I am not religious and don’t celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but something about Purim captures my imagination. It seems to me that Esther is sort of a feminist. She has a lot of power in the Purim story. However, I don’t think feminism and “girl power” are really Orthodox Jewish values, which confuses me because I know Purim is a big deal for religious Jews. Can you explain this paradox? I’d like to celebrate this year with a real understanding of how women are seen and valued in Judaism — not just when it comes to Esther, but in general.
“Girl power” isn’t a value in Judaism? Au contraire, mon frere (ok, I get the irony, but I like the rhyme). I can see how, from a purely superficial point of view, you might get the idea that Orthodox Jews and feminism don’t go hand in hand. But if you are talking about girl power, from where I am standing, the Torah says heck yeah!
Let’s look at some of the powerful chicks of Tanach, shall we? (See chabad.org and aish.com for beautiful summaries about ladies in the Bible, from which I took much of the information below.)
Sarah was truly Avraham’s partner in trying to spread ethical monotheism throughout the world. When she couldn’t have children, she offered her maidservant Hagar as a surrogate so Avraham could have offspring to inherit his spiritual mission.
Ultimately, Sarah had her own son with Avraham as well. When it became clear that Hagar and Avraham’s son Yishmael was a physical and spiritual danger to Yitzchak, Sarah told Avraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away. Avraham said no, but G-d agreed with Sarah, telling Avraham: “Whatever Sarah your wife tells you, listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12). What G-d was saying to the first Jew was that his wife was more in touch with what was going on, so listen to her! Overall, Sarah had vision and understood the big picture of Jewish destiny.
Like Sarah, Rivka realized that action must be taken to ensure the continuity of the legacy of Judaism. Rivka’s insight into human nature and her long-term, big-picture thinking gave her the motivation and the means to successfully switch the sons on Yitzchak when it came time to bless them.
Miriam the prophetess made sure she could help maintain the Jewish nation however she needed to. Amram, her father, told the enslaved Jews in Egypt to separate from their wives so as not to bring more baby boys into the world to be thrown in the Nile by the evil Pharaoh. But Miriam, with logical, rational reasons to return to faith, convinced her father to tell the men to reunited with their wives. And when Amram reunited with Yocheved, Moshe, who ultimately led the Jewish people out of Egypt, was conceived.
Miriam also convinced the women in Egypt to have faith — and they believed that G-d would perform miracles in the desert. Miriam helped mitigate despair with the light of hope and faith in the future.
Devorah the prophetess was a judge and was the wife of Lapidot, who was not a learned man. Lapidot means “torches,” and the sages say that Lapidot, at Devorah’s urging, furnished large wicks and oil for the lights of the sanctuary of Shiloh, which burned like torches. Thus, Devorah spread the light of Torah.
Similarly, it is said that she would sit under a palm tree to show the world that the Jewish people was united and turning their eyes to G-d like the leaves of the palm turn upward together toward heaven.
The traits of modesty, kindness, and commitment highlighted in the story of Ruth are personal strengths with such value in Judaism that she merited to be the great grandmother of King David and ancestor of the future moshiach (messiah). But it was Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi who recognized the opportunity for Ruth to marry the righteous Boaz and gave her the push she needed to seize her future.
Tzvi Freedman of chabad.org writes: “Of the most lofty, enlightened souls, many had wives greater than themselves, and daughters greater than their sons. So it was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So it was with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir. So it was with many great masters of the Kabbalah. This is because these great men, in their personal lives, were already tasting of the World to Come. In that time, the quality of womanhood will loom over man.”
Our dear Esther used her insight into human character to manipulate Haman, influence Achashverosh, and help Mordechai bring the Jewish nation back to G-d. As we enjoy Purim this year, we should all remember how much women are cherished and celebrated in Judaism. A freilichen Purim! Happy Purim!
All the best,