March 2018, Purim

Dear Friends,

This week is one of the highlights in the Jewish calendar and is unparalleled in its joy. As a child, Purim was always one of my favourite festivals and I looked forward to it with great anticipation. The hamentashen baking, the mishloach manot packing, the dressing up and of course the “booing” to Haman’s name during the Megilah allowed for some of the best fun as a kid! This year, Mushka, the kids and I had fun dressing up and getting into the spirit of the day.

However, as I get older and reflect on the Megillah I find it hard to reconcile some of the themes in the story. In the first chapter alone, Queen Vashti is banished by the king, (Midrashic interpretation dictates that her head was cut off) for refusing to appear before his banquet naked to show off her beauty. Following the execution and banishment of Vashti, King Achashverosh holds a beauty pageant to acquire a new wife and chooses Esther as his queen because of her beauty.

When reading the Megillah it presents a dark and sordid story with a pervading culture of sexual misconduct and objectification of women. It almost begs the questions: Why is this story even part of our Jewish canon? What are the lessons that can be learned? What is the point of including such a story in which women are subject to the whim of manipulative men who use their power to force them into a King’s harem for life and subject them to domestic abuse and violence?

The story of Purim represents “VeNahapoch Hu”- “and it will turn around.” While a basic understanding of the story represents abuse of power, subjugation of women and sexual exploitation, it can also symbolize that such abuse of women can “turn around.” To me, that is the essence of what we are celebrating.

Nothing about the Purim story is normal or expected. The Jews were not expected to survive. King Achashverosh did not mean to banish his wife Vashti, as shown by his later regret. Esther was not meant to be Queen. However, when reading the story in light of the #metoo movement, it breathes new life into the dark face of the story.

In many ways, the Purim story holds up a mirror to the society that we live in: one where sexual misconduct, exploitation and power abuse is rampant. The story of Purim is, therefore, much deeper than what it appears, as it shows us as a society exactly what kind of society we do not want to become. It shows us what happens when people abuse power and don’t respect women.

The #metoo movement rippled across the world at an unprecedented speed, and showed men that they could come crashing down from the loftiest perches. It sent shivers down the spines of those who had used their positions in power to subjugate women and minorities. The #metoo movement showed the time is up and enough is enough! Women will no longer accept this behaviour and would unite to hold perpetrators accountable.

The story of Purim is therefore telling in its themes. If we do not address the underlying abuses of power and the abuse of women, we become a society in which it becomes okay to kill people at will and persecute others.

In light of this, it is important to note that Taanit Esther (the fast of Esther) has been designated world wide as International Agunah Day. While traditionally a woman was deemed an Agunah when her husband went missing and could not be located and was therefore “chained” to her marriage unable to divorce or remarry, these days, women that are chained are often unable to remarry because their ex-husbands refuse to release them from religious marriages through the signing of a Gett.

This is an issue of current importance to many women, as we heard from guest speaker Susie Ivany last night. This situation needs to end. As an ambassador of Unchain My Heart, along with Rabbi Shneur, I am passionate about the need to find conducive solutions so that women have agency over their marriages and divorces and grateful to such an organisation for spearheading the movement for change.

As a Rabbi I am proud to join the movement which is ushering in an era of change. I am proud to be an ally to the #metoo movement and ambassador for Unchain My Heart.

I wish that we all witness a turning around of the current situation and a complete “VeNahapoch Hu.” For too long have stories like the one in the Megillah served as the norm. For too long have women been chained as Agunot. For too long have perpetrators gotten away with their repugnant behaviour.

Wishing you all a Chag Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Gabi