Women’s History Month, Purim, and the Long Road Ahead

Believe it or not, it was only 25 years ago that Congress declared March as Women’s History Month in perpetuity. By then, 14 states had already declared this to be so and a Presidential Proclamation made the week of March 8th National Women?s History Week six years earlier. By 1987, Congress understood the importance of dedicating this month to the achievements of great heroines in our history: women who have fought for advancement, freedom, and equality. It is certainly appropriate then that the festival of Purim, celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, coincides this year with the month of March.

On Purim, we celebrate the narrative of Megillat Esther in which Esther saves the Jewish people of Shushan by thwarting Haman’s attempt in murder the Jews. Each year, with food and drink, costumes and silliness, we rejoice in this miracle. We do not simply celebrate the miracles of God, but also the heroics of female leaders who stood up for themselves and for community.

The well-known female leader is Esther who initially hid that she was Jewish in order to become queen. She eventually risked her own safety — realizing the great responsibility that she had — by approaching King Ahasuerus, although she was not summoned, admitting she was a Jew, and fighting for the safety and security of her people. Esther is the first example we have in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, of a female protagonist in a secular position of leadership. She used her beauty, charm, and most importantly, political power and resources to save the people of Israel, revealing herself as a proud Jew and a woman of action!

The other — albeit it less known, but just as important — female leader in our Purim story is Queen Vashti. Vashti is the queen that was exiled, setting the stage for Esther to become queen and save her people. At the beginning of the narrative, Vashti is summoned by her drunk husband so that he can “display her beauty” for his guests at his all-male banquet. Her refusal to just follow the order of her husband led to her exile, but it?s also the reason that she is celebrated by many as a feminist icon. Vashti stood up for her own rights as an individual, while Esther stood up for her people. Both female icons of our scriptural core are rightfully recognized during this Women’s History Month.

Over the past couple of months, the news coming out of Israel with regards to women’s rights has been quite disturbing. While I fully respect one’s personal religious observance and interpretation of halakha, Jewish Law, there is no place in the Jewish community for such misogyny and baseless hatred that have taken place in the Ultra-Orthodox community of Beit Shemesh. This misogyny boiled over when, at the end of December, an eight-year-old girl was spat at and verbally abused for being “insufficiently” modest. At the conclusion of January, a woman was attempting to hang posters and haredi men surrounded her car, slashed her tires, stole her keys, and threw stones at her.  Such actions cannot and should not be tolerated anywhere, especially in a sacred place guided by the ethics and morals of our tradition.

As we celebrate the heroics of Vashti and Esther, let us be reminded of the many women in the Jewish community that still fight for equality. On this Purim, we recognize the bravery of those women in Beit Shemesh who are taking a stand against misogyny and fighting for their rights. During March, we remember the achievements of women throughout our history, but let us not forget that we still have a long way to go in the fight for equality. I look forward to the day when we can rejoice in the celebration of God’s greatest miracle: safety, freedom, and equality for all.

(Also published as part of the “Rabbinically Speaking” column in the March 2012 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News)

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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