Esther, Vashti, and Women of the Wall

My sermon from last Friday night, cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

When I was a first-year rabbinical student in Jerusalem, one of my classmates organized a blood drive in our student lounge. As I was lying on the stretcher, needle in my arm, the medic looked at my purple kippah and said, in Hebrew, “Is it Purim today?”

Purim is a holiday when everything gets turned upside down. Jews are the victor and not the victim, and we “celebrate” until we don’t know Haman from Mordechai. It is also the only day in the calendar when “cross-dressing” is permitted by Jewish law. Hence, the only space in which that medic could imagine a woman wearing a kippah was not a Reform rabbinical seminary, but rather a holiday when women are allowed to dress like men.

Purim that year was my first experience with Women of the Wall, an organization which has been fighting for the past 24 years for the rights of women to pray and read Torah, wearing tallit and tefillin, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. One of the grounds for opposition to this group is that their donning of ritual garb is considered begged ish, cross-dressing. While that reading of megillat Esther proceeded undisturbed, probably due to the general chaos surrounding us, in recent years we have seen a resurgence of aggression towards Women of the Wall.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, posits that because ultra-orthodox men in Israel do not work to provide for their families, relying instead on government assistance while they study, they feel lowered in esteem, emasculated. They feel “like women,” and so resent women who behave “like men,” by working outside the home, attaining high levels of education, or praying publicly. Rather than change their own circumstances, they assert themselves in the only way they know how: by imposing stricter laws of modesty on women in public space, including at the Western Wall.

This past month, 10 women were detained during the Rosh Chodesh service for wearing tallitot. Bonna Devorah Haberman, one of the original members of Women of the Wall, wrote a brilliant article retelling the story of this month’s detentions in the form of the megillah. She generously casts Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the ultra-orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation, as the King. The police who detained the women are cast as Hegai, the keeper of Ahashuerus’ harem. The role of Mordechai is played by the four veterans from the 55th Paratroop Brigade—who liberated the Western Wall in 1967—and who accompanied the women to this month’s service.

One thing that makes this megillah particularly interesting—aside from the fact that there is no one playing Haman—is that Haberman goes back and forth between casting the Women of the Wall as Vashti—the openly defiant queen who is banished because she won’t play by the rules—and Esther, the paragon of beauty, grace and obedience who replaces her.

The real megillah gives us two female heroines, but only one clear message about how women should behave. While in modern times, Vashti is celebrated as a feminist hero, in the megillah she doesn’t last very long. The “real” heroine is Esther, who moves between being manipulated and being a manipulator, between hiding her identity and proclaiming it proudly. Only when her cousin Mordechai begs her does she take a stand, and then only when she has thoroughly charmed the king and earned his favor. Even then, she asserts herself in a decidedly “feminine” way, making herself completely vulnerable to her male counterparts by prostrating herself before the king and making a very humble request, first for a dinner party, then for her life.

There are many positive messages in the Purim story: to be proud of who we are, and to stand up for what we believe in, even when we are scared. But it is interesting that the heroine of Purim is a woman who behaves, for the most part, as women are expected to behave in that time and place.

Although the Women of the Wall are treated as rabble-rousers, their request is even more meager than Esther’s. Once a month, for one hour, they wish to be able to pray, as women, according to the Orthodox tradition, in the Women’s Section of the Western Wall. They asking for what Hoffman calls, the “four t’s” during this hour: tefillah, Torah, tallit, and tefillin.

A 2003 court decision determined that it is not legal for women to read Torah at the Western Wall itself, only at Robinson’s Arch, a designated area near the site. Over the past few years, women have frequently had religious articles confiscated, or were detained, interrogated, and even arrested and banned from the Western Wall, for the crime of “performing religious acts that offend the feelings of others.”

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This month’s detentions received a lot of attention because, among the 10 women who were detained, was Rabbi Susan Silverman and her 17-year-old daughter Hallel Abramowitz. Rabbi Silverman’s sister is the comedian Sarah Silverman, who responded by tweeting something I can’t repeat in support of Women of the Wall. She then made a more family-friendly public statement to CNN, saying:

“I don’t care much for people who use religion as a cloak to justify hatred, injustice and fear. And I can’t imagine God, should He or She or It exist, does either. I am so proud of my sister and niece for fighting for what they believe in—by having the nerve to pray at the Western Wall while being female.”

I used to study with Rabbi Silverman, and was proud to see her and her daughter, now Israeli citizens, standing up for their right to pray publicly. But I couldn’t help but notice two trends in the media coverage. There was not a single article about their arrest that did not mention that the women were related to Sarah Silverman, aside from Haberman’s megillah. Most publications mentioned it in the headline. There were also very few articles that did not feature a picture of the beautiful young woman that Hallel has become in the ten years since I’ve seen her.

Like Vashti and like Esther, these women had the courage to stand up for what they believed in, even at great personal risk. But, also like Vashti and Esther, the way they are treated is often bound up in how they are perceived as women. The Purim story asserts, if subtly, that the only way a woman can survive in a man’s world is to behave like a man’s definition of a woman. And while we may learn many things about courage from this text, we must reject this notion that there is only one way to be female, just as we reject the notion that there is only one way to be Jewish.

Tablet Columnist Rachel Shukert writes that Sarah and Susan have more in common than it might seem: “When Sarah was starting out, most of her critics seemed to be focused less on what she was saying than that a woman was saying it; …. Similarly, the only thing remotely controversial about Rabbi Silverman’s actions is that she is performing them while female. To her opponents, a man donning a prayer shawl is a sacrament, commanded by God; a woman doing the same thing is an abomination.”

When Ahashuerus learns of Esther’s identity, he wants to overturn the decree but cannot, because it is already sealed. But the Jewish tradition is not sealed by a royal signet ring, and it is not owned by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation or the ultra-orthodox. It is open and evolving, and there must be room for every expression of Jewish identity and gender identity in our people’s story.

Whether we ask nicely or demand defiantly, on Purim, we, like our ancient heroines, have the opportunity to overturn an oppressive regime. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, has been charged with finding a solution to the “problem” of women’s prayer at the Kotel. Please join us as we write to Mr. Sharansky (at the WOW site and the IRAC site) and make our humble requests: that there should be times set aside for women’s prayer at the Kotel, and, hopefully, soon afterwards, a time and space for mixed-gender prayer. We also need to remind Mr. Sharansky that part of this solution needs to be dismantling the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and requiring the police to arrest the harassers, and not the harassed. We must broaden the definition of “performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others” to include aggression by the ultra-orthodox towards progressive Jews. Make it illegal not for a woman to wear a tallit, but for people to shout obscenities and throw things at the women who do. Make it illegal, not for women to behave “like men,” but for people to behave like animals.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

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