The Shifting Image of the Holy Person: The Changing Portraits of Abraham and Esther

Prof. B. Barry Levy
Faculty of Religious Studies
McGill University

This lecture discusses the way in which the images of Biblical heroes were adapted in later Jewish literature to conform to the contemporary religious ideals. The Biblical story of Esther presented very serious problems to rabbinic Judaism because of her relationship with King Ahasuerus. The Talmud, and later rabbinic literature, in some cases reinterpreted and reshaped the story of Esther to preserve her image as a heroine. In other cases, her behavior was rationalized to justify her relationship with the king for the sake of saving her people. With respect to Abraham, the lecture does not focus on problematic aspects of the story, but rather how the different Abrahamic religions utilize the figure of Abraham as a paradigm for their own religious tradition. Thus, many rabbinic texts maintain that Abraham actually observed the entire Torah as well as rabbinic law. In the Christian tradition, his quality of faith is emphasized, and the Moslem tradition emphasizes his submission to God. This distinction is expressed even more sharply in the way the three different religions deal with the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Levy concludes his lecture with pointing out the tragic relevance of the story to the Israeli-Arab conflict, where both sides are willing to sacrifice their sons for what they believe to be a higher ideal. In the discussion that follows, Levy emphasizes that in his view, there is no one legitimate interpretation of the Biblical stories. The interpretations are subjective, using as much integrity as possible in dealing with the characters in the context of each generation and community. This is similar to the perspective of rabbinic literature, which is not uniform, but an anthology of many different views, sometimes even mutually irreconcilable with each other.