Purim: Challenging views of gender and sexuality

Purim, the Megillah, and Torah in general, come to challenge the brokenness of our reality, and to (re)assert that both femininity and masculinity have immense value of their own.

Part of a Scroll of Esther from Alsace
Photo by: REUTERS
On the next full moon, Jews around the world will celebrate the early-spring festival of Purim, on which we read the story, or Megillah, of Esther. The Megillah is a dramatic and often shocking tale, which challenges conventional views of gender and sexuality. If we read it through the lens of the Talmudic sages, it is also one of the most subversive books of the biblical canon, far removed from the understanding of the story we may have learned as children. But to appreciate how radical it is, it must be read in the context of one of the very first passages in the entire Hebrew Bible: The story of Adam and Eve.

After the infamous apple is eaten, God tells Eve that because of her 'sin', her husband will rule over her (Gen. 3:16). Unfortunately, this accurately describes our current reality, where relationships between the feminine and the masculine are often viewed in terms of power relations, and a mere means to an end. That end may be superficial pleasure, money, or the emotional power of controlling another person. Although feminism has won many women in the western world a greater degree of freedom, the feminine is still largely subservient to the masculine, and its life-giving ability is treated as a commodity to be acquired and guarded, rather than honored and loved. In a typically radical twist, the Talmudic sage Reish Lakish depicts God, the Creator of the universe, asking for forgiveness for this state of affairs, and asking us humans to offer a sacrifice, to atone for His sin of making it so (Talmud Bavli, Chullin 60b).

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