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“This Second Letter of Purim” (Esther 9/29) – Leah Shakdiel

 

If Purim is about the salvation of the Jews, why does the Biblical story begin with such a detailed description of the Persian court harem? And, if the book is named for Esther, why is she absent in all four verses read aloud by the whole congregation for emphasis (2:5, 8:15, 8:16, 10:3), while Mordechai gets so much credit?

Such puzzling contradictions in the text require deconstructing the Book of Esther  into two parallel, yet closely intertwined, stories: one about women and another about Jews. While Esther is the protagonist of both stories, can she rise triumphantly from both plots? Does she perceive this double challenge of survival, as a woman and as a Jew? What do we gain by separating the two plots and then superimposing them on each other again?

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Chapter one prepares the stage for Esther’s arrival, by telling us about Vashti’s demise and the vacancy it creates in the court. Meanwhile we are overwhelmed by the all-pervasive patriarchy: the king rules over an empire of 127 lands with an efficient beaurocratic web, the court reflects this hierarchy with its various officials and attendants, and families across the empire have the same power structure on a smaller scale. Women have their own hierarchy within the court – even their own parties – but must submit to their respective men, who own their beauty in the same way that they own money and riches – for the purpose of lording over other men.

In chapter two we learn that Esther cannot escape any of this. As an orphan she is fostered by her uncle, who in turn gives her over to the court, a beautiful virgin among many others gathered for the pleasure of the king. Eunichs process her along with the other girls through the beauty industry, to upgrade her sexual value. All she can hope for is to win the beauty contest and emerge as the one and only official queen. As we soon learn, this position gives her power in the harem – extra care from male attendants, extra female maids – but leaves her completely dependent on the whims of the monarch.

But these first two chapters are told from an andro-centric perspective, not through women’s eyes. Readers are invited to anticipate that Esther’s fortunate rise to queenship will become a positive resource in the plot, not a problem in and of itself. The tone is that of an exaggerated satire of familiar social and political patterns: the wining and dining king among obedient virgins is the ultimate picture of complacent power over all.

The “women’s” story serves only as the background for the main “plot”, which begins in chapter three – Haman’s plot to kill all Jews in the empire. Right now, it’s a men’s story, with two male protagonists: Haman vs. Mordechai. But chapter four brings the two stories together. Mordechai changes his instructions to Esther about hiding her ethnic roots, and tells his niece to approach the king and plead for her people.

This is the climax of the story, which takes on the quality of a Greek tragedy: the heroine acts bravely on her circumstance and appears greater than life, yet the audience knows that she is the one sacrificed in this pageant. We shall all experience our annual catharsis, which will enable the restoration of the normal social order: namely, patriarchy.

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For Esther’s story as a woman ends here. Although she tries to explain her limits as a woman, Mordechai does not hear the woman in her speak of female victimization. He sees only the Jew in a unique proximity to the seat of power, and tells her she cannot escape her national fate (4:13) nor her national calling (4:14). Esther accepts this challenge. Embedded here is her ultimate understanding that while nothing will change her woman’s status, perhaps she can save the Jews. She concludes, “And as for me, as I am lost, I am lost.”

esther7Yes, Esther is lost, even though her intricate plan succeeds, the Jewish people is saved, the wicked plotters are punished, and the miracle is ritualized into an annual holiday. She has her moments on centerstage as the courted, admired queen who has her wishes granted, but she is kept in her golden cage. Mordechai, on the other hand, is nominated viceroy and patron of the Jews (10:1-3). And much like the three prophetesses (Miriam, Devora and Hulda), she is not a mother, thus paying for her unusual public role by remaining an unfulfilled woman, in Biblical standards.

Patriarchy then survives and wins, as early on as mid-book. Its ideologues have their way – after all, Vashti was disposed of as an example to the entire empire, lest the social order in every home be destabilized (1:16-22). But this tragic collapse of the background story also foreshadows the partial failure of the main plot! After all, if patriarchy cannot be overthrown, can the Jews really hope for more than temporary relief? The dice of arbitrary lethal power is cast already and the books cannot be retrieved, which means that the attack on the Jews cannot be prevented, and all they can do is respond with murderous self-defense, counter-killing, vengeance and oppressive terror over their enemies (8:8-9:18)! It’s a happy ending only if we refuse to look beyond the “realistic” limits of patriarchy, which goes naturally with periodical outbursts of antisemitism. What happens though to the radical message of Judaism, the rejection of idolatry as corrupt, immoral and oppressive, the brave vision of a world changed by faith in the one living God?

Esther’s failure to unite the cause of women with the cause of the Jewish people is an unfinished business, for women and for Jews. There remains the challenge to fix the world so that it fits not patriarchy but an alternative blueprint – the vision of shared power, universal respect and coexistence, and peace. The book of Esther argues that this will happen only if we are prepared to risk a change in our homes as well as our political and cultural structures.

Feminist Judaism today is one double vision that goes beyond Esther, by showing that Judaism can only be invigorated to the extent that Jewish women are empowered. Maybe this is how we can reinterpret the need for two separate letters to world Jewry about Purim. Mordechai writes the first one without Esther, and it probably looks like the Biblical record of the events (9:20-28). However, “the second letter on Purim”, co-authored by Esther and Mordechai together (9:29) – a revised call for men and women, Jews and non-Jews, to celebrate freedom from tyranny and violence – includes “words of peace and truth” (9:30). Amen.

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