Recently, a supposedly Orthodox Jewish professor made the astonishing claim that the Purim story was in no way miraculous, nor the result of any Divine intervention, but was instead a story of pure political maneuvering and luck. Moreover, along the way he also makes other statements and provides an analysis of the story of Purim that is not only against Jewish tradition, but is not even an accurate reading of the text itself. (If you have not read the original article, it is recommended that you do so, as this essay is written in response to it.)
Before we examine his actual words and bring copious statements of Chazal against him, let us make a general observation about the written Torah: That Megillas Esther is considered a holy book and a part of our Torah is stated explicitly in Bava Basra (14b). There is some discussion as to whether or not the book is deemed holy in terms “defiling” ones hands when touching it, but the conclusion of the Gemara is undoubtedly that Megillas Esther is a Divinely inspired text, and is a part of our Torah (Megillah 7a).
The Miracle In Chazal
One is then left to wonder, if all that occurred in the story of Esther was some clever political planning, why include it in our Tanach at all? Surely it would not be considered a holy, Divinely inspired text! If Megillas Esther is but a story of politics, it should have no higher status that the various books written about Chanukah. The very fact that Chazal considered the book to have been Divinely inspired writing leads us to safely assume that there was indeed some level of miraculous component to the story which led to the prophecy required to write it down.
Indeed, Chazal make many references to there being a Purim miracle, not least of which is the actual establishment of the holiday in the first place, something that is clearly not in response to mere political maneuvering. However, there are even more explicit references made by Chazal as to the miraculous — and by extension Divine — nature of Purim, indicating that the professor’s characterization of the book as being one about political maneuvering a far cry from the truth. To begin, there is the mention in Yoma (29a) that Purim is the last of the miracles that were to be written in the Torah (unlike the story of Chanukah, which was certainly a miracle, but does not have a Biblical book). Next, let us make mention of the various statements to this effect that surface in the actual tractate of Megillah: The Gemara (2b) begins with a comment that the city of Shushan is unique since the miracle of Purim happened there. Shortly thereafter the Gemara (4a) records that women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah like men since they were also part of the miracle. Later, the Gemara (14a) explains that one of the reasons that we do not say Hallel on the holiday of Purim is because we do not ever say Hallel on a miracle that happened outside of Eretz Yisrael. Lastly, when discussing (19a) how much of the Megillah must be read, it is once again mentioned that there was a miracle.
I would also like to take issue with what seems to be generally shoddy work in the professor’s essay: His statement that it does not matter how the king during the time of Esther rose to power is correct, but it seems to have no purpose at all in his essay. Stating that the king was manipulated by his advisors — while somewhat in congruence with Chazal on Megillah 15b — completely ignores the statements of Chazal on Megillah 14a that the king hated the Jews as much as any of his advisors. In a similar vein, the professor’s mentioning of the fact that the Jews in Israel could not help the Jews in Persia is most perplexing. This is because not only were they a vassal state of the Persian Empire at the time, but they were also few in numbers and could not have affected at all a fight against the empire’s armies. While the professor does admit that their fate was in doubt, the whole mentioning of the nascent settlement in Israel is perplexing and seemingly pointless.
Finally, the professor’s statement that we stood together as a nation against the enemy is most inaccurate of all. The Megillah (9:1) itself mentions the Jewish people fighting the enemy only after the king had already been swayed to support them. This act was also not the main point at all of the evolving story, but only the climax. Further, writing that the neighboring nations joined us in our fight is simply a misrepresentation of the word “misyahadim” in the Megillah. This term does not mean that the other nations “supported” us, nor “identified” with us, but that they joined our nation as per Chazal (Meseches Geirim 1:3, Esther Rabbah 6:2). If he does not trust Chazal, he can try Google translate. It is also clear from the words of the Megillah (8:17) that this all occurred only after the fact, due to their being afraid of the Jewish nation’s prominence (particularly of Mordechai’s newfound prominence).
I think we have established that the author of the aforementioned essay is either entirely ignorant of basic Talmudic knowledge, or is willing to deny the Oral Torah outright. Beyond that, the content of his essay is simply shoddy work. It is not only surprising that the rabbis of his institution have not objected to his words, but that the university department has not as well.
Perhaps the growing trend of such thoughts being prevalent in the Modern Orthodox world should be cause for a wake-up call.