Reflections on Purim, Women and Power

This weekend marks the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is generally thought to be a relatively light-hearted holiday, celebrated with feasting, drinking, costumes, giving gifts to friends, and general silliness. But this year as I did a pre-reading of Megilat Esther, the biblical book which describes the events we commemorate on this holiday, I couldn’t help but notice challenging gender dynamics that weave through the entire story.

The tale begins when the king demands that his queen come and “display her beauty” in front of himself and his guests at a large party. She refuses – he has her exiled (some commentaries say beheaded). However we understand this episode (What was she asked to do, exactly? Why did she object?) both the power inequality and the strength of her choice are painfully evident.

Next, the king orders “all the beautiful young virgins to be presented to him” so he can choose a replacement queen, and eventually chooses Esther, a young Jewish woman. I wonder – were these women given a choice about participating in this royal beauty contest? Does Esther want to marry the king? And what kind of marriage is this when, as we learn later on in the story, Esther is too fearful to tell the king she is Jewish, or go to speak to him when she is not called for?

In the end Esther, at great risk to herself, saves the Jewish people from the evil prime minister who wishes to have them exterminated and is all around the heroine of the holiday. She does so, at the urging of her uncle, by hosting a party for the King and begging him to save her people. The evil prime minister is eventually defeated not because his plan to destroy thousands of people is exposed as evil, or even as just a bad idea, but because the king is accidentally and incorrectly convinced that he is making sexual advances against Esther. Esther saves the people and the day through powerful and effective action, but I’m torn by the question of how empowered she was through the process.

As I read the Book of Esther this year and struggle with these tensions, I will be thinking of all the many women across the globe who are marginalized because of their gender. Women who are afraid of the power of the men in their lives; women who do not have control over their own bodies; women and girls who are forced into marriages they do not want.  I will recommit myself to standing in solidarity with them and working to help them fight for their human rights.

But I will also strive to hold the possibility that I am misunderstanding Esther. After all, she stands up for herself and her people, and she saves thousands of lives. Maybe she was making a strong, empowered choice to use her sexuality to gain position and power. Maybe women (and men) all over the world can legitimately follow her lead.

AJWS explored some of these tensions in a text study bringing together texts about Esther and texts from the complicated. Take a look and chag sameach!