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 390 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Part of a Scroll of Esther from Alsace 390 R
(photo credit: 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).
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, and that our world will remain incomplete until they relate to one another with mutual respect and love. In the Megillah, the pathetic King Achashverosh exemplifies viewing the feminine as a means to an end. In the opening act, the king is humiliated by his wife's refusal to subordinate herself, her sexuality, and her royal ancestry, to his rule. When Queen Vashti refuses to dance before his drunken 'friends', wearing only her crown, he exiles her. On the advice of one of his yes-men, he then sends a letter to every province of his empire, declaring, somewhat ridiculously, that every man should rule authoritatively over the women in his house – a  transparent attempt to reassert the curse of Eden (Esther 1:20-22).
Achashverosh is so traumatized by Vashti’s insubordination that rape becomes the only form of relationship with women he can stomach. His aides duly set to work, kidnapping likely candidates for the dubious honor of being the next queen (Esther 2:2-8). Our heroine Esther, is chosen as the king's ideal companion because she seems to be the most pliable woman ever created – that is, the easiest to rule over, to subdue not only with the physical act of penetration, but to make entirely subservient to his every whim.
The Talmudic sage Rav teaches that Esther is capable of behaving both as an experienced lover, and a naïve virgin, depending on her partner's desire. Her adaptability is no coincidence – she is so pliable because, having been orphaned at birth, she has been brought up by her uncle Mordechai, who has made her his wife. There may be love between them, but given her absolute dependency on him, it is hard not to view their relationship as abusive. The Talmudic sage Rabbah bar Leima explicitly equates her relationship with Ahashverosh to her relationship with Mordechai, meaning that when Esther is made queen, she essentially goes from one relationship of existential rape to another (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 13a and 13b).
Imprisoned in the palace, Esther has little choice but to relate to the crazed Achashverosh as he relates to her: an object to be manipulated. Her ultimate victory is not therefore simply the triumph of love over manipulation – she is just as manipulative as her arch foe Haman, if not more so. However, whereas Haman's manipulation of the king is driven by hate and greed, hers is quite the opposite (Esther 3:5-11). Esther's behavior is driven by a desire to fulfill her personal potential, by doing her part to save her people from annihilation (Esther 4:13-16).
Esther overcomes enormous abuse and fear to discover her own identity, and in doing so learns to use every tool at her disposal to a positive end. Whereas she was selected for the king because she seemed to be the most pliant woman imaginable, she in fact turns out to be capable of manipulating him expertly (Esther 9:12-14). Manipulation, of course, is not conducive to love, something which Esther never experiences with Achashverosh. She remains tragically trapped in the palace, a slave to a psychopathic tyrant. The Talmud suggests that one reason why we do not say 'Hallel' (extra psalms of praise) on Purim is that at the close of the story of Esther, the Jews are still in exile, still subject to the whims of Achashverosh, and none more than Esther (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a).
The redemption of Purim is therefore a partial one. Yet it is soon followed by Pesach (Passover), when we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, and enjoy the full flourishing of Spring's beauty, within and without. Unlike Purim, on Pesach we sing 'Hallel', and the Song at the Sea, and experience the outright transformation of spiritual rebirth. Purim occurs on the full moon prior to Pesach's, and reading Esther's triumphant yet tragic story has long been a wakeup call for our people, a jolting reminder that Pesach is exactly one month away (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 2a).
The Megillah famously contains no mention of God, but it has been less noted that it also does not mention love. On Pesach, however, we read a very different text that is, in many respects, the next step in our evolutionary journey – the Song of Songs (aka the Song of Solomon). This biblical wonder, comprising some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, depicts the masculine and feminine in mutual adoration and sensual consummation, corresponding to the profound rebirthing of the season. Although it may not compensate for her suffering, Esther's sacrifice and courage have preserved us in life, led us to this point, and made it possible for us to celebrate another Pesach. And before we can fully appreciate the intense love poetry of Solomon, we must acknowledge that to create real love requires patiently working to find one's own identity, and giving selflessly of oneself, like Esther.
Of course, Pesach is not an ending, but another beginning, and it reaches its apex seven weeks later with the harvest festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). The lovers in Solomon's song have temporarily broken free from the curse of Eden, but a weighty tension haunts them throughout the book, and at its close, they are forced to separate. However, with Shavuot comes another Megillah which takes us one step further on our journey – the Book of Ruth. Here, we discover that healthy, redemptive love is not only possible, but what we were created for. The love between the feminine and masculine in that story is one whose fruits endure forever, sowing the seed for a world of peace and equity, where the curse of Eden is finally laid to rest.