The Identity Crisis of the Jews

Light of Truth

The Jewish people faced a terrible identity crisis as they were led into alien lands and were forced to live as Diaspora. Their temple was destroyed and rituals along with priesthood got terminated. They even had to live in very hostile states and political situations. The book of Esther is about surviving dead ends: living beyond the end determined for those projected as quintessentially not-self, the privileged representatives of divergence, marked as sacrifices for the furtherance of a vision of identity and political homogeneity. They were like women without any right, they were outcastes as minorities. Esther is imposed on her by any politics of identity, the end determined for the other—the final solution. Ultimately, the horror of a final solution, in its desire to eradicate otherness, expresses a rethinking of identity. The book is one of hiding, hiding the identity. They dissolve into the social rhythm and ethos of the public life. The biblical Esther is the enactment of a particular dream or fantasy of coming out for her people. But it was not the revolt of queen Vashti; it was rather a more radical transgression from her harem. The queen can be killed if she appears before the king’s throne. She did transgress from her harem, which was an act of crossing the line between life and death. That the avowal of her secret identity will have an immense potency is clear, is the premise of the story. The biblical Esther argues against this supposed unequivocalness of Jewish identity. Esther’s Jewish identity is never questioned after her disclosure; it is also true that there was nothing given or self-evident about it. Vashti’s refusal to be reduced to an object leads to a reinscription of the king’s law of sexual politics. Thus the other woman, outlaw of phallocratic sexual politics, marked for oblivion, converges with the other Jew, outlaw of ethnic identity politics, also marked for oblivion. The Jews are marked for death—a problematically-founded final solution as self-purification, which is strikingly similar to the classic analysis of Fascist anti-Semitism of World War II. Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? Where does she hide [’astîr] her face. Hiding from outside but living from within “I am hiding”… “I will hide.” Rabbinic tradition suggests reading Esther as a book of divine hiding. Thus, for example, the Talmud passage quoted above finds in Esther’s name an allusion to Deuteronomy 31:18, where God declares, “I will surely hide [’astîr] my face/presence from them.” A woman writer enters the Bible and is rewriting tradition and identity into one in which woman has her voice. The tradition of sacrifice ends and reading becomes the way to read the mind of God. Rituals change, women make their voice in religious life. Her identity is never a cultural issue, but a secret hidden, but the secret turns and becomes a stand, which saves the Jews.

One is inclined to ask: What kind of Scripture is this? God hiding, and a royal buffoon filling the space of divine retreat, no sign of religion or religious practice, no sacred space, Mount Sinai lost behind smoke and ashes, the Law of the Father illegible. What does this have to do with anything we commonly assume to be biblical? Paradoxically, the reconceptualization of identity as an effect, that is, as produced and generated, opens up possibilities of agency that are insidiously foreclosed by positions that take identity categories as foundational and fixed. Identity is a secret of interiority.

We are in a church and a culture that are acutely aware of their identity. Identity becomes the mark of difference, which many claim is very important, and we are ready to fight for that identity. We do not find many people in the street who cannot be identified as to which religion he\she belongs. This distinctiveness has become very important. But we are too much involved with the politics of identity than the real question of what makes the difference and where do we find the difference. Identity is not the marks on your body or the marks on your forehead or the attire you wear. It is more qualitative than appearances, which are a matter of make-up. It is more of a cultural way of life, the pattern of life that communities or individuals follow. “To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand.” It is a form of qualitative identity that is specified by detailed, conceptual or substantial attributes. Whether or not this qualitative identity is only a matter of looking at the individual from the perspective of social role, the identification by social roles assumes a commitment by the individual, and depends therefore on an internal view of the individual person from his or her point of view.

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