God and politics in reissue of Yoram Hazony’s ‘Esther’

The year was 2002, the height of the Second Intifada, which saw hundreds of Israelis die in terror attacks.
March 16, 2016

The year was 2002, the height of the Second Intifada, which saw hundreds of Israelis die in terror attacks. In search of meaningful Purim reading, businessman Seth Siegel picked up Yoram Hazony’s “The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther. He had read it before, after receiving it as a gift sent to alumni of the Wexner Heritage Program for Jewish lay leaders, but at the time it had made little impact.

“It was like I never read it before,” Siegel told the Journal. “The second time reading it, some years later, at a different political time, I couldn’t put it down.”

In the book, Hazony, an eminent Jewish philosopher and theologian, deconstructs this gripping tale of sex, violence and political intrigue, in which God is not explicitly mentioned, to demonstrate how its happy Jewish ending is the result of brave human, individual action — and not of the mix of hidden divine intervention and coincidence often read into the story. It wasn’t just her good fortune or good looks, for example, that prompted King Ahasuerus to choose Esther as queen. She had studied the inner workings of the Persian court through her politically savvy cousin, Mordecai. Ahasuerus’ insomnia, which prompted him to see Mordecai’s political value, was not a coincidence, but the direct result of Esther’s brilliant maneuvering to ignite the king’s mistrust of his Hitler-like vizier, Haman.

The message of “The Dawn,” as it was originally titled, inspired Siegel to become actively involved in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and eventually to write his own book with the goal of affecting policy. Siegel is currently on tour for his best-selling “Let Their Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”

“The very essence of the story is that one can remain neutral, and you can keep yourself from having to make moral compromises, but if you want to do something, then you’ll have to step into the political system,” Siegel said.

He’s given out dozens of copies of Hazony’s book to friends and colleagues, including a United States congressman, who later told him the book convinced him not to retire from politics.

While the book is ranked as a classic among prominent Jewish leaders, it has long sat on bookshelves in homes, schools and yeshivas in relative obscurity. Now it’s getting a second chance to achieve popular acclaim thanks to Cambridge University Press, which just released a revised and expanded edition on the occasion of the book’s 20th anniversary, under a new title: “God and Politics in Esther.” Cambridge took it under its wing in the wake of the success of its other Hazony title, “Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture,” a groundbreaking work that spells out the philosophic approach and relevance of Tanakh and which got noticed by Morgan Freeman’s production company, who approached Hazony to be interviewed for Freeman’s National Geographic docuseries “The Story of God,” premiering on April 3. 

“God and Politics in Esther” started as the brainchild of Rabbi Jay Marcus, founder of Yeshivat Reishit, which was then in Jerusalem. Marcus had a vision of bringing the works of “new stars” in Torah to the public through his new publishing venture, Genesis Jerusalem Press. The ideas of the book grew out of Hazony’s personal hevruta (Talmudic study) sessions with colleague Joshua Weinstein, in which he sought to demystify this unique canonical story.

“I didn’t understand what Purim was about,” Hazony told the Jewish Journal via Skype from Jerusalem, where he serves as president of the Herzl Institute, a research institute he founded to encourage renewed study of the Bible, philosophy, politics and Zionism. “Most Jewish holidays are a powerful vehicle for moral and spiritual instruction. All I could see in Purim was costumes, drinking and noise. What was the profound change that Purim is supposed to work in our souls?”

He finished the book in 1993 while on reserve duty on the peak of biblical Mount Ebal in Samaria, between sleeping and guarding a military communications installation. It was there that he hit upon the theology of the Book of Esther: In taking action, humans can partner with God to create what seems to be the miraculous.

“[The Book of Esther] is a call for people to step forward and do things that they don’t know if they can do in order to fix a broken world,” Hazony said.

Rabbi Nathan Laufer, currently director of Israel Programs for the Tikvah Fund, kick-started its word-of-mouth advertising in 1995 when, as head of the Wexner Heritage Program, he ordered 800 copies to distribute to alumni.

“Teasing out the political lessons of the book was not something I’ve seen systematically done,” Laufer said in an interview. Among the lessons he learned was that “power attracts power, and you have to try to go into the public sphere and make a case.” This idea, among others, influenced Laufer’s own book on the Passover haggadah.

Hazony didn’t imagine his Esther commentary would achieve such a personal impact on others, let alone a cult following. 

“It’s really like we did 20 years of preparatory publicity work in order to pave the way for the launch of the book, which is actually happening now for the first time,” Hazony said.

Hazony’s publicist, Suzanne Balaban, shared some of the international “fan mail” Hazony received throughout the book’s pre-Cambridge years, such as from Rabbi Isak Asiel, the rabbi of Belgrade, Serbia, who asked for permission to publish the book under his own Serbo-Croatian translation. 

A teacher at Berkeley taught the book at his political seminars, where “it was received with rapt attention.” A surgeon in Johannesburg wrote: “Purim is my favorite chag — largely because of the messages of ‘The Dawn.’ ” A U.S. Army veteran said “ ‘The Dawn’ had traveled with me on deployments as my pre-Purim reading.” 

Hazony received enthusiastic feedback from Christians as well, such as from Tom Bryson, who read it with a family book club: “From start to finish, we appreciated the insights you provided on what has been for us, evangelical Christians, a fairly enigmatic book of the Bible.”

Bill Weisel is an attorney and immigrant to Israel from Los Angeles who has served as general counsel for four publicly traded Israeli high-tech companies. He has applied the book’s political teachings to law and business, writing: “With the ideas and analytical tools that you so clearly demonstrate in your book, I became more effective at certain aspects of my work. I began to teach and mentor both lawyers and business people about how to navigate each company’s unique decision-making system.”

While Hazony names Esther as the “miracle” of Purim, only one woman’s note appeared in the stack of emails. Miriam Krupka, head of the Tanach Department at the Ramaz School in New York, invited Hazony to speak to her students, saying, “My students and I have spent many a thought-provoking class discussing your perspectives, most particularly on the Book of Esther.”

But then there’s this reporter. I have written two books influenced by “God and Politics in Esther,” and back in 2011, I felt compelled to send a fan letter of my own, saying, “It is an enduring classic, and so amazingly written. Thank you for being such an inspiration.”

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