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Esther’s ‘coming out’ as costly redemption:living through and beyond the violence of ‘othering’

Treloar , Richard (2013) Esther’s ‘coming out’ as costly redemption:living through and beyond the violence of ‘othering’. In: Pieces of Ease and Grace. ATF press, Adelaide, pp. 53-69,. ISBN 9781922239013

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    The parallels between the violence of homophobia and that of anti-Semitism have been well documented. In the (Hebrew) biblical narrative of Esther, a Jewish-orphan-become-Persian-queen faces a personal and political crisis, which hinges around the secrecy and integrity of her true identity. The exiled people of her homeland are marked for genocide by two mercilessly parodied, fragile male egos who dominate the public sphere of authority in the story. At great risk to herself, Esther skillfully negotiates the more private domain of her power, timing her ‘coming out’ as a Jew to perfection, and so saving her people from destruction. However, the narrative consequences of her actions tend towards further hostility, perpetuating the violence of ‘othering’, and making this both a salutary and a cautionary tale, albeit a ‘tall’ one.

    Careful attention to the genre of Esther is crucial to appreciating the cathartic and therapeutic qualities this short work of ‘historicised fiction’ may have held for its first audience, and continues to hold for post-Holocaust readers. Received as ‘serious fun’, the obvious comedic elements of the text bear directly upon its graver historical, ideological, and theological dimensions. This extends to the ending of Esther, which has troubled ancient and modern readers alike, to the extent that the whole story has been ‘tidied up’ – in much rabbinic commentary, for example, and in the Greek ‘additions’ found in the Apocrypha. Its canonical status, like the sense of place in the world of the people whose experience it reflects, has always been marginal, at best.

    In many senses, then, Esther qualifies as ‘survival literature’: recounting a story of Jewish survival, within which is housed a more personal story of the survival of identity, all of which is carried by a text which has survived attempts to draw it into wider canonical orthodoxies or to erase it altogether. These common reactions to the book of Esther mirror the alternative – as drastic as it is false – identified by Emmanuel Levinas that can arise when one is faced with the ‘other’, namely to try and assimilate the other or to annihilate the other. Because identity-formation, whether it be of an individual, a religious tradition, even a canon of scripture, has as much to do with the other as with the self – that is, with difference – it can easily become adversarial: formed over against the other.

    The narrative-critical reading of Esther offered here illustrates how identity-markers can be ambiguous, how the process of identity-formation resists closure, and how identity itself cannot be over-determined. It draws on James Scott’s theoretical framework of public and private transcripts as a way of highlighting both the risks and the redemptiveness associated with coming out. As the plot unfolds, and the tension between these two transcripts is ‘resolved’, we see that naming and claiming the fullness and complexity of one’s identity in the face of reductionist forces can be transformative, both for those coming out and for the communities of which they are part. Whether that transformation is ultimately redemptive for all involved is left open by the text itself as a question for – a challenge to – the reader(s). In our own reading context, the issues faced by those identifying as (among other things) same-sex attracted, and by those who do not, clearly resonate. By acknowledging our own capacity for othering – including by laughing at ourselves – we may help defuse the sobering cycle of hostility which Esther poignantly, if seldom soberly, narrates.

    Item Type: Book Chapters
    Repository Version: Author's Final Manuscript
    Keywords (separated by commas): Anti-Semitism, Coming out, Esther, Exile, Genre,Homophobia, Holocaust, Identity, Purim, Purimspiel, Survival, Violence
    Fields of Research: 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2204 Religion and Religious Studies > 220401 Christian Studies (incl. Biblical Studies and Church History)
    Socio-Economic Objective: E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970122 Expanding Knowledge in Philosophy and Religious Studies
    Type of Activity: Pure Basic Research
    Subject Area(s): B - Biblical Studies, general
    Association with University of Divinity: Other University of Divinity
    Depositing User: Dr Suman Kashyap
    Date Deposited: 28 Apr 2014 15:29
    Last Modified: 28 Apr 2014 15:29
    URI: http://repository.divinity.edu.au/id/eprint/1418

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