This guest post is written by Nechama L. Content note for mention of sexual coercion / assault
The holiday of Purim, beginning this evening at sundown, has always been one of my favorite holidays. Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, I was not allowed to lead services, read publicly from the Torah, sing too loudly (or at all, if men were present), or even see what was going on while services were happening: the Ark holding the written scrolls was kept on the men’s side of the mechitzah, an opaque barrier between the men’s and women’s sides of the sanctuary, so that men would not see us and be distracted from their prayer. However, every year on Purim, women and children (pre- bar mitzvah age) were allowed to read publicly from the book of Esther, the scroll read to commemorate the events that inspired this holiday.
Even though it had to take place in a women’s-only reading, the women of my synagogue would gather together and prepare to chant the various sections the way that the men do with the Torah on all other weeks of the year. We would lead a service together and for each other, in the same way that Vashti, the queen of King Ahashverosh in the Purim narrative, held a women’s only feast prior to being commanded by her king to debase herself in front of his courtiers. It was the one day of the year in which I felt like a full participant in the Jewish life that was my entire life, though that’s a feeling that I didn’t fully realize until I left home and experienced more open communities.
My deep affection for this holiday, a glimpse of possibility during years when I felt shackled and silenced, makes it painful for me to view it through the lens of feminist criticisms of the religious practices surrounding it. It’s true that there is a lot of sexism and misogyny to unpack in traditional Purim practices. Mordechai is heralded in many communities as the hero of this story, when Esther is the one who directly risked her life while having been coerced into life as a sex slave in the king’s harem. We are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the hero from the villain, and they are named: Haman and Mordechai, not Esther. In many communities, we drown out Haman’s name during the megillah readings and cheer for Mordechai — and for Esther, many are silent.
To our children in Hebrew school, we white-wash the text, which writes that after Vashti’s deposition, all “virgins” of the kingdom were conscripted into the King’s harem. Instead, we tell them that Esther was the proud winner of a country-wide beauty contest (even, miraculously, without using makeup!), and when these children grow older, we forget to correct the tale. Even in communities where both Mordechai and Esther are given joint praise as co-heroes, how can that be appropriate, when Esther is the one who survived coercion and trauma and put her life on the line to save her people?
And perhaps most striking, there is the way that communities treat Vashti, sanitizing her narrative for the children we teach it to, portraying her as shrill, uppity, stuck-up — too full of herself to grant her husband a simple request. As with Esther, we never tell them that Vashti risked her life to preserve her dignity after being asked by her drunk husband, the king, to come before his courtiers and perform a strip-tease, or so the original text implies. Traditional midrash, a Jewish sort of fan-fiction in which gaps in our texts are expounded on or explored, even includes a tale that Vashti forced Jews to work on Shabbat, and that therefore she deserved to be stripped of her queenly stature. The midrash not only vilifies her character by stating that she hated Jews, but further calls her act of rebellion “disgraceful,” implying and all but explicitly stating that she deserved to be deposed and executed for disobeying her husband, an act of defiance that, in the original text was literally made into a crime throughout the kingdom lest other women follow in her stead (Book of Esther, 1:18-22).
Truly, there is a lot to unpack here. And yet, there is a lot to reclaim. As we enter adulthood and have more control of what we read and how we read it, with full access to the unsanitized version of the story, we have options. It’s not what is in the story that makes a retelling sexist or feminist: it is what we make of that retelling. If we tell the narrative as though it is an account of how things should be, rather than an account of how things were or are imagined to have been, then we lose precious ground.
If we continue to whitewash the story, to cheer Mordechai as the hero, we overlook the women who drive this story. We overlook Vashti, standing up for her dignity by denying her husband’s command to debase herself. We miss the opportunity to teach young girls and women that being someone’s wife means being their partner, not their slave. We overlook Esther, who survived being forced into sex slavery, who approached the king without summons knowing that this could mean her death, and, depending on your reading of chapter 7, survived an attempted sexual assault by Haman, and yet still continued to plea for her people’s lives before a king who still intended to allow the genocide of the Jews in that region to proceed. We can take note of and commemorate the horrifying things that Esther endured and teach the young girls and women of our communities that even when you feel powerless, you can have and take back power.
This holiday can become an opportunity for women to reclaim a leading role in Jewish tradition — not just by allowing us to read this narrative, but by allowing us to interpret and reinterpret it as well. Purim has great potential to become a holiday that celebrates and champions feminism, the way it has always felt to me. For those who celebrate this day, I hope you will join me in helping that potential become realized.