Unmasking Esther: A Woman's Celebration
Found In: Pursuing Justice, Purim
We are our stories. Through ritual and re-enactment, we live out the values embedded in the stories we tell. Purim is the story of women – women who dared take risks both for political change and Jewish destiny. Jewish tradition teaches that in a time of hiddenness, Hester, we must each be like Esther. We hope to restore to Purim the celebration of Jewish women – to celebrate our rich potential as bearers of life and shapers of destiny.
Esther 1: 10-12
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcus, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the King's command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him.
Sitting in the synagogue, its standard-issue annotated prayer book in my lap, (Art Scroll Family Megillah, edited by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz,) I scan the midrashic commentaries in the margins, which only add insult to injury. For example, "Vashti refused (to appear nude before the men), not because of modesty. The reason for her refusal was that God caused leprosy to break out on her, and paved the way for her downfall." Whew! My teenage son leans over and whispers "How about gang rape? Do you think something was wrong with Vashti because she didn't like gang rape?"
When I saunter, newborn each year, across the pages of Rabbi Zlotowitz's dependable marginalia, it's like meeting up again with an old friend. "Thank you, Reb Z.," I want to tell him, "for your spiritual largesse. For your misogyny and insensitivity, and for the constancy of your commitment to the moral low ground." Sitting on my right, is my very Conservadox 80-year-old mother who is also – not oxymoronically – a longtime board member of a women's domestic violence shelter. "What?" I say to her, sensing that she's getting hot under her collar, "Your Megillah is missing the commentary that talks about the terrifying threat of violence that accompanies male substance abuse? Let me see that copy you're using! What? It doesn't mention the sexual sadism and degradation implicit in the King's pimping?" She shooshes me.
My 10-year-old daughter elbows my husband and points to a midrashic note that explains that the King wanted Vashti to come to his party naked except for the "royal crown." "Gross," she synopsizes brilliantly. A moment later she adds, "That's like what they did at that fraternity at Colgate. Vashti's harem girls need to get together and do a "Take Back the Night" like we do at camp. Hey, I've got an idea! Why don't we do a "Take Back the Night" right here in the middle of the Megillah reading?"
Susan Schnur, Lilith Magazine , pp. 19-20
Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: "Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen's behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen's behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty's officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike."QUEEN VASHTI
Who among us, as a teenager, hasn't had Vashti's experience of saying "NO" to a boy and getting punished for it? Really, though, what if Vashti had said "YES" – follow that storyline out! Poor Vashti was double bound; it's lose/lose.
And a final Vashti question: What if the text had let her grow up? When Vashti dies, we girl readers die with her, every goddamn Purim – warned not to take good care of ourselves. Frozen in Vashti-land, banished. What if we let Vashti talk, follow her story? What if we imagine what she might have gone on to do besides getting transmogrified into Esther? What if we let her become herself?
In a sacred universe, she would not be treated like an object by abusive men, she would not be forbidden access to her sister, mother, daughter, be forbidden to take her transformative journey. In a sacred universe, she would be holy.
In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Kish) had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been carried into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon - He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle's daughter, for she had neither father or mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.
When the king's order and edict was proclaimed, and when many girls were assembled in the fortress Shushan under the supervision of Hegai, Esther too was taken into the king's palace under the supervision of Hegai, guardian of the women. And the girl pleased him, and she won his favor; and he quickly gave her her ointments, and her appointed portions, and seven maids, chosen to be to given her, from the king's palace; and he advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem. Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it. Every single day, Mordecai would walk about in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was faring and what was happening to her.ESTHER INVINCIBLE
Soon we're onto a section of the Megillah which describes the captivity rites in the girls' harem, "six months of anointing with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and feminine cosmetics," after which each girl goes to the King "in the evening" and "the next morning she would return to the second harem." I look over at my pre-pubescent daughter and see that she's again reading the helpful commentary: "Having consorted with the King, it would not be proper for them to marry other men. They were required to return to the harem and remain there for the rest of their lives as concubines." Again, I thank Rabbi Z. for the exquisite sharing of his knowledge of ancient Persian sex etiquette as well as his pornographic fantasies, and for causing me to sink into this personal trough of sarcasm and bitterness, which I hate.
What are contemporary Jews supposed to make of a religious text that dishes up such disturbing garbage? Most Jewishly committed women I know, even feminists, solve the problem of these offensive narratives (rabbinic and biblical) by fighting valiantly to stay in denial. So, okay, we feel upset for a minute, but then we think, achh, Purim, it only comes once a year, don't start, just don't start. Shoosh yourself.
When, though, I wonder, will women finally create a morally defensible re-write of these chapters? Why aren't we insisting that our synagogue communities cheer and stomp their feet at the mention of Vashti's name? She is a foremother in the best sense of the word – assertive, appropriate, courageous. My educated supposition is that the full moon of Adar – now the date for Purim – used to be a pagan occasion for autonomous women's rites that could not be reined in by men, and that these chapters, therefore, represent a male revolt against women. Yeah, I think, looking around the room, but why does it feel like our row in the synagogue is the only one that gets this?
We women have worked hard to be represented, as females, in Judaism: We are cantors, scholars, mothers, davenners, teachers, writers, rabbis; we have created female institutions for study and prayer, egalitarian re-writes of liturgy and texts, feminist reconstruction of Jewish foremothers, etc. But still, at the base of it all, we live with many Jewish texts whose core agnostic purpose was to censure women's rituals, to decry deities that uplifted females, to erase antecedent women's history, to derogate and render invisible women's intimate empowering relationship to the earth's cycles and generativity, and in general, to set – in concrete and steel beams (over the rubble of feminine experience) – the foundations of patriarchy. It is high time for women and sympathetic men to be challenging this, to be educating ourselves...
Let me say that Jewish women seeking feminine antecedents don't "believe in the goddesses" whose pentimenti can be seen behind some Jewish texts (like Ishtar, for example, Esther's namesake, who lurks behind the holiday of Purim), nor do we fail to recognize the developmental importance of monotheism. We are saying something different (that has nothing to do with "worshipping idols"): that we are no longer willing to throw out the pink-ribboned baby with the bath water. The foremothers of Esther, Eve, Sarah and Miriam were female deities – Ishtar, Lilith, Meri, the Queen of Heaven and others. There was once a theological language and a set of rites that uplifted women and brought us self-esteem and authority. That's the pentimento we want to scratch away at, that's the part we are clamoring to uncover and reclaim – so that it's good for us, too.
So, dear readers, ha'zak v'ematz, be strong and take courage. As Mordechai once said to Esther (chapter 4:14) "If you persist in keeping silent at a time like this...you and yours will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained your elevated position?" And Esther looked him straight in the eye and answered, "Gotcha."
When Mordecai was told what Esther had said, Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: "Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent on this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis." Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: "Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!" So Mordecai went about (the city) and did just as Esther had commanded him.HOW CAN I ENDURE?
If you have an mp3 player on your computer and would like to listen to "How Can I Endure," click here.
We take a moment now to make a connection between Esther's acts of bravery on behalf of her people and currents acts of bravery performed daily by women living in a part of the world not far from Esther's Persia. Afghani women living in Afghanistan and Pakistan are risking their lives to educate girls in their own homes. They are boldly defying the Taliban regime which has declared it illegal for girls to receive an education and for women to leave their homes unless entirely covered head to toe and preparing for a brighter future. Their brave work is being supported by the American World Jewish Service.
And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther dressed herself in royalty, and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, opposite the king's palace; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the gate of the house. And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight; and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter. Then said the king to her, What do you wish, queen Esther? And what is your request? It shall be given to you even to the half of the kingdom. And Esther answered, If it seem good to the king, let the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him.ESTHER YOU KNOW EVERYTHING
If you have an mp3 player on your computer and would like to listen to "Esther, You Know Everything," click here.
Esther 7: 3-8
Queen Esther replied: "If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king's trouble." Thereupon King Ahaseurus demanded of Queen Esther: "Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?" "The adversary and enemy," replied Esther, "is this evil Haman!" And Haman cringed in terror before the king and queen. And the king arising from the banquet of wine in his wrath went to the palace garden; and Haman stood up to beg Esther the queen for his life; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king. Then the king returned from the palace garden to the place of the wine drinking; and Haman was falling upon the couch where Esther was. Then said the king, "Will he also force the queen with me present in the house?"LEAD ME TO THE ROCK
Observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year – the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.
A hamantasch is not a "Haman's pocket" (or "Haman's ear") as most of us were once taught in Hebrew school, but a German-derived "mohn" (poppyseed) "tasch" (pocket). Okay, that's straightforward – but why do we eat them on Purim of all times, a pre-spring full-moon festival? Why not Sukkos or Tu b'Shvat?
What is a Hamantasch? A sacred vulva filled with black seeds. A food, source of nourishment, which we make with our hands reflecting our (women's) felt sense of self-containment, of creativity and generativity.
Ancient images of goddesses reveal that certain parts of the body – breasts, vulva, belly, buttocks – were believed to be holy, combining biological function with processes of spiritual transformation. Hamantaschen remind us that the image of the female body was humanity's first conceptualization of the workings of the cosmos. The Earth was a mother, fecund like us. Patriarchal writings speak of women's bodies as "empty vessels"; the hamantasch, however, represents revering our bodies as metaphors for creation.
Therefore... roll 'em, fill 'em, bake 'em, eat 'em, send 'em to friends, eat your friends', let them eat yours, feed 'em to your husband. On the full moon of Adar, the hamantasch, God willing, should not be mistaken for a mere cookie or for Haman's tricorn hat. Hamantaschen are our, and Earth's, bodies, revered as an ultimate metaphor for the divine Creator. They were (and, given the right ritual, could once again be) sacred, representing women's capacity to birth and to nourish, from our own holy bodies.
So, from my Baker's Secret cookie sheet to yours... hey, on some level, this is all stuff that we already knew.
Vashti and Esther, of course, are in coalition, not opposition. The journeys of females are not journeys to find answers, they are journeys to gather something together, to make things whole. Even the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Jewish God, gathers up lost souls. Our themes, as contemporary women, are the same: to restore something that has been separated, to reconnect body and soul, to reunite Vashti and Esther, to integrate and reclaim the feminine that has been lost or abandoned in human history.
To be nourished with only what makes images of what's female and what's divine and what's Jewish is to be badly malnourished...
Esther must circle back to carry Vashti across the threshold into telling her story. And it is not just the girl's story that must be retold and reheard, it is also our mothers' stories – Vashti, Esther and their mothers' stories.
IT'S TIME TO UNMASK ESTHER AND TELL THE WHOLE MEGILLAH!LEAD ME TO THE ROCK
All songs are from Elizabeth Swados' Bible Women, copyright 1995 Swados Enterprises, Inc. Used with the permission of Liz Swados. To obtain copies of Bible Women, contact Ma'yan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Italicized excerpts are from an article by Susan Schnur, reprinted with permission from Lilith, the award-winning independent Jewish women's magazine. For a sample copy, subscriptions, and reprints of this and other articles: 1-888-2-LILITH (254-5854).