Yosef Goldman is a rabbinical student and cantorial student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He serves as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in Manhattan. You can follow Yosef on twitter: twitter.com/yosgold.
“Esther reminds us that we too have choices to make, even if they are not as dramatic as her own. We too have a destiny we must not flee out of fear.” –Rabbi Jill Hammer
Today is a noteworthy day on the calendar, not just because it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Today is the Fast of Esther, a minor fast observed by most traditional Jews that precedes Purim. It commemorates the three days on which Esther and her handmaids fasted in the story of the Book of Esther before Esther approached King Ahashuerus without being invited.
Like Purim itself, the fast of Esther highlights the protagonist of Purim the story for whom the megillah is named. No other holiday in the Jewish calendar spotlights women to the extent that Purim does. Yet the role that Esther plays is fraught with difficulty.
At first blush the story of Purim can seem to border on misogyny. Esther might be the heroine, but in the megillah, she often seems meek and suggestible. She achieves her goals through an act of sexual diplomacy, getting the attention of a king hungry for beauty and sex by coming close to him and “touching the head of his golden scepter” (Esther 5:2).
Other women don’t fare much better. In the first two chapters, Vashti is killed for refusing to appear at the king’s banquet in (nothing but) her crown for Ahasuerus and the revelers. The king signs a royal edict demanding women’s subordination and then rounds up all virgins in the kingdoms to “audition” for the throne. (The other named woman—Haman’s wife, Zeresh—is not exactly a pleasant character either.)
Over the past 15 years Jewish feminists have reclaimed the book of Esther as a celebration of women. Their readings are beyond the scope of this post, but anyone interested in encouraged to check out articles by Wendy Amsellem in the JOFA Journal and Bonna Devora Haberman in Tikkun. Lilith has a slew of resources online written by senior editor Rabbi Susan Shcnur at Lilith. (For a more in depth, academic approach, check out this paper from Sylvia Barack Fishman.)
In the topsy-turvy spirit of Purim, I’d recommend as a starting point a wrong-headed article in Commentary that cites lots of the more creative feminist reading of the megillah that highlight Vashti. For example, she writes:
Ruhama Weiss, who teaches Talmud at Hebrew Union College, argues that the sages blackened Vashti’s name because it was important for them to highlight the different fates of the woman who is willing to integrate into the patriarchal system and obey its rules, and the woman who dares to fight it. According to Weiss, the sages were in conflict regarding the fact that “Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor, while our heroine Esther is willing to work through the bedroom.” In the same vein, writer Amy Hirschberg proposed last year that Vashti be promoted as a heroine for those Jewish women who find themselves in abusive relationships.
(Here’s a response in Tablet.)
Hirshberg’s idea is a great one. As Haberman writes, “A feminist interpretation of the Megillah exposes the gendered root of racism, violence, and war. We find evidence of enslavement, abuse, and the trafficking of women in our own tradition.” Identifying Vashti as a heroine in our tradition who stood to domestic abuse, albeit with deathly consequence, gives voice to abused women who are otherwise silenced.
According to The Domestic Violence & Mental Health Policy Initiative:
There is now a growing body of evidence indicating that experiencing abuse plays a significant role in the development and exacerbation of mental disorders and substance abuse problems, increases the risk for victimization, and influences the course of recovery from a range of psychiatric illnesses.
Across studies of battered women, rates of:
- PTSD range from 54% to 84% (1)
- Depression range from 63% to 77% (2)
- Anxiety range from 38% to 75% (3)
On average, over half of women seen in a range of mental health settings are either currently experiencing or have experienced abuse by an intimate partner.
Many have endured multiple forms of abuse across their lives putting them at greater risk for posttraumatic mental health problems such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse, and exacerbations of co-occurring psychiatric conditions, subsequently affecting their ability to mobilize resources necessary to protect themselves and their children.
Domestic Violence is rampant problem in the U.S. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, each year, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner related physical assaults and rapes. Domestic violence isn’t limited to women in heterosexual relationships: Men are the victims of about 2.9 million intimate partner related physical assaults each year, and violence in same-sex relationships is as common as in heterosexuals ones.)
Domestic violence, of course, is perpetrated in Jewish community as well, though it is often sorely overlooked. There has been increased awareness, though, in the community over the past 15 years, due to the efforts of activists, mental health professionals and some rabbis, but it’s certainly not enough. One champion of the cause is the psychiatrist and rabbi Abraham Twerski. In an influential 1998 article in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, entitled “Tackling a “Shondeh”,” Rabbi Dr. Twerski writes:
Even the most serious and life-threatening problems can go unnoticed when there is resistance to acknowledging them. It is a fact that many women neglect to examine themselves properly for breast cancer because of the fear of what it might mean if they discover a mass. Obviously, it is this very neglect that can lead to the grave consequences that could have been avoided by early detection.
The idea of “shondeh” (disgrace) functions in the same manner as fear. To recognize that there is spouse abuse is to admit that there is a “shondeh.” As a result, women who are abused continue to suffer because they are unwilling to admit that they are being abused. Unfortunately, they also expose their children to the deleterious effects of growing up in a home where there is abuse. Rabbis often refuse to believe that these problems exist. The resultant hesitance of women to confide in a rabbi because they will be suspected of lying or even of being “meshugah” may have valid grounds. Parents whose daughters complain of being abused may encourage them to return to their husbands and overlook the abuse, saying, “The children need a father, and he is a good provider.” Countless excuses are given for maintaining the status quo, which is not really a status quo at all, because abuse is usually progressive.
Communities as a whole are caught up in the denial of this grave problem. Jewish family services are often underfunded, and therefore cannot operate a hotline, provide adequate staff, or maintain a safe-house for abused spouses.
(The definitive book on domestic abuse in the Jewish community is Twerski’s The Shame Borne in Silence.)
The first goal then, is to normalize discussion of domestic violence in our communities, to remove the stigma, the sense that it’s a “shande” and educate the community about where abused women can seek help. Ultimately, the goal is prevention- to stop the violence before it begins.
The period leading up to Purim, including the Fast of Esther, is an ideal time to bring awareness to the plight of abused women. Whatever your involvement in the Jewish community, there are actions you can take to raise awareness.
The most basic step is simply speaking about it. As a rabbinical student I’ve learned just how great an impact a rabbi can have by simply speaking about overlooked groups and minority populations within the community.
It doesn’t have to be the theme of a sermon, either. If a rabbi, for example, mentions gay families or transgender persons or agunot or homelessness in the community, she is sending a message to people in those groups that the rabbi is aware of them and cares. That can often be enough to create an opening for those people to feel safe coming to the rabbi for support.
Other actions could be for a synagogue can leave copies of articles such as Twersky’s outside the sanctuary; it can raise money for a battered women’s shelter; or it can hang posters that define domestic violence, discuss common myths about abuse in the Jewish community such as its severity and incidence, and list resources. A great place to go for information and fact sheets is www.shalvaonline.org.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) offers many great ideas for Purim programs and activities related to women’s rights, for individuals, families, synagogues, religious school classes and youth groups. Their suggestions include: cleaning out your closets to benefit women in need; holding a subversive beauty pageant that gives out “Esther prizes” to women who make a difference in the world; and donating your old cell phone to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has called for The Fast of Esther to be dedicated to the plight of agunot – victims of get refusal – within the Jewish community.
Ritualwell–a project of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) that creates and collects innovative, contemporary Jewish ritual—has lots of excellent resources for feminist Purim activities. They include essays, poetry and guide to planning a women’s Purim program using text study, art, and activism. A particularly good piece, entitled “Unmasking Esther: A Woman’s Celebration,” is the point-counterpoint reading used by Ma’yan in its first Purim celebration. The text includes selections from the Megillah, commentary by Rabbi Susan Schnur, an appeal for women living under the Taliban, and songs by Liz Swados (with audio links). Here are excerpts from Swados’s song Queen Vashti and Shnur’s comments:
A father could hold five times what you drink,
And still he’d never think of this,
You insist on being stubborn and cruel,
Oh, husband think what you do to the honor of the crown!
For one, crazed, moment you’d drag me down! My father could outdrink you ten to one,
And still he’d never do what you’ve done, Humiliate his Queen, to divert and entertain, You’re a pig, you’re insane!
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. …
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.
Finally, the American Jewish World Service has put together a thorough curriculum about sex trafficking to be used around Purim.
In his book Seasons of Our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes in that “the Talmud says that Memuchan, who urged King Ahasuerus to exile Vashti, is actually Haman, who urged the king to destroy the Jews (BT Megillah 12b).” Waskow asks, “Do we learn from the Megillah that those who will not treat Jews as human will also not treat women as human? That Haman and Mehuman [sic] are the same oppressor because they do the same oppression? … And that just as the oppression of women and of the Jewish people is intertwined, so their victories are intertwined? That the victory, the freedom of the Jewish people will only come with the victory, the freedom, of womankind?”
May Purim be a time when we dream of a peaceful and redeemed world, a time of consciousness of, and hope for, all who suffer violence and oppression in our communities.
Selections from a bibliography prepared by Jewish Women International and distributed by Shalom Bayit-NC. (For more information contact www.JWI.org and [email protected])
Books on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community
Anonymous. Abandoned: A Jewish Wife’s True Story. Pittsburgh: Mirkov Publications, 1998.
Dorff, Elliot N. Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics. Philadelphia: The
Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
Graetz, Naomi. Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating. Lanham: Jason Aronson, 1998.
Kaufman, Carol Goodman. Sins of Omission: The Jewish Community’s Reaction to Domestic Violence – What Needs to Be
Done. Cambridge: Westview Press, 2003.
Landesman, Toby. You Are Not Alone: Solace and Inspiration for Domestic Violence Survivors Based on Jewish Wisdom.
Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2004.
Lev, Rachel. Shine the Light: Sexual Abuse and Healing in the Jewish Community. Boston: Northeastern University Press,2003.
Scarf, Mimi. Battered Jewish Wives: Case Studies in the Response to Rage. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988. Out of Print.
Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J. The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community. Pittsburgh: Mirkov Publications, 1996.