In one sense, the Babylonian exile was extremely traumatic for the Jewish people. No-one in Jerusalem had believed that the Temple would be destroyed and that Jerusalem would fall to the enemy. "The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy should have entered into the gates of Jerusalem" (Eicha 4:12). Naively, the Jewish People believed that if they prayed by the Temple no evil would befall them. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Kingdom of Judah exiled, the people initially despaired.
On the other hand, the Babylonian exile also marked a great watershed in Jewish history. The exiles from Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah did not forsake their worship of the one G-d, even when they dwelt in Babylon, a country of idolators par excellence. In this exile, they began to believe that Israel was an eternal people, a people who would return to their ancient homeland, a people whose eternal existence was guaranteed over and above that of natural forces, the sun and the moon. (Jeremiah, 31; 33, Isaiah 60).
The Book of Esther is a historic narrative, which recounts how a supernatural force protects Israel's existence. The narrator and the readers of the Megillah have no doubt that "relief and salvation will come to the Jews" from one place or another. There is also no doubt in anyone's mind that if Mordechai is of the Jewish race, any villain, adversary or enemy will fall before him. Moreover, the narrator believes that the story of the Book of Esther and of Purim served as a religious and psychological factor in the existence of the Jewish people throughout their exile, inspiring optimism and hope.
Yet the Book of Esther was a classical story, used by anti-Semites in every generation to attack, demonize and condemn the Jewish people. The fear of anti-Semitism was indeed mentioned in the Gemara. "Esther said to the Sages: Establish this holiday for all time. They said to her: you will turn the gentiles against us." Rashi explains: because we rejoice over their defeat. (Tractate Megillah page 7a).
One anti-Semite who used the Book of Esther as a foothold was the German religious reformer, Martin Luther, born 500 years ago. In his translation of the book, he introduced anti-Semitic undertones, depicting Esther as the typical despicable Jew, eager to shed gentile blood. Luther advises the Christian not to enter into discussions with Jews, but to tell them: "Do you know, Jew, that Jerusalem and your kingdom, together with the Temple and the priesthood, were destroyed over a thousand years ago?... The exile shows that G-d is not their G-d and they are not His people ... By the destruction of Jerusalem G-d, already showed that the merits of the Patriarchs did not save them." (Yehezkel Kaufman, "Goleh Venechar", Vol. 1, p. 299).
The main argument used by the Christian anti-Semites was that the exile is eternal.
It should be noted that Luther did not understand the exact contents of the Book of Esther. Indeed, not all synagogue-goers understand that the decree of annihilation was not annulled, as Esther had requested. King Achashverosh did no more than write an edict, which he sealed with his ring, granting the Jews permission to defend themselves.
In reality, a battle was fought between the Jews and their enemies. The author of the Megillah was so overwhelmed by the force of the miracle, namely that the Jews succeeded in repulsing the enemy, that he did not see fit to recount that a fierce battle was pitched between the two camps - and that it may be assumed there were also some Jewish casualties: the narrator is more concerned with the account of casualties on the side of the Jews' enemies. In all the countries of Achashverosh's empire, the battle was decided in one day, apart from Shushan, where an extra day was required to decide the outcome.
The key point is in chapter 8, verse 11: "Wherein the king granted the Jews who were in every city to gather themselves together, and to defend themselves, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them, both little ones and women." They received permission to strike their foes, and the words "little ones and women" apply to the enemies who intended to destroy the entire Jewish people.
The issue of the Book of Esther and anti-Semitism also has a contemporary perspective. German scholar, Prof. Hans Berdteke of Leipzig, wrote a comprehensive interpretation of the Book of Esther with the intention of removing all the anti-Semitic undertones fostered by priests and Christians readers in accordance with the translation of the Megillah.
Some time ago, a world conference of the Protestant Church was held in Geneva, Switzerland, thus bringing together the churches that follow Martin Luther's teachings. They publicly resolved that the Protestants today dissociate themselves from Martin Luther's anti-Semitism. In this, they are following the example of the Catholic Church, which, at its Second Ecumenical Council, published a document revoking the accusation of deicide against the Jews.
These changes in the Christian outlook were caused on the one hand by the horror of the Holocaust, but mainly by the creation of the State of Israel. For one thousand six hundred years, Christians had mocked the Jews with the claim that their exile was eternal and definitive. History has shown this derision to be unfounded. The miraculous creation of the sovereign, independent Jewish state in the land of our forefathers, after such a long interval, was a blow to Christian theology. The major denominations are beginning to modify theological positions which existed for centuries.
With the dissociation from Luther's anti-Semitism, expressed in particular in his translation of, and notes to the Book of Esther, the Book of Esther is becoming accepted as a religious story with humanitarian undertones, demonstrating that righteousness will always prevail over evil.
JEWISH AND ISRAELI HOLIDAYS:
Reference material for teachers and students in the Diaspora,
Edited by Dr. Aviv Ekroni & Rafi Banai from: Hetz,
Journal of the former Department for Jewish Education and Culture in the Diaspora, WZO
The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI