Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view of Esther

Megillat Esther Mesorat Harav

By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

 

Many books have been published which are commentaries on various subjects, including the Bible, Siddur, and Haggadah, which are based on teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. These books were not written by the rabbi. They are collections of his sayings that the authors of the books found in various sources, edited and used as the rabbi’s commentary. This book, “Megillat Esther Mesorat Harav,” which can be translated as “The scroll of Esther according to the traditions of the rabbi,” contains such commentaries on the biblical book Esther. It also has the entire synagogue service for the holiday of Purim, even the Maariv service that only occurs on Saturday nights, with commentary on them from Rabbi Soloveitchik sources, as well as 17 short essays which explain aspects of Purim and the book of Esther with the rabbi’s views.

There is much in this easy to read book that will delight a variety of readers. My own favorite is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s recognition that Purim was instituted as a holiday by common people, not rabbis nor Jewish leaders, and it was only after the people instituted the practice that the rabbis accepted it, I think he was right. This is what the book itself says.

Rabbi Soloveitchik recognizes that God’s name is not mentioned in the book and all activities that are described are done by humans, but contends that although God deliberately hides the divine presence here and in life generally, God controls events and spreads protective care over people.

To understand the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, one needs to realize that Rabbi Soloveitchik was influenced by at least five sources. The first was Soren Kierkegaard who developed the idea that was later called “The Leap of Faith.” Although the concept of faith is not explicit in the Hebrew Bible, the Tenakh, Rabbi Soloveitchik makes it a central core of his thinking and writings. True, the word “emunah,” exists in the Tenakh and it has the current meaning of “faith,” yet in the Bible the word means “firmly.” Moses hand’s weakened as he signaled the troops led by Joshua against Amalek, and his hand became weak, when two people came and held his hand up for him, they were held “emunah,” firmly. Faith plays no significant part in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s commentary on Esther because of his belief that the story shows how humans acted without relying on God, who is not explicitly mentioned in the book.

Secondly, he was influenced by his early teacher who was a Hasid. Thus his writings focus on somewhat otherworldly mystical ideas. In this commentary, for example, he states that Esther was not a conventional beauty. She had charm, and this charm was the result of God entering her body.

Third, again probably because of the influence of Hasidim, his writings are sermons, attempts to find meaning in what seems to be what he calls an arbitrary universe. He does not offer rational interpretations of the biblical texts, but somewhat mystical sermons about them. If one wants to find out what the Bible is actually saying, one must look elsewhere. This commentary is filled with such sermons, especially what we can learn about acting with proper behavior today.

The fourth is the theory of dialectics by Friedrich Hegel who contended that life is filled with multiple contradictions and two contradictions can be combined in what is called a synthesis. Rabbi Soloveitchik agreed with the idea that life is filled with contradiction and states this often in many of his writings, but disagreed with the idea of a synthesis. He felt that the contradictions always exist, this is good, and people need to learn how to deal with the conflict. Humans, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, are always “burdened with an inner contradiction.” The best known example is his view that the book of Genesis in the Torah, in Genesis 1 and 2, speaks about two kinds of Adam, each having a different personality. We see many examples of dialectics in this commentary where Rabbi Soloveitchik sees conflicting ideas and states that it is part of human nature to have such conflicts. An example is his view that the book of Esther depicts melancholy and a cry of distress arising from fear and insecurity, and also a hymn of joy and celebration marking Purim as a holiday.

The fifth is his sometimes unique understanding of the Torah. For example, he contends that “Judaism has never discriminated against women.” Both Mordekhai and Esther “appear as actors on the historical stage…. Both…were created in the image of God; both were endowed with dignity and majesty; both possessed great talent.” But, despite these words, he felt that the female and male talents were different and each has a different role in life and in Judaism. There are “basic differences of the sexes, not only physiologically, but psychically and spiritually as well. A historical masculine role cannot be assigned to woman, and vice versa, a feminine task must not be imposed upon man.” Women are superior to men “in two areas: the area of applied, practical thinking and the area of prayer. The first intellectual judgment, the intuitive flash, the primordial revelation of truth belongs to man. However, when it comes to implementation, the woman is the master.”

These are some of the thoughts that pervade this commentary of Esther.

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