Tomorrow evening begins the Jewish holiday that is based on one of my favorite Jewish texts, Megillah Esther. It is not the idea of costumes and disguises that I enjoy about Purim (that is not my style). And while I am a huge fan of poppy seed hamentaschen, it is the story of Esther as our heroine that excites me as a feminist.
I had the great fortune of studying Megillat Esther in depth with one of the greatest biblical scholars, Dr. Jon Levenson, at Harvard Divinity School. I learned the great ironies of the narrative and the many ridiculous exaggerations contained therein. It is actually a greatly humorous and comical narrative when read in the light of its numerous instances of excessively braggadocios characters and unrealistic events.
The story begins with King Ahasuerus who rules over 127 lands (first instance of exaggeration). King A. (as we will call him) throws a 180 day-long party and after a long night of drinking summons his Queen Vashti to appear before him, and she refuses. King A. is furious and banishes her - some sources even site that he plans to execute her. This is quite a response to a woman who was reluctant to enter a room or inebriated men.
Then begins the plot of Esther, who is selected (not by choice) to be part of a beauty contest to select the next Queen for King A. We learn that Esther is an orphan who is cared for by her uncle (we think) Mordechai. Shortly after being selected as Queen (her Jewish identity unbeknownst to the King), Mordechai informs Esther that there is a plot to kill all the Jews, devised by Haman, a chief advisor to King A, a notorious anti-Semite. King A., who is not the brightest of rulers, agrees to a decree Haman creates to kill the Jews on the 14th of the month of Adar.
Esther's immediate response is "I have not even been Queen for 30 days!" She soon realizes that she has a great responsibility to save her people and she strategically devises a plan to approach the King. She plays on his weakness for parties and beverages and is ultimately successfully in saving her people. I am leaving out many details, of course.
So, why do I like Esther so much? Esther is real and relatable. Esther struggled with her identity and did not naturally ascend to a position of leadership. Esther found herself in a position of opportunity at a time of need for her people. She did not immediately respond by saying, "yes, I knew I could do something!" On the contrary, Esther had to come to that conclusion on her own, and from there, she crafted a smart and subtle plan. Esther was not the likely heroine, and in the end she saved her people from persecution.
Wendy Amsellum, an Orthodox feminist scholar of Rabbinic literature, reflects on Esther: "
In the spirit of this holiday and following the legacy of our ancestor Esther, I encourage us to reexamine whom we emulate and from whom we shy away. We may discover as Esther did that we are not so different from those whom we fear and that the most important lessons can be learned from the unlikeliest of teachers." (Source: Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective, JOFA Journal, Winter 2003)
Shabbat shalom and Purim sameach!
Chief Executive Officer
Jewish Federation of San Antonio