Purim - the festival that embraces the feminist voice in tradition

Why it is fitting that International Women's Day falls close to Purim


International Women’s Day always falls near Purim. This conjunction is illuminating because the Persian king’s advisors, who inspire the genocidal attack on Jews, target women first. 

Queen Vashti, in a #MeToo or Presidents Club moment, refuses to display her body to the king’s male guests. Stripped of her crown, she triggers a decree that every man should be “ruler in his own house”.

The decree that men should be “rulers” is ironic because the Book of Esther, the Megillah, depicts an abuse of political and sexual power still recognisable today and the monarch it describes is a caricature of kingship. Feasting and drinking are his principal interests — even from Temple vessels, by tradition — and he decides on questions of state only when instructed by his courtiers. 

According to the Talmud, his queen held royal lineage as the daughter of the emperor Belshazzar, when he himself was but a steward in Belshazzar’s stables.

So it is Esther, transformed in the Megillah from passive silence to communal leadership, who takes on the mantle of royalty. She guarantees the survival of her people and her son, by tradition, was the great king Cyrus, who authorised the rebuilding of Jerusalem and enabled Ezra and Nehemiah’s return to the Land of Israel.

There are some who attack feminism as extraneous to Judaism, a foreign import from contemporary culture. But our own Megillah, in associating Jews with women as dual archetypes of disempowered groups, protests simultaneously against antisemitism and misogyny. And the Talmud’s discussion of Purim, as if reflecting Esther’s transformation from silence to protest, contains a surprising number of passages which assert the value and validity of women’s voices. 

The Talmud empowers men and women equally to read the Megillah; it confirms the validity of a woman’s Torah reading, declaring that “all may be numbered among the seven who read on Shabbat, even a woman“; it details the words of the seven biblical prophetesses, without pausing for the 48 prophets; it refutes a suggestion that women don’t know Hebrew by recalling a maidservant who lectured the rabbis in philology.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, previous Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, draws on these ideas in a responsum confirming a woman’s obligation to raise her voice in synagogue when reciting the blessing of thanksgiving after illness or childbirth (Yehaveh Da’at 4:15).

The Persian king’s progression from attacking women to attacking Jews, as well as Esther’s decision to raise her voice and speak up, bring to mind Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous confession, quoted here from a 1946 speech translated by Harold Marcuse: “Hermann Göring wrote in the newspapers that all active Communists were sent to concentration camps in 1933. I knew that. I also knew about the killing of lives unworthy of life. I saw Jews persecuted on a grand scale for the first time — and I kept silent. I only began to speak out when it was about the Church. I know I’m guilty.”

Niemöller might equally have quoted our own Mishnah in Sanhedrin which asks, rhetorically, why the human race was created from a single person (4:5). Its three answers — to teach the infinite value of every human life; to assert the equal value of every person’s ancestry; and to convey the uniqueness and individuality of every human being — could be a manifesto for equal rights campaigners today.

The Mishnah, foreshadowing Niemöller, culminates by declaring each person’s sacred duty to speak out and bear witness when called on. In risking her position and her life by raising her voice to speak out, Esther anticipates this Mishnah and, with it, the flood of women’s voices unleashed by #MeToo.

Today, after enormous progress under the current and previous Chief Rabbis, women’s voices have begun to be heard in mainstream Orthodox synagogues in the UK. They may be elected as synagogue chairs, officers or trustees; women’s teaching is widespread; women are heard reciting Kaddish for deceased relatives.

But in the heart of the synagogue, their voices remain near-silent and many men who would happily visit the opera, see a James Bond film, or enter a mixed swimming pool would consider a woman’s Torah reading, her aliyah on the occasion of a wedding or anniversary, or her recital of the communal kiddush to be unacceptable. 

Containment of women’s voices has become the touchstone of a congregation’s acceptability in the Orthodox world, far more than whether its members observe Shabbat, give to charity or eat kosher food.

A living, breathing Jewish tradition, that embraces the feminist thread in its history and speaks to the entirety of its community, requires feminine and masculine voices together, in partnership. Perhaps the coincidence of International Women’s Day and Purim should be more widely celebrated.

International Women’s Day falls the week after Purim, on Thursday March 8 

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