From Vashti & Esther to Women of the Wall & US Nuns: Ridiculing the Powerful, Resisting their Power


Purim – the “spring fever” topsy-turvy festival for which we read the Scroll of Esther, begins this Saturday night. For centuries, the Scroll has been read as a triumphant celebration of the overthrow of an anti-Semitic, genocidal official. Though this would seem to be  a serious business, the festival has been celebrated with mirth, costumes, “purimshpiels” (farcical plays)  poking fun at all authority, even at the Rabbis who might be overseeing the celebration, even at Torah itself.  

Understanding Purim as the Jewish version of the celebrations of “spring fever” in many cultures, poking fun at conventional values and power-centers,  evoking early-spring hilarity at the defeat of Winter, encouraging topsy-turvy behavior and ideas, makes sense of the levity hidden in the gravity, the gravity hidden in the levity. What unifies levity and gravity is satire — and the Scroll of Esther is indeed  not factual history but rather a truth-filled satire of the pomposity & cruelty of The Powerful 1%.

Megillat Esther was the first Purim-shpiel. It was written to celebrate a Purim that already existed, and its deepest joke is that it claims that its story is the reason Purim exists.

But that is not the only joke in this satire. For centuries, it has been apparent that the fall of tyrannical Haman comes in the form of a classical joke   -- the “slipped on his own banana peel,”  “hoist on his own petard” variety: Haman the anti-Semitic, anti-stranger xenophobe gets hanged on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. When I wrote Seasons of Our Joy in 1981, I pointed out that Esther  is woven around not one but two jokes of that same classic form: The king, who begins the whole action by insisting he and all the men will never take orders from women, ends by doing exactly what Esther tells him to. Anti-Semitism & anti-feminism, or xenophobia and gynophobia, go hand in hand in the story. Queen Vashti had the courage to resist male chauvinism;  Queen  Esther had the courage to resist both aspects of tyrannical power.

I think I was able to see this in 1981 because  Purim  already showed signs of becoming a celebration of Jewish feminism In the new edition of Seasons,  I am happy to report on the much stronger sense that Vashti as well as Esther have become heroines for modern emulation, and I quote a few verses of “’She [Vashti ] Said No to the King.” (The whole song is available at . The new edition of Seasons, published by the Jewish Publication Society, is available from The Shalom Center by clicking on the "Donation" banner in the left-hand margin of this website. )

Now this feminist understanding of Purim has taken a major step into becoming explicitly political  – that is, about power.

Here is a powerful statement about Purim from this angle, by one of the Women of the Wall, who are resisting the anti-woman behavior of a modern “king” – the government of Israel. Women of the Wall insist on their right to pray and chant aloud, wearing the sacred shawl of fringes, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. For this chutzpah they are arrested, humiliated, sometimes beaten.

The great Kotel schlep
 02/20/2013 23:48  Jerusalem Post
 On Purim at the Kotel, I will refuse pompous demands – in this case that women keep quiet.
Last week, on Rosh Hodesh Adar [the New Moon] , my mother, eight other women and I were detained by police for wearing a tallit and singing at the Western Wall. Halfway through our detainment some of us were moved, without our lawyer, to a different police station. A police officer presented me with an agreement to stay away from the Kotel for 15 days. I nervously and reluctantly signed.

 In the story of Purim you read about two courageous young women, Vashti and Esther, who have always been role models for me.

 Shortly before my fifth birthday, listening to the megila, I heard Vashti say “no” when the king summoned her. I perked up immediately and said excitedly, “Like Rosa Parks!” Later in the megila, I nervously awaited the king’s response to Esther’s uninvited visit.

 Women should not be stopped as we read Megilat Esther at the Kotel. Wearing a tallit is a personal spiritual choice. At first I was going to respect the pledge not to got to the Kotel for 15 days, because I thought the next time the Women of the Wall were gathering would be Rosh Hodesh, March 12, but women’s megila readings will take place on Monday, February 25, at 9:45 a.m. at the Kotel.

 I WENT to Jewish day school in Boston, Young Judaea Zionist camps and celebrated my bat mitzva in Israel. I made aliya with my family in 2006, when I was 11, to Kibbutz Ketura and now live in Jerusalem where I am a member of Kol Haneshama. Given that Purim is my favorite holiday, sometimes falls on my American birthday, and its protagonists are brave, inspiring women, I need to say “no” like Vashti, and, like Esther, approach authority uninvited – in this case not Persian royalty but the Israeli police, the civil authorities who enforce the extremist desire to control my prayer.

 So, on Tuesday this week I followed Esther’s lead and showed up unannounced at the Kishle Police Station inside Jaffa Gate and requested an exemption for Purim. Miraculously, the police backed down and granted it! (Thank you Anat Hoffman and David Barhom.) Now, on to Purim at the Kotel, where I will follow Vashti’s lead and refuse pompous demands, in this case that women keep quiet.

 There’s something I did not notice when I heard megila all those years ago – Mordechai’s question to Esther: “Mi yodea?” “Who knows?” Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox should learn from the humility of that question.

 I’m calling on the women of Jerusalem, young and old, secular and religious, to join me in costume celebrating the courage of Esther and Vashti, and of Women of the Wall. For those of you outside Israel, it would be a wonderful act of solidarity to wear a tallit over your costume when you, wherever you are, from the US to Persia – freely recite and hear the megila.

 The Jewish state that asks us to proudly wear its uniform should never ask us to remove our prayer shawls. Or to give in to the extremist demands of the ultra-Orthodox who proudly wear their prayer shawls but refuse to don the Jewish state’s uniform.

The author recently completed high school and hopes to participate in Agahazo Shalom, a volunteer youth village in Rwanda. She can be followed on twitter at @purplelettuce95

In my own view – not necessarily that of the Women of the Wall – it is an echo of the ancient double satire that today, the same Israeli government that jails women for praying at the Western Wall oppresses Palestinians and militarily occupies the nascent Palestine. The same US politicians who oppose the Violence Against Women Act spew contempt on immigrants. Those who rule near the top of the pyramid are most frightened and most disgusted by the strangeness of strangers (and for them,  women are strange).

 Tradition has it that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Shechinah, feminine aspect of God, weeps at the nearby Western Wall for all the injustices and idolatries of the world.  Indeed! And Her daughters, Her sisters, Her mothers weep with Her at the Wall, though at the same time they laugh at the ridiculous behavior of the cruel and pompous 1% of our own day.

 Laughing at the 1% is an early stage of shattering their power.  What comes later is Passover, when our laughter drowns them out.

This year, celebrating Purim as it begins this Saturday night, let us celebrate the courage to defy authority, to affirm and defend whoever are the “strangers” in our midst and whoever has been excluded from dignity and empowerment: women, gay people, Palestinians there, Muslims and Hispanics here.  

 And let us take joy in the courage of Shechinah’s daughters  – Vashti’s and Esther’s sisters –  the Women of the Wall;  the American nuns whose work for the poor the Vatican has tried to suppress; the women of the US Senate who insisted on renewing the “Violence Against Women Act” despite the cruel and pompous politicians who are still opposing it   — and let us welcome into courage the countless unnamed women abused and beaten in their homes.


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