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Study and Theory/

Between Identity and Alienness – Four Models

The special identity of the Jews of Persia and Media is connected with their alienness among the 127 states of the Kingdom of Persia and Media. This matter is raised time and again throughout the Book of Esther.

When does identity become alienness? Are these not two faces of one condition, or rather two unrelated conditions? Can one be a Jew without being an outsider?

Before us are four different models of an answer:


A. Mordechai the alien vs. all the rest

All the royal officials at the king’s gate [...] knelt down and paid honor to Haman [...] But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, for he had told them he was a Jew. (Esther 3:2-4)


Mordechai expresses his Judaism in public, in blatant defiance of his environment. From his point of view, this is the essence of Judaism. It turns out that hazal already saw such a trend with Abraham, father of the nation. In the second century A.D. The nickname Abraham the Hebrew (Av-rah-am = father of the nation) was interpreted as follows:

And he told Abraham the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13) - R. Yehuda [bar Ilai] said: The whole world on one side, and he on the other side.

[Bereshit Rabbah, Lech-Lecha, Parshah 42; Theodor-Albek edition, vol.1, p.414]


B. Jewish identity leads to alienness and hatred

Then Haman said to King Achashverosh: There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them [...] (Esther 3:8-11)


The Book of Esther teaches that the Jew is perceived as ‘foreign’, not only in his eyes but in the eyes of the world. Throughout history, this alienness has often led to manifestations of anti-Semitism. The Jews of Yemen, for example, experienced similar trouble during the Middle Ages, when their Jewish identity was put to the test. In their distress they turned to the Rambam (R. Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) among the greatest Jewish leaders, rulers and philosophers of all time. In his reply, the Rambam sheds light on the nature of Jewish identity and alienness throughout history:

The Creator in the Torah distinguished us from the rest of the world [...] And because [...] He made us unique with his precepts and laws, our virtue became clear in His rules and laws [...] All the nations envied us intensely for our religion, which put their kings under pressure to arouse hatred and hostility towards us [...] At no time since the giving of the Torah until the present time, has any king not increased his efforts [...]  With the prior intention of contradicting our Torah and oppressing our religion by coercion and the use of military force [...]

[Rambam, Epistle to Yemen]

The Rambam determines that Jewish identity is distinguished from other nations because of the Torah, and necessarily leads to alienness and even hatred. We are aliens because we are a minority with a unique religious identity within a majority whose identity is different from ours, and we shall always be so, until the coming of redemption and repair of the world (tikkun olam).

C. A Jew in your home, and a man outside it

Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. (Esther 2, 10)

As opposed to the position Mordechai himself took, his suggestion to Esther was that she conceal her Jewish identity, in order to protect herself (some disapproved of this approach).

Indeed, it turns out that according to hazal, many of the Jews of Persia and Media in those times obscured their Jewish identity (as expressed for example by their Persian names) and tried to become involved and assimilate in their environment. On this matter, hazal had sharp criticism for the Jews that took part and enjoyed the banquets of Achashverosh (see Midrash Esther Rabbah, 2 and onward).

This approach was sometimes taken by Jews, when the gentiles permitted them to integrate with them. An clear example of this is seen during the Enlightenment period in Germany (18th and 19th centuries). In this spirit, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers of that period, proposed that the Jews integrate as much as possible in their Christian environment:

Accept the manners [commonly accepted customs] and constitution of the land in which you live, but adhere with all your strength to the religion of your fathers. Bear the brunt of both the best you can! [...]

[From: Jerusalem]

In Mendelssohn’s opinion, Judaism has more in common with the other religions than differences; therefore, it would be best to emphasize what they have in common rather than what separates them, and thus reduce the Jewish ‘alienness’. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn stresses his opposition to absolute assimilation of the Jews, as many of his period practiced.


D. A Jewish state: Identity without alienness

Now there was in Shushan the capital a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Yair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish [...] A man of Benjamin who exiled from Jerusalem. (Esther 2:5-6)


This geneology can be seen as a reminder that the story of the Book and its ordeals could only occur in exile; in the Land of Israel, a Jew will always feel at home. Indeed, about a hundred years after Mendelssohn, with the rise of the Zionist movement, Benjamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl (1860-1904) proposed a dramatic solution to the question of Jewish identity and alienness:

The solution of the Jewish question is contingent upon recognizing the Jews as a nation, and finding it a homeland guaranteed by international law, to which the Jews shall immigrate from countries in which they suffer persecution; they shall go there as citizens, precisely because they are Jews, and not as foreigners.

[Herzl in one of his speeches]


Jewish identity includes both a universal component and a particular component. Each model emphasizes a different component, and offers a different solution to the question of the relationship between the Jews’ identity and alienness in the world.
Does the State of Israel really enable Jewish identity without alienness?

Is it possible, in today’s State of Israel, that can these models teach us anything relevant about our lives here and now?

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