Intermarriage and Purim

Why was Esther willing to marry a non-Jew?

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When reading the Purim story, we might easily expect the subject of intermarriage between the Persian king, Achashverosh, and the Jewish queen, Esther, to have been examined over the years, yet the topic tends to have been ignored. In today's world when intermarriage is particularly common and often considered the most significant contributor to the decreasing Jewish population, the theme presented within Purim is ripe for examination.

Traditional Judaism has been able to generally overlook this issue because odd marriages occur with some frequency in the Bible, including that of Jacob and Leah (a marriage of a patriarch and a matriarch based on deception); Judah and Tamar (a marriage based on a man unknowingly impregnating his daughter-in-law), and David and Bathsheba (a marriage that grows out of adultery between a great king and the wife of his close friend).

Intermarriage in the Bible

The most obvious parallel to the story of Esther is found in the behavior of the patriarch Abraham married to the matriarch Sarah. They are traveling together through foreign lands, and she is disguised as his sister. On two separate occasions, Abraham, to save his own life and ultimately both of their lives, has Sarah hide her identity. This action leads to her becoming a wife of the local king, first of Pharoah and then of Abimelech. Abraham and Sarah are reunited and live to be the parents of the Jewish nation.

Intermarriage in the BibleIn the Purim story, Mordecai, residing in a land ruled by strangers, advises Esther not to reveal her family origins or Jewish identity. She marries the local king, and this action saves that very same Jewish nation.

Responses to Esther's Marriage

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, justifies the marriage between Esther and Achashverosh by claiming that Esther went against her will and married the king only because she would receive the opportunity to help the Jewish people." The mystical text of the Zohar goes so far to say that the Shekhinah (God's presence) concealed Esther's soul and sent another soul in its place; when the king slept with the queen, she was not the real Esther.

The Talmud adds another twist. Esther was Mordecai's cousin, and we learn in chapter two of the Megillah that Esther's parents died. The Talmud is of the opinion that Mordecai took her for his wife, which would lead to the shocking conclusion that Mordecai encouraged his own wife to marry the king. Therefore, we would have a situation even more similar to that of Abraham and Sarah. Not only is there a case of intermarriage between a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish king but Esther's adultery is at the instruction of her husband. Even the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, which preceded the Talmud, affirms this interpretation-further evidence that this view of the relationship is of ancient origin.

In medieval times, many of the well-known rabbis and commentators, including Nachmanides (13th century; Spain and Israel) and Abarbanel (15th century; Spain) avoid these extremely difficult topics. Those who do address the intermarriage and adultery found in the Purim story seem puzzled; they completely sidestep the personal aspect of such complex marital relationships by focusing their comments on the practical and halakhic issues surrounding the maintenance of two separate marriages.

In the 16th century, more attention was given to the complicated relationship of Esther and Achashverosh. In the work called Menot Ha-Levi, kabbalist Solomon ben Moses Ha-Levi Alkabetz directs himself to the line of thinking used by the Rabbis of the Talmud and found in midrashim. Exploring various nuances of Jewish law, he justifies and explains away the controversial and difficult aspects of the relationship between the Jewish queen and the gentile king. Given our consideration today of the sociological effects of intermarriage in the current Diaspora, Alkabetz's technical approach does not provide a sufficient perspective. In contrast, during the season of Purim, we have begun to see the story of Esther as a holiday-based opportunity for discussing intermarriage and its impact on Jews personally and communally.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.