Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Would Esther Think?

Last month, the winner of the Genesis Prize was announced. The prize, a joint initiative of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropic Group, awards an individual $1 million in recognition of great contributions to Jewish culture.

This year’s recipient was actor Michael Douglas, a child of intermarriage, and an intermarried Reform Jew, of patrilineal descent. To many within Judaism, Douglas was the antithesis of the kind of Jew the community should be celebrating. To others, including the selection committee, he was the perfect choice because he was reflective of today’s Jewish community. 

Raised with no formal Jewish education, he embraced his heritage later in life. He went from an unaffiliated and unconnected may-be Jew to a Jewishly engaged intermarried. His journey into Judaism’s tent represented the one that many hoped more would-be, could-be may-be Jews would take. 

Still, Douglas’s selection for such a significant award caused much debate in the Jewish world. As I read op-eds for and against the Genesis Prize winner, I found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who’s Esther? She is the brave, beautiful, and intermarried protagonist of the Purim story, the hero who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith. Her tale is in the Book of Esther. But a few things about her are glossed over in the Purim shpiels that retell her story–the intensity of her Jewishness and her marriage. 

Like Douglas, Esther is assimilated and intermarried. She is a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Being Jewish is part of her identity, but not a terribly important part. Her husband, the not Jewish King Ahasuerus, doesn’t even know she’s a Jew! 

But when her uncle Mordecai, who is one of the king’s ministers, refuses to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity is tested. Haman, angry at Mordecai, convinces the king to kill all the Jews in Persia. When Esther learns of the decree, she is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. Esther makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people. 

Like Douglas, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness later in life. Douglas explores his Jewish heritage after he watches his father Kirk, prepare for his second bar mitzvah at age 83. Esther embraces her Jewish-self when her Jewish identity is challenged. Both fully accept their Jewishness but remain married to their non-Jewish spouses. 

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried or assimilated. Her choices are not judged, no one says she did the right thing but. She is remembered for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship, her level of observance or whether she is halachically Jewish. 

Judaism finds in Esther's story something good, even though, many do not define her marriage or choices as ideal. In the same way, the Genesis committee sees something good in the story of an intermarried, patrilineal Jew, who embraces his Jewish identity later in life and commits to making Judaism more inclusive. 

Unlike Esther’s story, Douglas’s is not yet heroic. But given his platform and prize money, which he plans to use to promote inclusivity in Judaism, and urge the organized Jewish community to expand its tent, his actions have the potential to also be valiant. 

Esther would applaud the Genesis Prize committee’s selection and remind us that Jewish heroes can come from anywhere–even interfaith homes.