Esther: Nice Jewish Girl, Married to a Goy?
This past weekend was Purim, and amidst the celebrating and partying one thing stood out in my mind that most people tend to ignore: the fact that the feminine hero of the story, Esther, is intermarried. Not only this, but as Esther is wooing the King, Mordechai specifically instructs her not to reveal to him that she is Jewish: “The girl found favor in his eyes and won his kindness…Esther did not divulge her race or ancestry, for Mordechai had instructed her not to tell.”
There are Jewish sources that argue that Esther was coerced into marrying Achashverosh, that she managed to keep Kosher while in the palace, and that she only hid her identity because Mordechai foresaw the impending Jewish crisis and knew her Judaism should only be revealed at a crucial moment. But there are other people who argue that Esther was an assimilated Jew with a Babylonian name who most likely was not able to observe Judaism in the palace, and who did not reveal her Jewish identity because of fear of ruining her chances to become queen.
While these opinions on Esther are mainly speculation, the fact is that the story of Purim occurs between 536 BCE and 516 BCE, after Cyrus permitted Jews to return to Israel but before the Second Temple was built: the Jews of our story chose to remain in Persia in light of the financial and military insecurity that they would face if they returned to Judea. And while this is not a perfect comparison, the story of the Jews in the Megillah is somewhat like the story of Jews living today in the Diaspora. We choose to live outside of Israel because it serves us well to do so. And if a contest came along to marry today’s equivalent of a king (a date with Brad Pitt, perhaps?), how many Jewish girls do you think would do so?
According to a study by the North American Jewish Data Bank, in the US almost 50% of married Jews are intermarried, and around the same number regard being Jewish as very important. So although American Jews are definitely assimilated, there is still hope for holding onto ties to Judaism. From reading various articles, I see two possible lessons emerge on what can be learned from the Megillah about intermarriage in America today. The first one is that the story of Purim teaches us that in certain cases, intermarriage is unavoidable for assimilated Jews and can sometimes even benefit the Jews by creating ties with other cultures; if Esther had not married Achashverosh, she would never have been able to save the Jewish people. According to this theory, American Jews should accept intermarriage and work towards forging ties with other communities. Contrastingly, the other take on the story is that if Haman had not threatened the Jewish people as a whole, Esther would never have revealed her Jewish identity, and she and her progeny would basically have abandoned their Judaism. According to this interpretation, unless there is some danger to the Jewish community in America, our identity will slowly be lost.
I’m not sure where I come out on this spectrum. I think that the story of Esther shows that intermarriage can serve some people well, but I also think that the only reason Esther’s Judaism came into play in the story was because it was put in danger. And I don’t want that to have to happen to American Judaism to keep Judaism alive here. Because of that, and in light of the state of intermarriage in this country, the American Jewish community must actively work to extend its arms to all Jews, including (or especially) those who have intermarried, in order to preserve Judaism in America. And not just the kind of Judaism that people vaguely identify with, but the kind of Judaism that will make people feel that Judaism and the Jewish people are important to them.
Dina Lamdany is a Washington D.C. high school student and aspiring feminist who blogs at from the rib.