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Ranting at These Annotations for Esther (Or, How Well We Read Matters)

So, I’ve found this rather good translation of Esther, but I keep making the mistake of glancing at the ‘scholarly notes’ at the bottom of the page, which are genuinely pissing me off. They are foolishly unscholarly and sneeringly anti-Semitic:

– The annotator keeps bringing up quite compelling interpretations from the Targums only to dismiss them in the next breath as ‘unlikely readings of the text’ (he never actually says why they are unlikely, other than that he deems them so, despite his obvious lack of knowledge of the literary tradition and despite the authors of the Targums being steeped in that literary tradition) and then proceeds to offer the most nauseating opinions of his own without a shred of scholarship or literary context to back them. At one point, he brings up the Midrash reading that Hadassah (Esther) hid for four years before being taken to the king’s harem, which does fit both the spirit of the story and the four-year gap in the plot, only to knock it down as a rather ‘nice’ effort by Jewish scholars to ‘defend Esther’s virtue,’ and then advances his own explanation that Esther probably went willingly (after a four-year hesitation???) and then ingratiated herself deliberately with the overseers of the harem, submitted happily to dining on nonkosher delicacies, and he tops it all off in his notes on the second chapter by noting that the text is ‘remarkable’ in that it ‘offers no moral judgment about the actions of Esther, a young Jewish virgin who gave herself to a pagan king.’ The text offers no ‘moral judgment’ on this, so the annotator is quite happy to imply one of his own. No, you ignoramus, this is manifestly NOT a story about a young gold-digger who chooses to slum it with a foreign monarch and then later gets redeemed by a virtuous act; it is literally a text about surviving, confronting, or circumventing oppression, assimilation, or annihilation by means of courage, concealment, commitment, and cunning, a story about a captive people whose captors can do anything they please with them (up to and including genocide) and who exist within a social order in which men can do anything they please to their concubines (including do away with them), an order so autocratic and restricted that the first ‘disobedient act’ by a wife is treated as a matter of national crisis. It’s one of a series of stories (Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther) about a people whose liberty, clothing, diet, language, and even their very names are stripped from them, their own names replaced with the names of the gods of their captors, so that Daniel becomes Belteshezzar (Bel Guards Him) and Hadassah becomes Esther (Goddess Ishtar). They can be thrown to the lions if caught praying to their own ancestral deity, or tossed into a furnace for refusing to prostrate themselves to a gold statue of the king. Esther can be killed if she approaches the king to plead for the life of her people while he’s in the wrong mood. Much of the early drama in the story comes from the fact that she has to conceal her ethnicity in order to survive. It is an utterly harrowing story about the blindness of autocracy and a beautiful story about the courage to speak truth to power, even absolute power and about the ethical and religious necessity of risking it all to aid and defend those who stand to lose it all when you have the opportunity to make a difference.

– Also, the annotator has an alarming tendency to identify with Xerxes more than with all the story’s other characters. Which is very weird. Granted, the narrative presents Xerxes (much as Herodotus presents him, too) as a fully human character, one trapped and shaped and warped to a considerable degree by the society at whose apex he sits, but also one who wreaks great damage by following the extreme moods he is subject to. But I don’t understand this annotator’s obsessive need to describe how Xerxes’ ‘burning rages’ are ‘justified.’ He even adds a header above the text of the first chapter, replacing the more traditional translator’s header of ‘The King’s Banquet’ with ‘Vashti Angers the King.’ Seriously. I ask you!!! No, Vashti did not ‘anger the king.’ The king got drunk, completely off-his-butt drunk, boasted to a bunch of other drunk nobles that he would parade his queen in front of them wearing only her crown so they could all see how beautiful his most prized possession was. (The scholar, predictably, rejects this Targum as well as ‘unlikely,’ despite that this is exactly what the diction in the Hebrew implies.) Then, when she refused, he had her banished only to regret it later. Vashti did not ‘anger the king’; that isn’t the point of the story, except perhaps to Xerxes. Vashti claimed a little basic dignity, the king got angry, and the next queen was so terrified of the king’s rages (and the consequences thereof) that she asked her entire ethnic group to pray for her before she went to his hall to make a request of him. I will hazard a guess that this seminarian either never read Herodotus or forgot most of his stories of Xerxes. We are talking about a man who was legendary in the ancient world for spending fruitless seasons chasing the Scythians across the steppes of what is now Russia because he was pissed, or for responding to the old engineer Oebazus’s request that he leave his youngest son behind from the march to Greece to comfort the engineer in his old age…by slaughtering all three of Oebazus’s sons and then forcing the old man to come with him to war instead. Dude, the whole point of putting Xerxes in a story at all is to say ‘Here is a man who is easily provoked at a word or two, regularly throws temper tantrums, and burns down kingdoms. Thankfully he had no nuclear codes.’ But no, this scholar from the School of Glaringly Missing the Point wants to contend that Xerxes’ rages are ‘justified’ and that Vashti really should have done her job and shown up barefoot, naked, in her tiara at the banquet.

That’s just the notes for the first two chapters. I am enjoying the translation (and Esther is such a powerful and timely story), but I am going to console myself by taking a black marker and voiding half the man’s commentary on it. What bothers me is that this foolish person who apparently thinks uninformed opinion is the same as scholarship (or that simply categorically dismissing any Jewish interpretation of a Jewish story is the same as informed scholarship) is teaching at a seminary somewhere. And he is teaching future religious leaders who will then go on to teach future parishioners or churchgoers. And that is an utterly horrifying thought. The stories you tell and read and hear matter; how well you’re able to investigate what’s going on in them, matters. Especially now. We are the most technically literate generation in human history, and we are terrible at reading well. Especially when it comes to our sacred texts. I want to pick this scholar up by his lapels and shake him.



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