Monday, March 3, 2014

Zionism and the real history of Esther and Mordechai

The Zionism of the Purim Story

The Book of Esther is one of the great mysteries of our tradition.

Yet the book is hard to place in history.  When and where did it occur? If Esther and Mordechai lived at a time when return to Israel was possible, then what lesson does it teach us about modern Zionism?

Here’s how we solve the mystery:

The Megillah’s only “historic” reference comes in Esther 2:5-6 – In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish a Benjaminite – who had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Neuechadnezzar of Babylon.

We know that the exile of Jeconiah of Judah happened around 597 BCE.  But which person in the verse here was exiled?  Was it Mordechai himself, so the Book of Esther was soon after? Or was it his great grandfather Kish, meaning Mordechai lived closer to the year 500 BCE?

The ‘kingdom of Persia’ at the time was the Archaemid Empire, which at its height ranged from modern Pakistan to the Crimea, Greece and Egypt. We know that in 539 BCE Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia and permitted the Jews to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but no mention of that event is in the Book of Esther.  Why?

In Esther 1:19, during the search for a new queen, we read If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Achashverosh. Since Babylonia is not named, and Media is to its east, one opinion would say that Esther had to live before Cyrus conquered Babylonia (539 BCE) and it was Mordechai himself who was exiled. Therefore, return to Israel was not possible and they were trapped in exile.  This opinion, however, is hard to accept.

The city of Shusha began as the regional capital of Elam, which was also conquered by Cyrus the Great, in 539 BCE.  It was hardly a “great city” at that time. Yet it was expanded greatly by Cyrus’ son, Darius the Great (522-486 BCE), who is known in our books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Haggai and Zechariah. But none of our other books mention a Jewish Queen at Darius’ side, nor a great leader and advisor - Mordechai.  Would they all omit a known event of such importance? No. So, for “Shushan HaBira” to be the “capital Shusha,” it would seem that  Esther and Mordecai would have lived later in Darius’ life.

The rabbinic tradition collapses ancient history into a relatively brief period of time, placing Mordechai as a member of the Great Assembly Ezra and Nehemia established under Cyrus and Darius.   According to the Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, it was “The Men of the Great Assembly” who wrote the book of Esther. 

Yet many scholars identify Achashverosh as a Jewish name for Darius’ successor, Xerxes I, which in turn places the whole story at the height of the Achaemenid Empire. In fact, Xerxes I subdued a Babylonian rebellion in 482 BCE, after which he refused to be named as “King of Persia and Babylonia,” but merely “King of Persia and Media.” The quote from Esther 1:19 suddenly makes sense in this new context. His rule ended in 465 BCE, so we can date the Book of Esther to somewhere between 482-465 BCE. And it must be Mordechai’s Great-Grandfather Kish who was exiled from Jerusalem with king Jeconiah in 597 BCE. All of the pieces of the puzzle have now fallen in place.

So, Purim occurs 55-70 years after Cyrus the Great permitted Jews to return to the land of Israel.  The second temple is built, and the return is possible.  But no mention of that fact is made in the Book of Esther. To me, this is the sad but important lesson of the book. Israel was weak, and irrelevant to the lives of the Jews of the great empire. Israel could not help, and was not involved in the threat posed by Haman.  And a mass aliyah from Shushan and the empire to Israel was clearly unthinkable.  In our day, we must ensure that no community is so abandoned again.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Passing of Ariel Sharon, z"l

RA Saddened by the Passing of Ariel Sharon

Posted on Jan 11, 2014
NEW YORK – The Rabbinical Assembly is saddened by the passing of Ariel Sharon, whose years of service to the nation of Israel earned him widespread admiration among Israelis.  He earned and sustained a reputation for bravery and brilliance as a military commander, notwithstanding some periods of significant controversy. There was no single Israeli general who inspired his troops and led them as effectively as he did, and he was a towering figure of Israel's political scene for many years.  One of the most striking elements of his legacy was his willingness, in the late stages of his career, to change course by founding the Kadima political party and pushing for solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The death of such a towering figure naturally causes us to pause and reflect on his deep impact on the development of Israeli history.  Prime Minister Sharon served his country both as a daring military leader and as a political figure devoted to his nation's well-being.  We are humbled to think that for twenty-five years, he was on the front lines of every Israeli military conflict, often serving during battles that critically turned the tide in Israel's favor.  During his political career he steered the nation through a horrific Intifada and, in a move both bold and hopeful, engineered the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip for the sake of bringing peace to Israel and her neighbors.  Such accomplishments will undoubtedly become fixtures in the story of Israel's history. 

On behalf of the 1700 rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, we applaud Ariel Sharon's long career and its many moments of bravery and sacrifice.  We have no doubt that his decisive actions, both as a commander in Israel's wars and as a Prime Minister willing to act boldly for the sake of peace, have left a profound mark on Israel.  We hope that Sharon's legacy of a move from warrior to peace-seeker will inspire Israel and the Jewish people as this work remains unfinished. Our thoughts go out to his family, who have cared for him since his tragic stroke in 2006 and to whom we now extend our deepest condolences.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Blind Boycotts - How smart college professors can be stupid and prejudiced.

In mid December, news reached the world that the American Studies Association, an interdisciplinary organization of over 5,000 university professors, had endorsed and called for an academic boycott of Israel Universities and visiting Israeli professors internationally.  Smart people can be so stupid sometimes.

To quote the ASA National Council’s announcement:

The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians. The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.

As with the Durbin conference, and other moments of Anti-Israel bias, no other country was named or considered: China, North Korea, Russia, Cuba… no military regime with control of academia was condemned: Iran, Syria, Egypt, Burma, … No, just Israel.

Israel, where academic freedom combines with freedom of the press, television and radio… Israel where free expression in society and on the internet are core values of the very identity of every Israeli… Israel, the only functioning democracy in its region… Israel.  Yes, it is Israel that they choose to boycott. 

And it is not criticism which is so wrong.  Everyone has a right to an opinion. It is the concept of an academic boycott.  Why burn books, when you can silence academic thinkers entirely? Cut out the middle man, and refuse to let your students be exposed to their ideas or experiences. That is the way of the ASA.

It is unthinkable that an organization of teachers would boycott academics of any origin. A university is supposed to be where ideas are put into play and challenged by peers and history. But it is not about ideas.  It is simple anti-Israel bias. It is prejudice masquerading as piety.

Harvard, Yale, PrincetonBrownCornellUniversity of ChicagoNorthwestern University and New York University condemned the boycott in a growing chorus of universities, including 26 schools have so far rejected the ASA boycott in the days following its passage. Additionally, two universities–Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg–have cancelled their institutional membership in the organization.

The chancellor of Washington St. Louis University, Dr. Mark S. Wrighton wrote: [We are] deeply troubled and dismayed that the American Studies Association (ASA) , among others, has engaged in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions We believe strongly that a boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is not only one of our university’s fundamental principles but one of American higher education in general. This boycott clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. 

Forceful comments like these have been made by several university leaders.  Is your university one of them? I encourage you to write the head of any university that you or your children attended, and express your view asking for their statement. In this country, such blind bias against freedom and learning is intolerable.

At the core, this is not about human rights.  If it were, they would be boycotting other countries as well.  This is about the idea that a Jewish and Israeli connection to the land of Israel is not legitimate.  It is an assumption that the State of Israel itself is intolerable and must be erased from social discourse.  The idea that Israel is not only “not wrong,” but “good” would never occur to them.

This is why we must learn our history, stay active on the political stage, and form our own relationship with Israel and all that it is facing.  I will be teaching 3 classes this Winter/Spring about our eternal relationship with the land.  I hope that you will come to all of them, and join me as we see these historical sites in July on our congregational journey.

Monday, January 13th 7 PM:           Our Eternal Connection to Jerusalem
Tuesday, February 4, 7 PM:             Our Ancestors in the Negev
Tuesday, May 6, 7 PM:                    Great Moments in Zionism – Multimedia

Am Yisrael Chai,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Link to Video for Parshat Vayeitzei 5774 by Rabbi Tobin

A continuing presentation of some gems from the Ralbag - Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides) as adapted by Rabbi Tobin for contemporary Jewish living.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do “Movements” exist anymore?

In the 1920’s American Judaism had a strong sense of the new term “The Melting Pot,” in which Jewish Americans could be Jewish and yet not be so very different from their fellow citizens around them.  The compatibility of Judaism and Democracy was the theme of the day.  The first English-Hebrew prayer books, and bibles were published.  The Conservative movement, previously centered on the Jewish Theological Seminary of America became lead by the new United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  English, not Yiddish, became the language of the sermon, and Jews began attending colleges and universities in record numbers. In 1925 the largest Boy Scout Troop in America was at Beth Shalom, in Kansas City, MO.

After WWII, the G.I. Jew solidified our place in American society, and became a builder of the suburbs as well as a champion of civil rights.  In the 1950’s, social clubs and fraternal organizations defined the landscape of American society.  Fraternity and Sorority groups existed in High Schools, as well as colleges, and community organizations such as the Lyons Club, Kiwanis, Masons, Rotary and more lead much of the volunteer and networking activity in suburbs and cities alike. Jewish groups were created to parallel those organizations, and some Jews joined the secular groups as well.

In the 1970’s, however, extended families were breaking down, followed soon by the rise in divorce and the breakdown of nuclear families as well.  The individual was the center of attention, and fraternal organizations throughout America were in decline.

The Conservative movement was founded in the idea that communal responsibility was best experienced through communal affiliation. And we thrived. The USCJ boomed in the ‘50s and ‘60s as baby boomers grew their families and yet were committed to traditional expressions in the modern world.

But over the past 30 years, to focus on the individual and the loss of fraternal appeal has taken their toll. The Reform movement, based in the idea if individual ethical autonomy, fits the new ethos successfully.  The smaller Renewal and Reconstructionist groups also tap into these ideas. And the Orthodox movement, based in a high standard of individual responsibility to mitzvot and communal involvement, has been largely insulated from the change in external culture. Indeed, some say that it helps to define Orthodoxy very clearly to be so different.  The Conservative movement, however, has lagged.

In the coming month, we will explore what these “movements” truly are in our day.  Are they “movements” at all? What defines them? Come learn from Rabbi Leana Moritt (Reform/Renewal), Rabbi Marc Spivak (Orthodox) and me as we each spend an evening teaching and talking about what it means to be “our kind of Jew.” For us, more than others, knowing who we are – and how we are different – is critically important for our future as a synagogue. For dates and times, view our 3 Rabbis Flyer at

Parshat Toldot - Lessons from Ralbag by Rabbi Tobin

4 minutes of Torah from Rabbi Tobin on Parshat Toldot