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Let's Reconstruct Purim to Become a Celebration of Feminism

When you think about the great children's holidays in the Jewish tradition - there are really two: Hanukkah and Purim, the festival that celebrates the story told in the Scroll of Esther. Purim is unfortunately taught to our children with two themes - a grand love story and a great victory of the oppressed Jews over their evil oppressors (once again). Purim is the most difficult of these "rise up and win" stories for me because thousands of innocent Persians are slain by the Jews; yet we celebrate this massacre as our victory. Now to be fair, if the story is to be believed, the Persians would have killed us if we hadn't killed them, but they didn't get the chance; we got permission to kill them first (ugh). As a teacher, I struggle to find a way to reframe this and other holidays (as some of them were certainly reframed from other traditions) in order to find contemporary truth and meaning. Luckily, the struggle often becomes a delightful and richly rewarding exercise since the Tanakh (the Bible) always surprises me with its depth when I let it.

Play along with me for a minute. For example, as a child why did I know more about Esther winning the beauty pageant then about her day of fasting and meditation as she decided to put her life on the line for her people? Once Esther was "picked," how come this great love story left her afraid of the King? Why was the scroll of Esther in the Tanakh anyway? It had to be telling us something of great import. Of course we have God's total absence. We have humans acting alone... free will... evil apparently centered in Haman and his sons as he corrupts the King who is not evil but ill served (and weak - why is this a love story then - or is it enough to be Queen?)... Is this a more modern sense of justice - hanging Haman and his sons? But then do the writers chicken out? Why are the Persians as a people then punished? But the text at the end somehow feels like an add-on, or is that wishful thinking? Why don't we know for sure what happened to Vashti (King Ahasuerus's first wife) after she was dismissed? I'm afraid I know. I'm not so crazy about Mordecai when I read the text, as I was when I was a kid. He seems a little petty every once in a while. Where did all the heroes go? I know - this book is really truly all about heroines.

And then I have a hook. The Bible story allows me to see wisdom and a gleam of almost humor in the eyes of the writer. This is the sheer joy of Bible study. It has absolutely nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with interpretation, how I can have a home with these stories. I can go farther than that with this game. Think some more about the structure of the story that truly cannot exist without women. If Queen Vashti had bowed her head in obedience to her King at the beginning of the tale and danced naked before her husband and his drunken friends, this story would never have been told. The writer, therefore, created women who would defy Kings - both for their own personal pride and for their people. The writer drew for all time two incredible women, not in detail, but strong enough, for us to still use them as feminist role models. This writer created a world without God needing to be involved, but with two women of character - one a Jew and one a Pagan - who made critical choices that risked all - and hundreds upon hundreds of years later we still wonder at their story.

Now a similar kind of fable floated around the ancient near east. Scholars can tell us that this story is not new to the Jews. I don't care. What matters is that someone chose to put it in our Tanakh, our Bible, and it has become a part of what we teach, a part of what we are. Our tradition has been so male-centered, but if we wanted to make it so, this could be the perfect feminist holiday. This is a holiday that honors the actions of women, despite the direction of Mordecai. Without Vashti's actions, nothing begins. Then we are told, without any contradiction, that the Fast of Esther, the night before Purim, is truly the time when the decision to go to the King is made. Mordecai lays out her options, but Esther alone must make the choice. Mordecai is important. Esther and Vashti are essential.

I appreciate the fact that over the years women have developed a seder at Passover to celebrate their freedom from oppression, but I think its time we take a look at our tradition and celebrate the women who declared their freedom with bravery and intention in Shushan all these hundreds of years ago. Purim is a perfect holiday to reconstruct as a feminist celebration. We already have role models in place. We already have the day blocked off on our synagogue calendars. Start planning now! There's a lot about Purim that needs to be reassessed anyway. The mitzvah of getting so drunk you can't tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman is certainly no longer on the to do list. So, let's replace that with some sort of special mitzvah to honor Esther and Vashti. It's time to read between the lines and then color outside them.

Type: Dvar Torah