Big Data: Law, Randomness and Choice in Esther
By MISHAEL ZION
It’s easy to underestimate the story of Esther. With its burlesque scenes, over-the-top characters and ancient court politics, it can seem uninspiring. Its setting in the child-friendly Purim and its violent ending make it seem juvenile, if not inappropriate. Yet the scroll of Esther is the Biblical book which comes closest to describing our current reality. I am not referring to Iranian plots against the descendants of Mordechai, but rather the attempt to navigate an absurd world, caught between the opposite poles of randomness and law, without divine guidance.
Dat and Data: Between Randomness and Law
Purim is – literally – the celebration of randomness. As the Scroll of Esther itself says: “That is why they named these days ‘Purim’ – from the word Pur (lot).” In the darkest moment of the scroll, the date for Haman’s malicious plot to exterminate the Jews is determined by a random lot (pur). At its brightest moment, the salvation too feels random, not so much a final redemption as much as a temporary political windfall. Indeed, the whole book, with its giddy king, comedic reversals and lack of divine providential voice attempts to make readers feel like they are living in a reality governed by randomness.
The experience of randomness is magnified by its juxtaposition against the often overlooked theme of the book: Law. Throughout the scroll, though, the word used to describe law is not the Hebrew mishpat or din (justice), but the Persian form – dat or data. The Persian word dat made its way into both Biblical Hebrew and European languages. Its uses in our 21st century allow a whole new reading of the story of Esther.
In modern Hebrew, the word dat means not law, but religion. In English, data signifies transmittable and storable information, the modern correlate of the Persian imperial dat. More basic than knowledge or wisdom, data is the most basic element, with a promise of objectivity and constancy. Data is a building block upon which a worldview can be built.
Today, the ascendant promise of Big Data attempts to turn the seeming randomness of life into immutable containable information. Yet in Shushan, data has failed.
At first glance, the use of dat is so ubiquitous that the impression is that Ahashverosh’s kingdom is a bastion of rule and regulation. Historically, the Persian Empire is regarded as the earliest and most impressive imperial bureaucracy – an efficient legal system spanning from Africa to India. But it quickly becomes clear that dat is an empty signifier.
In Chapter 1, we are introduced to Ahashverosh’s counsel of wise men, who “know law and justice” (????? ?? ????). The king goes through great pains to ensure that his dat is known throughout the kingdom – notice all those horsemen appearing again and again in the story. Haman describes the Jews as “not obeying the dat of the king,” and even the virgins are steeped in a regimen of myrrh and perfumes for six months, as is the “dat of the women.”
At the height of the dramatic reversal, the king himself adheres to the immutability of his own laws, as he tells Esther and Mordechai: “A document written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet – cannot be revoked” (Esther 8:8). The rule of dat is complete – and thus revealed in its absurdity. When even the king himself cannot change his own laws, you know that something is horribly wrong. Like a snake biting his own tail, in Ahashverosh’s kingdom the opposite poles of law and randomness have combined into one.
Unlike data, which seeks to be a representation of what is real in the world, collected and analyzed to create information suitable for making decisions, dat in Shushan has become an empty signifier, an arrow pointing toward nothing at all. I would contend that this is not just a critique of Shushan’s laws, or Diasporic law, but of law as an institution. The scroll is warning us that dat (and by proxy, data) will not contain meaning or truth in themselves. It is what one does with them that makes the difference.
The opposite poles of sheer randomness and insipid law can easily lead one into despair, or more likely – cynicism and passivity. Perhaps this explains Esther’s deep passivity – both during the virginal pageant and in response to Haman’s decree. In fact, her success is due to her malleability and passivity, a survival mechanism that shows itself to be a powerful strategy (Esther “asked for nothing other than what Hagai, Keeper of the Women, told her to take.” “Esther obeyed the word of Mordechai just as when she was in his ward." Esther 2:15, 20). As opposed to Vashti, who tried to take her fate in her own hands and failed, Esther is determined to ride the wave of randomness and let the chips fall as they may. She has felt the randomness of dat on her own body and happened to triumph. Now in the palace she has resigned herself to passivity and cynicism, hoping that the next stroke of randomness will also work out in her favor.
Who is this? Moments of Existential Choice
Yet it is against the backdrop of randomness and law that the Scroll of Esther focuses again and again on personality. More than any other book, Esther is an in-depth exploration of its characters. Even as they are all stuck between the poles of randomness and law, each character – save Ahashverosh himself – is highlighted in exercising their agency. This focus on moments of choice, decision, and determination doesn’t become irrelevant when faced with randomness and law, but is described as a deep response to it (reminiscent of Viktor Frankel’s response to radical evil and suffering). Each character’s moment of choice is juxtaposed against the vapidity of law, dat, in Shushan. Meaning is derived not from dat, but from an existential agency enacted despite of it.
Vashti epitomizes this moment of choice by being the one who says no. She refuses to appear in front of Ahashverosh and the men of Shushan in the middle of their revelry. Elias Bickerman explains that this is in fact an existential moment for Vashti. While concubines would appear at the King’s behest at parties, a queen in the Persian Empire would leave before the imbibing began. Being asked to appear “with the royal crown on her head” forced her to fight for who she was – a queen, not a concubine.
Mordechai makes two choices – each one more dangerous than the next – to refuse to bow to Haman, and to practice civil disobedience – flouting of the dat – by appearing in the Court wearing sackcloth and ashes. Haman too seeks to know himself. Despite trying to trap the Jews in the claws of the law, Haman finds himself doubting his own plan, and wants to hang Mordechai even before the (random) date assigned for killing the Jews. This last flirt against the randomness that he himself unleashed is the cause of his downfall. When this last ruse is discovered by the king, Haman is hanged on the stake that he himself had prepared for Mordechai.
Finally, Esther – who in Chapter 4 receives a sharp wakeup call from Mordechai – decides to go to the king in a manner that is “not according to the law.” Esther is urged and challenged by Mordechai, but she is not described as obeying him, she is not simply replacing one dat with another, as some readers would contend. In fact, once Esther agrees to take on the task of convincing the king, she is the one who dictates the terms and devises the plan, and Mordechai is the one described as “fulfilling the command of Esther.” Choice will trump law – and will triumph.
The only one who never seeks to know himself is the king. Ahashverosh does all he can to avoid thinking independently and existentially. He will follow the dat with blinders on and will follow advisers when law offers no remedy. He will never overturn his own decision – for that would require an act of self-negation and which assumes the existence of a self to begin with. The king’s lack of introspection and self-knowledge as a way to avoid any decision-making is most evident in his hurry to get rid of the king’s seal, the insignia of decision-making, of authority and of power – the ring of responsibility. His is the most cynical response of all.
Understanding the functional absence of King Ahashverosh puts a greater claim of responsibility on the other characters, as Haman and Mordechai understand well. But it also shines a light on the absence of the other King. God’s disappearance from the stage of history denies our characters the ability to claim that they are called by an external force. There are no prophets, no messengers of God (or of Satan), and no larger authority. There is plenty of ego, randomness, and empty law. The only thing that remains is choice.
We live in a world of ever-changing randomness and empty laws, says the Scroll of Esther. Call it Shushan, or Diaspora, or post-modernity. What remains meaningful then? Knowing oneself and acting from that place. In our turning Purim into a celebration of the Carnivalesque, dressing up as someone other than ourselves, getting legally drunk while behaving OCD about hearing every word of an ancient scroll, we name the randomness and absurdity of life and law. But we are also called to an existential moment of facing who we really are. Caught between the harshness of data and the randomness of history, it is our existential choices that retain meaning.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is co-director and Director of Education at the Bronfman Fellowships, a graduate of the Charles E. Smith High School for Boys at Hartman Institute, and the Hartman Beit Midrash. This article is adapted from an essay on his blog, Text and the City .