Exploring Some Historic Political Lessons
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Key political insights can be extracted from the celebration of Purim. Last year, this writer offered some generic political and social commentary on the festival of Esther. In many ways this holiday introduces a broader question, can one fully embrace Judaism while residing in a foreign culture?
In a provocative new book, Israeli entrepreneur Michael Eisenberg offers a challenging, even controversial interpretation of the Purim saga. Rather than depicting Mordecai as a Jewish hero, Eisenberg in this creative reassessment of this ancient tale argues that Mordecai ought to be seen as an opportunist, merely seeking economic and political advantage for himself and his family. The resulting outcome leaves Mordecai “as a willing participant in the destruction of the Jewish people.” Assimilation and intermarriage, in Eisenberg’s view, represent outcomes of the Purim story, as this writer pushes back against Diaspora cultural forces.
Drawing on an array of Jewish sources, Eisenberg concludes that one needs to read the Esther narrative as highly problematic. Instead of opting to participate in the rebuilding of Jewish homeland, Mordecai embraces a Diaspora model as a way to exercise his influence. Analyzing the long-term implications of Mordecai’s options, Eisenberg argues that while there might be short-term advantages to engage with foreign elites, the outcome of such a political investment may well lead only to assimilation and ultimately the loss of political standing or worse the unleashing of anti-Semitism.
Is Eisenberg in this scenario warning American Jews, among others, that it is folly to embrace, for example, an American President, in this setting Donald Trump, despite the immediate payoffs, as the longer-term implications for the Jewish community maybe highly problematic? Even beyond the temporary and ephemeral images of gaining political access and economic influence, the core message here is that a Diaspora lifestyle is a recipe for assimilation. Noting the rise of Diaspora anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, and the uncertainties of the global economy, Eisenberg is making the case to world Jewry to revisit the Israel option.
In analyzing the Persian economy during the time of the Esther saga, Michael Eisenberg uncovers the economic and political challenges for Jews living in that particular unstable Middle Eastern setting. Contrasting such economic fortunes today with the viability of a dynamic Israeli society, this venture capitalist argues that Jews ought not to make similar mistakes as he has uncovered in the Mordecai story.
But can one make a formidable counter-argument, suggesting that the Purim tale ought to be understood as a celebration of the Diaspora encounter? Even the rabbis would draw a positive reference from the Esther narrative arguing that despite the absence of God and a minimalist reference to Israel, the Jews “took it upon themselves and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves … that they would keep these days (Purim) …and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.” (Esther, Chapter 9:27) This covenantal declaration was seen as affirming the power of the Diaspora in carrying forward and maintaining Jewish tradition.
It would be in the Diaspora that the Babylonian Talmud would be constructed, providing Jews with the insights and tools to operate outside of the Jewish national homeland. The political seeds for reclaiming Jewish national sovereignty itself would be framed in distant lands.
Some critics would argue that Mordecai’s tenacity and Esther’s actions offer an effective response in confirming the idea that Diaspora Jewry has a constructive and essential role to perform. Even in times of growing anti-Semitism and the politics of hate, Jews have had an obligation to speak truth to power! That is the essence of the Purim message.
The creative tension between homeland and Diaspora appears to be an ongoing debate. The strength of the Jewish people rests in always yearning for Jerusalem while managing to capture the essence of Judaism, even when living in distant places. Reclaiming the Jewish narrative is the Diaspora challenge, affirming Judaism’s message of being a holy people with a vibrant tradition is the obligation of the Jewish national enterprise. Both complement and enrich the Jewish story.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.