Holiday: Real story of Purim is no Sunday school tale

ENCINO, Calif., Feb. 12 (JTA) – “Be happy, it’s Adar,” the rabbis tell us.

Yes, be happy. Unless you’re a goldfish, a Purim carnival prize, who finds himself swimming inside a sealed plastic bag, fated for a shortened life of cramped captivity and neglect.

Yes, be happy. Unless you’re a woman, appalled by the unexpurgated story of the orphaned Esther, who is essentially sold down the Tigris River, not for the purpose of saving the Jews, as most people assume, but, rather, for fulfilling the king’s salacious desires.

Yes, be happy. Unless you’re a parent wondering how to approach this tale of sexual subjugation and political savagery – and whether to costume your child as a concubine, a misogynistic and murderous king, an ambitious sycophant or a genocidal despot.

In the sanitized, Sunday school version of Purim, Mordechai enters his cousin Esther in a beauty contest, organized for the purpose of selecting the next queen of Persia. But, in truth, the voiceless, virginal Esther is delivered, by whom we’re not told, to the king’s harem. There she spends a year, “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and feminine cosmetics” (The Book of Esther 2:12), under the tutelage of seven count-appointed handmaidens, preparing for a sexual liaison with Ahasuerus.

If she fails to win the king’s favor and become the queen, she faces a lifetime sentence as a royal concubine.

To make matters worse, not only is this a premarital and interfaith union, both clear religious violations, but also, even more egregious, a union with a probable murderer.

Ahasuerus’ first wife, Vashti, refused to parade naked, wearing only a crown, in front of the king and his buddies, who had all been drinking for a week.

Vashti’s disobedience, King Ahasuerus was convinced, would “come to the attention of all women, making their husbands contemptible in their eyes” (The Book of Esther 1:17).

Thus, he ordered her murder, her head brought to him on a platter, according to one interpretation, ensuring “that every man should rule in his own home, and speak the language of his own people” (The Book of Esther 1:22).

At the point in the story when the call goes out to “every beautiful young virgin” (The Book of Esther 2:2) to travel to Shushan to audition for queen, Haman has not yet revealed his plot to exterminate the Jews. Esther’s life is jeopardized a second time, when Haman’s heinous plot is revealed and Mordechai pleads with his cousin to intercede on the Jews’ behalf. This is the first time that Esther actually speaks, telling Mordechai that all the king’s subjects, herself included, risk death by approaching Ahasuerus in his inner court without being summoned.

Mordechai perseveres. “Do not imagine you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews,” he tells her. “For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position” (The Book of Esther 4:13-14).

Mordechai’s response alludes to God’s invisible intervention in the story of Purim. Invisible because nowhere in the entire Megillah – unlike every other book of the Bible except for the Song of Songs – is God’s name mentioned. The traditional explanation is that God often works in mysterious and unseen ways to protect the Jewish people.

But perhaps God’s name is intentionally absent. Perhaps God does not want to be associated with a story in which the Jews’ victory over their enemy comes at the cost of Esther’s freedom.

And perhaps that’s why the Talmud commands us drink until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” Because only drunk can we find this story palatable.

There’s nothing amusing or celebratory about the subjugation and abuse of women. And, unfortunately, it’s not only an ancient story.

According to the FBI, a woman is beaten every 15 seconds. And the numbers of Jewish women abused, in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities equally, are the same, according to studies cited by Jewish Women International, as those for non-Jewish women – 15 to 20 percent.

Like Vashti, the only real hero of the Purim story, women who stand up for their right for self-respect are sometimes killed. In fact, the risk of homicide, according to a 1993 study, is even greater for those women who leave their abusive spouses, especially during the first two months.

So, yes, be happy, it’s Adar.

But not until our celebration of Purim recognizes the story’s deplorable treatment of women and laments the perhaps inevitable but nevertheless tragic sacrifice of Esther.

And not until the physical lives of women everywhere are no longer in danger.

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