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Bryan Schwartz, K.C.

 
Bryan Schwartz on how the Purim story is much too relevant today

by Bryan Schwartz , March 24,2024

ESTHER? THE POLITICS: THE BOOK EXPLORES ALL OPTIONS...BUT ONE?
 
by Bryan Schwartz, March 22, 2024

Here in the Diasporas, Jewish identity and thriving are under attack.
 
Some Christian church organizations routinely vilify Israel. One common motivation is to overcome their shame about the past ravages of Christian antisemitism. “If the Jews, given power, turn out to be Nazis, we do not have to feel bad about that whole Holocaust thing.” Many in the flock are not sure about the divinity of Jesus, or even the existence of the Creator, but they are certain that Israel is worthy of their contempt.
 
Other Christian organizations are staunch supporters of Israel’s right to exist. Their philosemitism arises in part from the ongoing reverence of their members for the bible – including the Jewish scriptures as well as the Gospels (written mostly by Jews and about Jews, especially Jesus).
 
The demography of Canada is changing. Jews are a dwindling percentage, Muslims an increasing one. Some Muslims are influenced by interpretations of Islam that are theologically antisemitic, some others by the anti-Israel politics of their original countries. As with Christians, there are some Muslims who are sympathetic to Judaism and Israel’s right to exist. Potential positive factors could be Israel’s record as the only multicultural democracy in the region, or its stalwart resistance to Iranian imperialism and its proxies that threaten so many Arab peoples.
 
 
The most powerful religion in North America now, however, is wokeism. It dominates the universities, who in turn powerfully influence their students, many to the point of permanent indoctrination. Wokeists share with the regressive forms of Christianity and Islam a resolute hostility to Jews and Israel. Anyone doubting the realities should read David Bernstein’s recent book “Woke Antisemitism – How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.
 
Everywhere outside of Israel, Jews are a smaller and smaller part of their mainstream populations. With that, any voting clout they may have had is dwindling.
 
Within these Diaspora Jewish communities, there are loyal critics of aspects of doctrinal Judaism or the policies of Israel. Increasingly, however, there are many Jews who are detached from their origins and others who are actively hostile. These are generally Jews who have been insufficiently informed of their heritage or sufficiently intimidated by the ambient antisemitism. They describe themselves as “of Jewish heritage” or “technically Jewish” or “Jew-buts,” as in “I am Jewish, but I don’t believe any of it” or “I am Jewish, but I don’t agree with Israel…”  The most hostile has been colourfully described as “Yidiots.”
 
Esther is about the options for surviving in a Diaspora Culture.
 
Hide. Mordecai initially instructs Esther to not reveal her Jewish origins. Disadvantage: you become what you pretend to be: not Jewish.
 

Go along to get along. Esther endears herself initially in the harem system by taking the advice of her counsellors and never asking for more than is offered. Disadvantage:  you are silent and passive in the face of evil.

Play the inside game, court politics. Mordecai and Esther both become powerful figures in the King’s inner councils. They choose to use their influence, when needed, to protect their Jews from cruelty and destruction. This is what Esther did, at the risk of immediate execution. Disadvantage:  you might help to serve a despotic regime. Practical reality: nowadays, many Jews in positions of power are so afraid of being criticized for parochial favouritism that they do nothing for Jewish causes or even tilt against them. Another practical reality: drawbridge Jews. You got in personally, but then you aggressively favour policies, like DEI, that go beyond fairness for all and are effectively antisemitic. The next generation of your fellow Jews will not have the opportunities you did. But that’s okay, you made it.

Passive resistance:  Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. Disadvantage:  A risky move. He might have been expelled from the precincts of the capital or simply killed right away. Then where would he be when needed to prevent the genocide of Jews that Haman proposed to carry out?

Unite the Jewish community in active opposition to threats:    Mordecai and Esther urge their fellow Jews through the empire to unite and rise – in the Purim case, violently – against their persecutorsDisadvantages:   The open voicing of Jewish opposition can feed the antisemitic opinion and conduct of your enemies, who may be more powerful politically or militarily.

Leave: in the movie Oppenheimer, the Einstein character advises Oppenheimer to move away from his political problems, just as Einstein escaped from Europe before the Holocaust. Disadvantage: the next place might be hostile unless you are going to Israel. If you go to Israel, your state is treated as the world’s Jew, and you are threatened by powerful neighbours with physical extinction.

The “leave” option is not identified in the Book of Esther. Yet it may be the only one left for committed Jews in the Diaspora. Esther did not have a state of Israel or even a self-governing Jewish province, to which to return. We are not told expressly if she even dreams of such a Jewish haven.
 
Today, a sovereign Israel, however embattled, exists.
 
Is it finally time to go home?
 
ESTHER ! THE MUSICAL: HOW THE SOUNDS MATCH THE WORDS
 
by Bryan Schwartz, March 21, 2024

Remember your bar or bat mitzvah, and you had to learn to sing the squiggles? You know, the little marks – not the vowel points, the other ones – above and below beside the Hebrew words. These are called “cantillation marks” or “trope marks.”
 
Each mark signals a little musical figure. Think of “Over the Rainbow,” which has a very trope-y sound. (It was written by Harold Arlen, an orthodox Jew). It segments the lyrics into little pieces, each with a short melody. "Somewhere" …."over the rainbow” … " bluebirds fly." Give a written symbol for each little melody, and you will have a trope system. Then you could use it for any other set of words.
 
Some traditions say that it was not just words, but the music too, that Moses received at Sinai. As early as the second century, a sage is quoted as saying it is wrong to the Torah to recite it without musical sounds.
 
The marks you see on the scrolls we use today were established by the Masoretes, working over a thousand years ago. They also established the system of vowel points we use today.
 
The trope marks serve several purposes.
 
A primary function is punctuation. The trope marks serve like the periods, commas, and semi-colons work in English. They divide up passages into smaller units and indicate where the out-lead performer should pause, and for how long. In choosing a trope for a passage, the Masoretes sometimes could resolve ambiguities in meaning. Remember the joke about the violent Panda who walks into a bar and eats, shoots, and leaves?
 
The marks also amount to an interpretation of the spiritual and emotional nature of a written passage.
 
When we think of the Jewish tradition, we often think and write of it as written words on top of words. Words generate more words – commentaries, tales, formulations of halakha, the Jewish legal code. Superb modern scholars like James Kugel have written magisterial analyses of the bible from beginning to end, noting how these passages have been interpreted and reinterpreted through time…yet they take little note that the entire body of work has became the lyrics for a musical.
 
Different Jewish communities have varied in how they sing various trope marks. A Yemenite Jew in Israel singing the Esther scroll might sound very different from their Lubavitcher counterpart in Brooklyn. They are rendering the same trope marks, but the little melodies are different. The voices of the tropes do tend to share some similarities; if a trope in one tradition is a short upward melody, it is likely to be so in another. It is all rather like modern romance languages – you could probably infer they all derive from one or another variation of Latin. Or that soccer, American football, rugby, and Australian rules football have a common origin – they are all about two big teams, a rectangular field, and scoring points by kicking a ball through or over a set of goalposts.
 
I have been relearning to chant, with an Ashkenazi trope, a chapter of Esther, the musical detailing fits the text in every way. The trope marks are sung in a different way than for any other book. That is fitting because Esther is unique in many ways. It creates a holiday yet is not part of the five books of Moses that generally create holidays. It is set in a Diaspora without any mention of the possibility of return. It is funny. The humor is variously dark, wry, and farcical.
 
The book of Esther is the product of an anonymous human who chose every narrative detail and every word with precision.
 
The Esther trope system is also funny and chosen with precision. I have been relearning chapter seven. The main Esther trope has a light and cheerful vibe. In some passages, about the threatened destruction of the Jews, the trope rendition switches to the one used for the book of Lamentations. In the end, the singing switches to a triumphalist melody.
 
Now listen to some of the details. It evokes the ironies of the plot and the nature of the characters.
 
Esther switches to the melancholy trope used for the book of Lamentations when she finally alerts King Ahasuerus to the utter destruction that Haman is planning.
 
Harbonah the court eunuch who pronounces on the ironic end of Haman, does so in a highly elaborate set of musical figures. You get the sense he is pompous, obsequious, and opportunistic – rather like Polonius in Hamlet. Harbonah dwells with an especially ornate figuration on the name of the doomed Haman.
 
Notice the trope used concerning the movements of Haman. Whether he is standing or falling, the melody falls straight down. No frantic action he takes will save him from his destiny – of being impaled on the stake that he had prepared for his Jewish enemy Mordecai.
 
The music of Esther, like the words, is the product of artists who made every detail count and integrated them into a coherent artistic whole. All suited to a book that asks the question: in the arbitrary course of human events, is there a creative intelligence organizing and guiding our affairs?
 
Esther: The creator and the Creator
 
by Bryan Schwartz, March 21, 2024

Always a new discovery
Two thousand years ago, the rabbis were deciding what books to include in the bible. Some of the books were a problem.
 
Kohelet: much of what he says is agnostic, at times, nihilistic.
 
The Song of Songs: erotic poetry
 
Esther: the name of the Creator is never mentioned.
 
Also, it is not part of the five books of Moses, and it does not claim to be written by King Solomon or any other legendary figure of wisdom.
 
Yet each of these books made it into the Jewish bible. In all cases, I would speculate, the main reason was their overpowering literary merit. They were each too magnificently written to be cast aside.
 
The rabbis then came up with religious reasons to include them. Kohelet ultimately affirms a simple life of faith, Song of Songs is an allegory of the relation between the Creator and humankind…and Esther was divinely inspired.
 
Let us look more closely at the Esther scroll. It has all the hallmarks of an enduring literary creation, like a play by Shakespeare. Every time you read Esther; you see something more. Not merely because you read things into it, either your ideas or several thousand years of commentary. Instead, you sense the mind of a master behind the creation. The exquisite selection of events and their subtle interconnection. A close read of Esther reveals that there is a single and controlling first-rate intellect. So do the precision and resonances in the choice of words – the way they are repeated, varied, and linked to counterparts within the text and in other parts of the Jewish bible. Yet Esther is unsigned, and nothing is said about the background of the author.
 
There is a reason why the creator of Esther does not mention the Creator of the Universe. The creator is writing after the days of miracles and wonder. The question deliberately raised is: does the Creator intervene in history?
 
Is it true that in every generation, a supreme power will come to the rescue of the Jewish people? How much of any salvation also depends on individual choices – like those of Esther and her cousin Mordecai? Or Joseph and Moses in the Exodus story? How much on luck? How much on the invisible and inaudible hand of a higher power who never forgets the covenant?
 
A wondrous thing about being Jewish is that you can travel through its literature, through thousands of years, and share your questions and answers or puzzlement with your forebearers. And there is always something new to say – or sing – or feel – or act upon. That might be something previously unnoticed in the original texts, on the cantillation marks, and on the commentaries through time. It might be something arising from your latest individual or our collective experience.
 
Let me relate something I noticed in preparing to chant a chapter of Esther this year. I have not found it so far in any of the materials, old and new, I have read so far. It is about Esther’s name.
 
A few things we all already know.
 
Esther, we are told early in the Esther scroll, has the Hebrew name Hadassah. To this day there are organizations and institutions in honour of her Hebrew name.
 
As the Esther scroll proceeds, the creator describes Esther as Esther the Queen.
 
Here is something we might not have noticed.
 
Early in the scroll, the creator names Esther as “the daughter of Avihail.” At the urging of Mordecai, she initially hides her Jewish identity. She tells the courtiers that she has no kin. She rises, based on her natural charm and charisma, and asks for nothing more than is offered. At the climax of the story, she intervenes with King Ahasuerus to save her people – and then in her decisive pleas reveals that she is asking to save not only herself but her nation. At the end of the book, she writes to her people to ask them to remember this salvation from generation to generation. When she does so, the creator again names her as “Esther, the daughter of Avihail.”
 
This is no accident.
 
Avihail means “daughter of strength.” It might refer to her father, it might refer as well to the Creator, the father of all.
 
The bookending of the name “Avihail” is certainly not a coincidence. The Bible is replete with the use of a structuring idea called “chiasmus.”  Events are sequenced in one order, then in reverse order. Moses is with his mother, is placed in the river, is pulled from the river, and is back with his mother. The Israelites start in their homeland, go down to Egypt, and return.
 
Esther intervenes during Passover. Like Joseph, like Moses, she has been separated from her birth family, and rises in the court of a strange land, …and just before the nation of her birth is destroyed…she is an instrument of salvation.
 
Esther is the daughter of Avihail, then the Queen, and finally... the daughter of Avihail.
 
She remembers.
 
And asks us to remember her.
 

?
Bryan Schwartz's Dvar Torah and rendition of Chapter 7 of Megillat Esther at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue can be viewed below, starting at 1:17:34 (for about 15 minutes):
 
For more about Bryan Schwartz, go to
 
ABOUT BRYAN SCHWARTZ:
Bryan Schwartz is a playwright, poet, songwriter and author drawing on Jewish themes, liturgy and more. In addition to recently publishing the 2nd edition of Holocaust survivor Philip Weiss' memoirs and writings titled "Reflections and Essays," Bryan's personal works include two Jewish musicals "Consolation: A Musical Meditation" (2018) and newly debuted "Sacred Goof" (2023). Bryan also created and helps deliver an annual summer program at Hebrew University in Israeli Law and Society and has served as a visiting Professor at both Hebrew University and Reichman University. Bryan P Schwartz holds a bachelor’s degree in law from Queen’s University, Ontario, and Master’s and Doctorate Degree in Law from Yale Law School. As an academic, he has over forty years of experience, including being the inaugural holder of an endowed chair in international business and trade law, and has won awards for teaching, research and scholarship. He has been a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba since 1981. Bryan serves as counsel for the Pitblado Law firm since 1994. Bryan is an author/contributor of 34 books and has over 300 publications in all. He is the founding and general editor of both the Asper Review of International Business and Trade Law and the Underneath the Golden Boy series, an annual review of legislative developments in Manitoba. Bryan also has extensive practical experience in advising governments – federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous –and private clients in policy development and legislative reform and drafting. Areas in which Bryan has taught, practiced or written extensively, include: constitutional law, international, commercial, labour, trade, internet and e-commerce law and alternate dispute resolution and governance. For more information about Bryan’s legal and academic work, please visit: https://bryan-schwartz.com/
 
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