Living with uncertainty on Purim
The theological certainty that gives people the confidence to condemn and dispense one another is, in fact, sacrilegious; it is to presume knowledge of God’s infinite will.
The Book of Esther reads more like a court drama than a book of the Bible; it is full of political intrigue, sexual tension and naked ambition; but, it seems to be rather lacking in theology. It never mentions God. The Talmud finds an early Biblical allusion to Purim in the following verse: "I will surely hide [hastir astir, which is supposed to sound like the name, Esther] My face from you... (Deut 31:18)."
God had promised times where His role in history would be hidden from us. Purim is one of those times. Every detail of the story turns out, by the end of the story, to have been essential for the eventual salvation of the Jews. Everything had to be just so. This is the hidden hand of God. Even when God cannot be detected, Jewish faith posits that His hand is still, in some sense or other, on the wheel. In the Book of Esther, God gives us the space to deny His involvement. He hides Himself.
Furthermore, the ways in which God hides from us, are, in fact, a revelation. We learn something about God from the ways in which He hides.
An agnostic friend of mine once told me of an experience in which she was standing in the Negev desert. The heat was unbearable, but a subtle breeze was offering her a degree of comfort. Suddenly, the breeze fell to a standstill. She reported a sense of having been abandoned. Abandoned by the wind? No, it sounded to me like the experience was more existentially significant.
You can only feel abandoned if you think that there is someone who abandoned you. Just as anger at God is a religious experience (for how can you be angry at God if you don’t believe in Him?), so too when we feel that God has abandoned us; when we feel that He is hiding His face, we are in the midst of a profound, albeit uncomfortable, religious experience. The Book of Esther, with its conspicuous lack of God-talk, is a book that tackles this theme.
The Mishna warns us that when we read the Book of Esther, we have to it from the beginning to the end. If we read the middle, and then the beginning, and then the end – or read it in any other non-consecutive order – we will not have fulfilled our obligation.
Rav Zvi Elimelech Spira (1783–1841), put forward the following explanation: When the rabbis demand we read the book consecutively, they are telling us how we should experience the reading. We should experience the beginning as if we don’t know the end. We have to experience the world as if the story is happening right now. We have to place ourselves inside the story; knowing that the powerful Haman seeks to annihilate the entire Jewish people, but not knowing that everything’s going to turn out for the best. The relief and joy of the end of the book must wait until the end; they gain their real power from the feeling of despair that they alleviate. We have to dispel the certainty that Queen Esther will save the day, and live with the uncertainty that pervades the book until near the end.
Religious people often walk around with a sense of certainty. We know what’s right and wrong. We know who’s saved and damned. We know it all.
We know that God exists because the person of faith is blessed with overwhelming experiences of Divinity. We feel God’s love in our lives. But there’s simply no way that we could know, with any certainty, exactly what God wants from us. Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) was the great prophet of this message; what my teacher, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, calls the Theological Uncertainty Principle.
Rav Lerner went to great lengths to demonstrate that the great prophets of the Bible were rarely certain that they had correctly understood God’s command. They submitted to the authority of the halakha as the best approximation of God’s will, but they were rarely, if ever, bold enough to say that they understood exactly what it was that God wanted of them in any given moment in time. To think that you know exactly what God is thinking is heresy. You are finite. He is infinite.
In the Book of Esther, Mordechai knew that our salvation would come. He had faith. But he didn’t presume to know when our salvation would come, whether Esther would bring it about, and how many people might suffer along the way (Esther 4:13-14).
The theological certainty that pervades so much of the religious world, giving people confidence to condemn one another and to dispense with dialogue and authentic encounters with people of different opinions, is, in fact, sacrilegious; it is to presume knowledge of God’s infinite will.
There’s too much certainty in the air. We’re certain that there’s going to be a war with Iran; a new battle with the rulers of Persia; a new Purim. We’re certain about the evils of secularism or the evils of religiosity; about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We walk around with a great deal of certainty. I pray that Purim teaches us the humility that we need in order to live with, and to negotiate a life in the midst of, uncertainty.
Dr. Samuel Lebens teaches Jewish philosophy at Yeshivat Har’el in the Old City of Jerusalem. He studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.