Writing Esther, Then and Now: The Materiality of the Megillah in Ritual, Memory, and Biblical Interpretation

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2024

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Abstract

Jews past and present have used the Book of Esther and the festival of Purim as a textual and liturgical site to work through key human questions: the legitimacy of violence amidst diaspora, persecution, and the need for self-defense; the perception of divine presence in a world where God seems distant more often than not; and carving out space for women’s gendered agency within a religious tradition that often limits or fails to acknowledge either that agency or the non-male gender of the agent. These issues—violence, God, and gender—stand at the center of biblical scholarship, which typically concerns itself with the textual analysis of the Book of Esther, the tracing of its receptions and social functions, and the continual project of articulating new readings of the text which draw on and speak to today’s Jewish and Christian communities.This dissertation engages those three interpretive questions through a novel lens: the way Jews copy, display, handle, embellish, and dispose of the material object of the Esther scroll—the megillah. These ritualized material practices, many of which take place in Jewish liturgy, reveal the role of the megillah in the Jewish bibliographic imagination. In this project I trace how Jewish tradition has related the material megillah to questions of violence, God, and gender. I also suggest my own novel readings of these perennial interpretive questions. I begin tracing these threads in the first chapter, where I review the ways in which biblical scholarship has imagined the authorship of the Book of Esther, suggesting that such scholarship has failed to attend to the possibility that the book narrates its own composition—a device well-known in other biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. Indeed, key Jewish traditions creatively and intentionally conflate the acts of writing narrated in the scroll with both the imagined authoring of the Book of Esther and the tangible scrolls in Purim liturgy. In these productive conflations, the material megillah becomes part of the biblical story—and the features of that megillah speak to the way Jewish tradition reads that story. The next three chapters build my argument for the various functions that the Esther scroll and its material aspects play in Jewish life. Chapter two begins by showing how Purim’s ritualized megillah reading functions as a form of liturgical memory that retells the story of Purim in light of a community’s present, and re-enacts the events of Purim to conflate the liturgical scroll with various written documents in the story. Chapter three sets forth the functions of the liturgical megillah as an iconic text: as a symbol of Purim, as a rhetorical device to persuade the audience of the miracle and authorize the festival, and as a hub of transitivity and enchantment that mediates networks of communication between humans past and present and between humans and God. This synthesis gathers concepts and methods from disparate fields often not brought into conversation: comparative sacred texts, material religion, media studies, art history, book history, and Masoretic studies. I also show how the megillah functions differently across time and space as the material aspects of scrolls change. Finally, in chapter four I begin with a seemingly obvious question: Why is Esther called a megillah? This innocuous investigation ends up showing the way in which the megillah’s enchantment creates connections both vertical (God and humanity) and horizontal (human to human), and how that relates to the halakhic construction of the megillah as an ambiguous kind of written document which is both a book (sefer) and a letter (iggeret). In chapters five, six, and seven, I apply my insights about the material megillah to the questions of violence, God, and gender. In chapter five, I respond to moral objections to the Jews’ violence in Esther 8-10 and the symbolic violence in Purim’s construction of self and other via the Israel-Amalek relationship. Drawing from less-examined Jewish sources, I examine alternative ways to ‘blot out the name of Amalek’ not with the sword, but with the scribal knife, the pen, and the book. These symbols allow me to examine practices of blotting out the name Haman as a nuanced memory of evil, scribal tropes of overwriting the narrative as victims’ empowerment, and an obscure aggadah that validates the power of Torah to erode the construction of Amalek as pure evil. In chapter six, I turn to the meaning of God’s seeming absence from the Book of Esther. Here I examine customs of writing God’s name in the megillah, as well as the liturgical act of unrolling the scroll as a metaphor for revealing divine truths and an echo of Ahasuerus’ reading the chronicles of Persia (6:1). These practices of copying and displaying the megillah in synagogue liturgy suggest that God is made present in Esther through the agency of scribes, cantors, and readers, who do not passively convey the story but make God present in it. Thus, every Jew encountering Esther is called to enact God’s plan through a seemingly secular book by listening—just as Ahasuerus did. Finally, in chapter seven I turn to feminist debates over models of gender and agency in Esther, which vacillate between favoring Esther’s accommodation to the Persian patriarchal system and Vashti’s rejection of the system. In dialogue with contemporary Jewish soferot (female scribes) writing Esther scrolls, who have inserted markers of their agency within halakhic parameters that limit scribal innovation, I suggest that Esther, like these women, enacts her own muted agency with the pen, just as some Jewish traditions depict her as author and/or authorizer of the Book of Esther itself. This agency, while hidden, is still valid agency—and as the contrast between Esther and Vashti shows, in this situation Esther’s agency proved more efficacious when it mattered most. This project constitutes the first substantive account of megillat Esther in book history, Jewish liturgy, and the bibliographic imagination. It propounds novel and nuanced views on perennial interpretive questions raised by the biblical text. Most importantly, it speaks to the need for biblical scholars to engage broader trends in the study of religion—especially how religions make meaning with stuff.

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Homrighausen, Jonathan (2024). Writing Esther, Then and Now: The Materiality of the Megillah in Ritual, Memory, and Biblical Interpretation. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/30923.

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