Friday, February 22, 2013

This Purim, Discover Your Inner Esther!

Among observant Jews, one of the most frequently asked questions of this past week has been: “What are you wearing for Purim?”

This question has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with creativity as Jews have dressed up as characters from the Purim story throughout the ages in celebration of this festival. More recently, the traditional cast of characters – the Brave Queen Esther, her Noble Uncle Mordechai, the Disgraced Queen Vashti, the Dastardly Haman, the Foolish King Ahashverosh -- have given way to contemporary characters, drawn largely from popular culture or current events.

The most joyous holiday of the Jewish year, Purim celebrates the deliverance of the ancient Persian Jewish community from destruction. As told in The Scroll of Esther – written in the 4th century BCE and included in the canon of 24 holy books known as the Tanakh – the evil plot to annihilate the Jews of Persia plotted by Haman, the advisor to King Ahashverosh, was overturned by Esther, the Jewish maiden who beguiled and married the king.

However, as we approach the lighthearted festival of Purim this year – which begins tomorrow evening, at the conclusion of Shabbat -- my heart is heavy because of the recent silencing of Jewish women’s voices in Israel, lifted in prayer at one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, the Kotel.

Suppressing the voices of women is antithetical to Judaism. From our matriarch Sarah, to the prophet Deborah to Queen Esther, our tradition teaches us that women’s words are to be heeded and honored…not stamped out.

But Judaism does have a tradition of stamping out sounds that are undesirable. In synagogues around the world, tomorrow night’s recitation of The Scroll of Esther will be marked by the energetic employment of noisemakers every time Haman’s name is pronounced. This ritual is one of the most beloved and memorable of all Jewish life. Children and adults alike bring everything from the traditional wooden groggers to more contemporary implements like metal pot covers and bull horns to drown out the name of Haman, and by extension, all evil in the world.

Bearing this custom in mind, it seems that the religious authorities in Israel are confused. Instead of drowning out the name of Haman, the Chief Rabbinate has taken upon itself the task of silencing Esther.

But Purim is the holiday of reversals. Using her wiles and wisdom, Queen Esther reversed Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia. In the spirit of reversal – and justice -- I propose that this Purim, we don the mask of the heroine of the holiday, Queen Esther, by honoring the voices of Jewish women.

As we endeavor to usher in an era of religious pluralism to Israel, let us access our inner Esther, pondering her bravery as we advocate for the participation of Jewish women in all realms of religious life.

Imagine if efforts had been made to silence Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish People from extinction centuries ago. What a terrible thing to envision – a world without the redemptive efforts of Queen Esther; a world without the prayers of women!

As the father of three remarkable young women, the thought is inconceivable. It leaves me, quite literally, bereft. 

This Purim, let us discover our inner Esther, drawing on the fortitude and moxie of that ancient Persian heroine to honor – not silence – brave and bold Jewish women.

photo credit: USCJ Flickr page