The Politics Of Esther And Mordecai: Courage Or Compromise? -- By: Ronald W. Pierce

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 02:1 (NA 1992)
Article: The Politics Of Esther And Mordecai: Courage Or Compromise?
Author: Ronald W. Pierce

The Politics Of Esther And Mordecai: Courage Or Compromise?

Ronald W. Pierce

Biola University
La Mirada, California

In the classic stage and film production “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sholem Aleichem leads his audience, with increasing degrees of reluctance on their part, towards the nontraditional marriages of Tevye’s daughters. First the eldest, Tsaytl, “makes her own match” with her childhood sweetheart Motl Komzoyl, though they are willing to “ask permission of the papa.” The second daughter, Hodl, moves further from the traditional life-style of her community when, without asking permission, she chooses to marry Pertchik, a radical, revolutionary Jew from Kiev.

The major reversal1 takes place when Tevye finds Chava, his third daughter, talking with Chvedka, a Ukrainian village scribe who is not Jewish. At this important turning point in the play, the patriarch’s otherwise jovial and benign character changes. No longer does the audience smile as he moves “from one hand to the other” in a semi- humorous struggle with traditions whose origins the would-be rabbinical scholar cannot remember. Instead, he wrestles now with Torah proper, which teaches that Chvedka “is a different kind of man.” Because of this, Tevye sees the blossoming relationship as a threat to the very core of his socio-religious identity as a Jew. To allow such a compromise would be no less than a denial of his faith, and thus he concludes, “there is no other hand.” When Chava and Chvedka decide to marry secretly, the parents treat her as dead to them.

Early in the play the stage had been set for this reversal by means of a scene in Tevye’s home which finds his family gathered around their modest Shabbat table. In addition to the frequent visitor Motl, Tevye has also invited Pertchik to join them. As Golda lights the candles, she sings a prayer for their daughters:

May you be like Ruth and like Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
Strengthen them, O Lord,
and keep them from the stranger’s ways.

With a firm, protective glance at Pertchik on behalf of her daughters, the strong woman of the house silently but clearly underscores the last stanza: “. . . and keep them from the stranger’s ways.”2

What is surprising in all of this is that there is an inherent contradiction in this traditional prayer, also reflected annually at Purim celebrations, which usually goes unnoticed by Jewish as well as non- Jewish audiences. Specifically, one should be surprised by the naming of Ruth and Esther, who w...

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