I recently had a first meeting with a prospective convert and her partner. Introducing the importance of Torah study to Jewish identity, I rolled open my Megillah on the desk before them and began to share the story of Purim. It’s not often that one observes a first impression of Esther, but this woman had never heard the Megillah before, and her eyes widened with horror and outrage at the repellent and yet familiar behavior of nearly all of the men in this story. “Tell me that the King gets punished,” she said, but no, the king remains in power. The absence of justice, I noted, points to the absence of God, who is unmentioned in the Megillah, a dark and frightening book, despite scenes of comic relief. This darkness highlights the one point of light, which is the courageous speech of Esther in confronting two men who treat her like furniture.
Sadly, even Mordecai is guilty of manipulating Esther when he sends his niece to seduce the king. This is captured well in a skit from the Israeli comedy series, “The Jews are Coming,” in which Esther objects to her uncle’s plan, saying, “you want me to be a whore?” The more he insists that it’s not like that, the more problematic his plan becomes. True, his motivation is positive, and even though he doesn’t really have an actual plan at the beginning, it works out for Esther. Still, Mordecai’s insistence that she remain silent at his command, and then speak at his word reinforces the sense that she is his puppet, not a person endowed with moral agency.
I have long been puzzled by the Talmud’s instruction, in the name of Rava, that a person ought to become so drunk on Purim that they cannot distinguish between, “bless Mordecai, and curse Haman.” There are many ways to describe drunkenness. Why this one? In the Shulhan Arukh Rabbi Moses Isserles suggests that drinking will make one drowsy, and thus forget the difference. Some commentaries suggest that a tipsy sage will be unable to work through highly complicated assessments of these two men and their just desserts in the world to come (see Maharasha) but why does this matter? I think the Talmud is suggesting something more profound and disturbing. These two men are polar opposites, certainly when it comes to the Jews, but they also share some things in common. For both of them Esther is a pretty thing, a useful pawn in the schemes of men. You need to let go of the rationales or rationalizations, to be disinhibited from such niceties, to see that Mordecai is not only a hero, but also part of the problem.
In her new book, Women and Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard tells the story of Penelope and her son Telemachus. When his mother joins a conversation with the men, her son tells her to be silent, and to return to her distaff. (This reminds me of the story in the Talmud Yerushalmi in which Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai tells his mother to stop speaking on Shabbat, though there the idea is that all people ought to “rest from speech” just as God desisted from new utterances on Shabbat. Still, the sage is not so respectful of his unnamed mother). Mary Beard holds Telemachus’s act of silencing Penelope up as a negative paradigm of gender relations.
Yet she also finds hints of discontent with this state of affairs even in ancient Greece, and sees it as a possible resource for a self-aware culture that notices acts of silencing and intentionally seeks to reverse them. Mary Beard concludes the first section of the book thus: “What I am pointing to here is a critically self-aware ancient tradition: not one that directly challenges the basic template I’ve been outlining, but one that is determined to reveal its conflicts and paradoxes, and to raise bigger questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male and female. We should perhaps take our cue from this, and try to bring to the surface the kinds of questions we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits. What we need is some old-fashioned consciousness raising about what we mean by the “voice of authority“ and how we come to construct it.”
As we traverse Shabbat Zakhor, we recall the wanton violence of Amalek, his descendant Haman, and all who have channeled their malevolent energy to threaten our people. But we also remember our own failures—how our ancestors marched too quickly in the desert, allowing the infirm to drag behind and fall prey to marauders. Let us remember as well the silencing and manipulation of women—Vashti and Esther—and the great courage it took for Esther to find her voice and change the narrative. The voice of Esther is the voice of wisdom, determination and strength. May many like her arise in our day, guiding our people to pursue justice and peace. When the “voice of authority,” is often female, then our people will know light and joy, gladness and grandeur.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף ז עמוד ב
אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי, איבסום, קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא. למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה. לשנה אמר ליה: ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי! – אמר ליה: לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא.
שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות מגילה ופורים סימן תרצה סעיף ב
חייב אינש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. הגה: וי”א דא”צ להשתכר כל כך, אלא שישתה יותר מלימודו (כל בו) וישן, ומתוך שישן אינו יודע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. (מהרי”ל)
תלמוד ירושלמי (ונציה) מסכת שבת פרק טו דף טו טור ב /ה”ג
אמר רבי חייב בר בא רבי שמעון בן יוחי כד הוה חמי לאימיה משתעיא סגין הוה אמר לה אימא שובתא היא