Unmasking the Purim Heroes

Were Mordecai and Esther assimilated Jews?

Print this page Print this page

Mordecai and, after some initial hesitation, Esther responded not only by defending their principles but by reaching out to all Jews and rallying the community to self-defense and self-affirmation. They saved the Jewish people and wrote a glorious page in Jewish history. Perhaps it is no accident that the Purim holiday they and the folk fashioned is offbeat. These "born-again" Jews contributed a vital new element to the total Jewish religion and celebration.

The above analysis is deliberately provocative, even overstated. On balance, the evidence points to Mordecai's and Esther's being devoted Jews; usually it takes that type to risk their lives to save their people. The rabbinic tradition very strongly insists that they were observant Jews. Note that when Esther was in trouble, she asked the Jews to fast and pray. Esther's Jewish name is Hadassah; she possibly lived in two worlds, with the name Esther on her diploma and the family calling her Hadassah at home.

Still, even if Mordecai and Esther weren't assimilated, many of their friends and allies in the war against Haman were, as the Rabbis indeed set forth.

The point of this exercise is to underscore one of the deep lessons of Purim: Never write off assimilated Jews. They come out of the historical closet in the greatest crises and when they are least expected.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).