‘Exceptions prove the rule’; they also provoke curiosity. And so it is with the only two books of the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, to be named after female characters: Ruth and Esther. 39 books make up the TaNaKh, and of these 21 bear the names of men – or more specifically, male prophets. Fortunately, the first rabbis selected Ruth and Esther, together with three other books, to form Chameish M’gillot, the ‘Five Scrolls’, for reading at specific festivals, giving us an opportunity to become familiar with them. And so in chronological order, we read Shir Ha-Shirim The Song of Songs at Pesach, because of the Pastoral idyll it evokes, Ruth at Shavuot, because harvest time is so crucial to the story, Eichah, Lamentations at Tishah B’Av, because it describes the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple, Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, at Sukkot, because it transmits the festival’s universal truths, and Esther at Purim.
The focus of Purim is the reading of the M’gillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, which centres on how Esther ensures that her people averts the fate prescribed by the King’s wicked chief minister, Haman, when he cast purim, ‘lots’, to determine the day of their destruction. The book has the aura of a fairy tale, complete with an evil plot foiled and a happy ending. The characters, too – both the villains and the heroine-hero duo of Esther and Mordecai – have a one-dimensional, larger-than-life character about them. Here we have not so much a story about a particular unpleasant slice of Jewish history as a meta-account of the perennial Jewish experience of living as a vulnerable minority.
Interestingly, in addition to the main plot, there is also a subplot that serves to get the larger tale rolling, which focuses on the fate of the first wife of King Achashveirosh: Vashti. How did Esther get to be the wife of the great King? Because she won a twelve month beauty contest after he got rid of Vashti when she refused to obey his command and appear before him and his male guests. How typical of a patriarchal narrative for one woman to ‘win’ at the expense of another. And in true fairy tale fashion, the story even has the King’s dictate being sent out to all the 27 provinces of his great empire that women should submit to their husbands.
Like the meta-tale of Jewish experience as a beleaguered minority, we have here, also, a meta-tale of female experience in a patriarchal culture. And so the success of Esther in getting the better of Haman serves to reinforce the message that the only way for women to exert power under patriarchy is for them to manipulate the male power holders. Although now in the 21st century, the majority of Jewish communities in the diaspora are not subjected to vicious persecution and women have achieved equality in many societies, both anti-Semitism and misogyny are still in evidence. So: Purim remains relevant – beginning this year on the evening of March 15 – and so, too, International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8. Let us celebrate both of these special days. Purim Samei’ach!