Purim is one of our most complex holidays — rich with humor, fun — and more than a little excess. But amid all the symbolism and nuance, one aspect that should not be forgotten is the centrality of women in the Purim story and how their actions helped shape the fate of our ancestors.
If it weren’t for Vashti, the non-Jewish queen of Persia who refused to succumb to her husband’s sexual demands, and her replacement, Esther, whose fortitude and smarts saved the Jews from a fatal decree, Jewish history would have taken a very different turn.
The feminist connection is all the more potent this year, with Purim falling during Women’s History Month and soon after, International Women’s Day. Why, we might wonder, is there still a need for such arbitrary dates on the calendar? Indeed, we should all aspire to the day when women’s rights and female “firsts” are no longer newsworthy.
But at a time when reproductive rights have moved backward in this country, when domestic violence is still a scourge on our society, when Jewish women still face a communal glass ceiling and when Orthodox women are still pushing the boundaries with prayer services and rituals like laying tefillin, we know the struggle is not over.
Jewish women have long been at the forefront of feminist ideals and activism, as Melissa Klapper points out in her opinion column this week.
Klapper writes: “Jewish women brought awareness of feminist issues to the American Jewish community. They challenged the social, political and cultural constraints on women at every turn.” And, she notes, when organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women became involved in causes outside the Jewish community, they took their religious and cultural identity along to enhance their work on behalf of women and the larger community.
Groups like NCJW are still at it. NCJW was leading Jewish groups in a day of fasting for immigration reform to coincide with the Fast of Esther on March 13.
“The Fast of Esther commemorates Queen Esther’s strength and leadership among the Jews of Persia,” said Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of NCJW. “We hope to draw on Queen Esther’s courage as we fast to call attention to the importance of just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform that is sensitive to the needs of women, children and families.”
Centuries after Vashti and Esther proved their valor, we should all draw on their courage in our quest to move forward with true political and communal equality. Chag Purim Sameach!