Orthodox communities approach interaction and education of those children? No easy or blanket answers.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A conversation about God

Pesach Sommer writes about how Orthodox Jewry often has problems discussing God.

My thoughts?

The Torah says that Hashem created us in his image, and there's been a lot of philosophical musings about the various meanings of that.

Ultimately, I think it's more accurate to say that we create God in our image. Not that God isn't real - I may doubt much of Jewish dogma, but I believe in Hashem. But part of what makes it difficult to speak about God communally in the Jewish community is that there are many Gods - or rather, many different perceptions of God. Hashem is an emotional concept. We each find our own path to him (or her) by perceiving God in a way that each of us can relate to - in our own image.

For some that's a grand king, though that concept is more difficult to relate to in a democratic age where people have the right of self-determination. For others it's a parent, sometimes loving, sometimes stern. For others Hashem is a friend, a confidante. Hashem is whatever your relationship with Him is.

For me, he's just an emotion, the connection I feel when I'm high on zmirot and spirituality - a partner in a feeling of something greater than just out humdrum lives. What Hashem really is, no one knows. So we are forced to relate in whatever way we can. But since there's less commonality in the perception of Hashem than ever, it's difficult to have a communal conversation when a common frame of reference is difficult to pin down.