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Judi's Journal 3-2-2012

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Feminism in the Purim story

By Judi Siegal

It is a story that dates back 2500 years. Although part of the Hebrew Bible, the story does not mention the name of God even once. There are speculations that the story did not exist; still the story of Queen Esther holds a fascination for Jews and feminists because of its timeless teachings. And a woman is the heroine of the day.
The story of Esther is told in the megillah or scroll of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. As the story unfolds, Vashti, Queen of Persia is commanded by King Ashasuerus to appear before the court so that he can show off her beauty. Modern midrash (interpretation) explains that the “showing off” meant she was to dance nude before the court. In a bold move for feminism, she refuses the royal command. The king’s advisers counsel him to banish this spirited woman who would dare to defy the king! After all, they reasoned, soon all the husbands in Persia would be taking orders from their wives! (Esther 1:17) Unfortunately, Vashti is banished from the court and the hunt is on for a new queen.
Of all the lovelies in Persia, it is Esther the Jewess that is chosen. Carefully hiding her true identity, she rises to the position of Queen and goes about the daily life at court until an event pushes her into the forefront of confronting her Jewish identity and spirituality. It is this event that is the crux of the story, the very essence of the Purim message and its link with feminism.
As history would have it, a virulent anti-Semite, Haman, is appointed the king’s vizier. He draws lots, purim, to determine the date he will execute the Jews of Persia. Queen Esther learns of this diabolical plot from her uncle Mordecai who is a frequent at court. Mordecai pleads with Esther to save her people. He reminds her that she, too, would not be saved if Haman were allowed to fulfill his evil plans. In this statement, we have a Jewish principle echoed by Rabbi Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Esther is certainly keeping her Jewishness in mind knowing it could be her downfall. Mordecai’s argument also includes the fact that perhaps she was put in this position of Queen by God so that she would be able to act as God’s instrument to save her people. For such patriarchal times, we have a situation that will involve a woman to be the savior of the day! Now that is a Biblical switch of plans.
What happens next is extraordinary. Like the strong Jewish women through out the ages, Esther hatches a plan to snare Haman and win the favor of the king. Even though law forbids her to do so, she goes before the king to invite him and Haman to a banquet (playing on the King’s excess of parties and drink). She takes a big risk to be ushered into the royal presence because without an official summons, he could order her killed and then there would be no one to plead on the Jews’ behalf. For three days she fasts and prays (Jews today commemorate this by fasting on the day before Purim) and fearful for her life, she requests a summons before Ahasuerus. Legend has it that her beauty softened his heart and he offers her half his kingdom; she offers him a banquet. After three days of feasting, she reveals Haman’s evil intentions and her Jewish identity. The king orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows and that the Jews should be allowed to defend themselves against any who would seek their destruction on the auspicious day of Adar 14 as determined by Haman. The Jews are saved and Mordecai issues an edit to all Jews to celebrate the day with light and gladness and sending gifts to each other and to those in need.
What is so wonderful about this story is that Esther shows such valor. It is no accident that she is a rightful role model for Jewish women. Throughout history, Jewish women had to step forth into roles typically held by men. We have Jewish female scholars during the Middle Ages who defied convention and studied sacred texts. We have women during the Inquisition teaching Judaism in secret to their children under pain of death or the fires of the auto da fe. There were the women in the Holocaust who died trying to save their children from the fires of hell. And there were the women soldiers in the Israeli army who fought side by side with the men for the freedom of the Jewish state. Esther’s model of valor has certainly stood as a beacon and inspiration for feminist involvement and as Esther acted in the Purim story, so have other Jewish women as they faced the same threats of annihilation.
When Jews celebrate that joyous festival of Purim (March 8, 2012) they will be singing, dancing, telling stories, masquerading and eating lots of hamantashen. (Cookies shaped liked Haman’s hat) Even as modern Persia (Iran) threatens Israel with weapons even Haman could not have dreamed of, somewhere, I believe, is an Esther waiting to come forth once again to rescue her people.