kosher bookworm

Unmasking the hidden story of Queen Esther


Perhaps among one of the greatest Jewish theologians in the United States today is Rabbi David Fohrman of Woodmere. His writings about the story of Purim will be the main focus of this week’s essay.

In his work, The Queen You Thought You Knew (OU Press, 2011), Rabbi Fohrman presents his unique interpretation of the Purim story. In an interview some years ago, he shares his take on Bible interpretation and Jewish theology that speaks to us directly, absent the fancy words of so many pompous intellectuals.

“More than any other holiday, we associate Purim with children. We dress up, clown around, and everything seems so very jolly — the Megillah included. We view characters as caricatures: Esther seems like Cinderella; Haman is a scowling villain wearing an oversized pirate hat; the king, a kind bumbling fool. But are these childhood pictures of the characters really accurate?”

Rabbi Fohrman explains the real theme of the Purim festival:

“When you stop to think about it, Purim was deadly serious. The Jewish people faced the very real prospect of genocide. Long before the world ever heard of that word, or of concentration camps, we were almost wiped out on one, single, terrifying day. The story of Purim was no fairy tale, it was real — and it was harrowing. We owe it to ourselves to look at the story as adults and ask ourselves what is the real, true to life meaning that this experience with tyranny really comes to teach us.”

I wanted to know more about Rabbi Fohrman’s methodology, to which he responded as follows:

“I think Biblical stories can sometimes lull us to sleep, almost like a lot of lullabies; these stories have really serious questions buried in them that are screaming to us — we just have to read them with fresh eyes, open our ears, and listen.

“Imagine a kid started analyzing Rockabye Baby. He wouldn’t fall asleep so fast. His mind would be flooded with questions: How high off the tree was the cradle? Who put the cradle there? Did anyone call 911 when it fell?

“The same goes for stories in the Bible. Obvious questions are everywhere, questions that are hidden at times by our familiarity with the texts: ‘Why would G-d forbid us to eat of a tree that grants knowledge of good and evil? Aren’t we better off knowing the difference between good and evil?’ And ‘Why would we name a holiday like Purim after Haman’s lots? These are the devices our enemy used in attempting to kill us. Why name the holiday after that?’

“These are the questions that the text demands of us that we ask of it. They are windows as it were, into deeper understandings of the text. We owe it to the Torah to ask these questions, or we risk ignoring what the Torah is trying to communicate to us.”

These teachings by Rabbi Fohrman, and his book, deserve your attention. Taken together, they will surely enhance your understanding and appreciation of the themes and readings of the Purim holiday.

A version of this column was published in 2016.