The Great Purim Controversy Continues…

I’m prepared to die on this hill.

I don’t usually write follow ups to previous posts, but my recent screed about Purim garnered a lot of reaction—much of it surprising. My unscientific calculation puts the feedback at about 85% or so positive. Among my clergy colleagues who weighed in—publicly or privately (and I do understand those that needed to stay privately anti-Purim for their own professional survival)—the vast majority expressed the unexpected sentiment that they too have always hated Purim.

Apparently I said the quiet part out loud.

For those who pushed back on what I wrote, one common sentiment was that the Jewish people need a holiday like Purim. Just once during the year, let the Jews be the victors. Let’s put our enemies—those that appear repeatedly throughout our history seeking to kill us—in a place where we can mock them. Why can’t the Jews get one over on everyone else at least once? It’s an act of catharsis.

That perspective makes a lot of sense—and if Purim were a holiday where we spent much time looking at nuance and adult messages, I think it would feel much more comfortable. But when Purim is nothing but an occasion for little kids to dress up and make noise, I’m not sure the message is getting through.

I just cannot get past how objectionable and utterly offensive I find the Purim narrative to be. It’s like an amalgam of every bad Disney princess story. The two alpha males in the story fight for power, and they use and manipulate the female characters (Esther of course, but also Vashti and Zeresh) like chess pieces for their own agendas. Both Esther’s and Vashti’s story lines are based only on their sexuality, appearance, and willingness (or not) to go along with their male masters.

Male-centric biblical narratives are nothing new. But when we read those other stories, we take the time to analyze them. We parse the words and properly put the events within a logical context. We don’t dress up like the characters. We don’t tell our children to adopt their personas. We don’t try to reinforce stale gender roles: the man is the dominant and powerful figure and the woman (or girl in Esther’s case) is beautiful and sexual, and that most biblically desirable quality of all—submissive. I can’t think of a single occurrence during the Book of Esther when Esther herself actually expressed an independent thought or performed an action that was not directed by a male.

The text makes no secret of this. Consider that as the action winds down and the story resolves in Chapter 9, we read:

For Mordechai was now powerful in the royal palace and his fame was spreading through all the provinces; the man Mordechai was growing ever more powerful. [emphasis added]

So where was Queen Esther and what happened to her? She still had to tread carefully and ask King Achashverosh’s permission to do anything, constantly using the phrase, “if it please Your Majesty.”

If you’d like really to treat Purim as the adult-themed holiday that it should properly be, may I suggest you put your kids to bed and watch what I think is nothing less than a modern Purim fable: the movie Inglorious Basterds. Now this is the ultimate Jewish revenge story—set in recent history, filled with ironic humor (much like the Megillah), loaded with the same over-the-top violence that the Megillah describes (but that is usually scrubbed out of our kiddy translations) and most of all, features a real female hero—someone strong, independent, and not simply reacting to what the other male characters want her to do. That character–Shoshanna–is everything that Esther is not.

If you truly want an occasion to watch the Jews prevail over their enemies in spectacular fashion, here’s your chance.

Oh, one more thing: I will relent about the hamantashen. Apparently no one was in favor of giving those up. That’s fair.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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