It is not a coincidence that International Women’s Day falls next Wednesday (March 8), immediately after “The Fast of Esther” on Monday, and Purim on Tuesday:
There is much to celebrate about the role and achievements of women in Jewish history and world history…and still a great need to highlight these specifically in order to continue the advance of women for full and equal participation in global development and for the freedom of women to choose and to create their own individual destinies.
[The Jewish socialist Theresa Malkiel’s launching of a National Women’s Day in 1909 catalyzed the idea for establishing International Women’s Day in 1911.]
The Purim story in particular offers us a helpful way to consider issues of agency and independence, authority and autonomy, that many women experience today in our society.
We can ask: Is Esther a feminist hero for saving the Jewish people with her bravery to confront the king without an invitation to do so?
And with her cleverness that took down Haman?
And her wisdom for establishing the parameters of an entirely new Jewish holiday – Purim – which we still celebrate to this day?
And yet we can also raise questions that paint a more complicated feminist portrait of Esther: Did she exemplify a passivity deserving of criticism in submitting to the beauty pageant that she won, the ‘prize’ of which was having to marry the king? She seems comfortable with who she is and in using her sexuality for her own ends – but her sexuality was also used by others: was it worth the price she paid, and why should she have had to pay that price at all? Do we blame her for hiding her Jewish identity for years before “coming out’ as her true self? She was so obedient to the demands of Mordechai, the King, and all of ancient Persian society’s misogynist institutions – could she have done any different earlier on? Is it sending a problematic message for us today to hold Esther as a heroine and role model?
The other major female character of the Purim story is Vashti. Although traditionally vilified as an anti-heroine to offset the Jewish heroine Esther, today in progressive Jewish circles Vashti is cheered rather than jeered: Vashti is the one (in contrast to Esther mind you) who defies the king’s orders. She is the one who refuses to compromise her dignity by dancing in front of the drunken boys at the king’s demand. Her actions – by causing all the king’s men to panic that her example might make all women throughout the kingdom realize that they too can stand up to their husbands, refuse to be abused, and to think and act for themselves – seem so “right-on” in our minds on principle and also precisely for ‘shaking up the patriarchy’.
Was Vashti ahead of her time? Was Ether behind the times, or was she exactly right when-and-where she needed to be?
Let’s celebrate Vashti and Esther and the need for both their voices to be heard as we support women telling their truths, on their terms.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz