This JewFem blog focuses on feminist issues in Jewish life. It tackles Jewish education, synagogue life, Israel, Jewish community, bits of pop culture, and more. This blog is written by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, writer, educator, and researcher, contributing writer at the Forward Sisterhood, author of the book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World”.
International Agunah Day, the day dedicated to remembering the plight of agunot, women denied divorce, falls on March 7, the Fast of Esther. This year, some feminist activists have written new midrashim about this important milestone:
Longtime agunah activists Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, have written the following midrash:
When Esther, the courageous queen, was charged by her uncle/cousin/adoptive father/husband to act to save her people, she first turned to the community for help, asking them to fast to support her efforts to save them. Fortified by their backing, she risked her life on their behalf, even exposing her Jewishness, hidden until then.
Today our halakhic way of life is degraded by having the agunah disgrace exposed to the scrutiny of the secular public, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The Epstein/Friedman agunah situation is in the public eye as no other case has been, thanks to new media capabilities and instant publicity. Like the Jews of Shushan, the community has done all it can to help. But unlike Esther, the rabbis who have the power to free not only Tamar but every agunah as well, remain in hiding. Despite the outpouring of community support, they are unwilling to risk possible censure by their peers, by acting to remove male power over women in marriage. They lack Esther’s courage.
The foolish King of the Purim story feared that if Vashti's defiance were known, every husband’s power to be master of his household, his wife, would be weakened. So he issued a decree that every man should be "sorer" in his house. We laugh at that. Yet our rabbis have enshrined that edict by allowing every Jewish husband to be "sorer b’veito" to have power over his wife.
Esther provided leadership. If only the rabbis would act as boldly and implement one of the various halakhic solutions and free agunot, to bring about La Y’hudim Ha-y’tah Orah V’Simchah V’Sason Vi- kar, Kein Tihyeh Lanu.
Feminist scholar and activist Bonna Devora Haberman also wrote a midrash for the occasion, with a slightly different emphasis:
Esther's courage to face the bombastic king and save our people from decimation inspire us in these pre-Purim hours. In the feasting and celebrating, however, the sublime savvy of her strategy has long eluded us.
At the outset, Vashti's bold refusal to be humiliated at the king's bidding triggers a royal backlash. The court decrees, the enforcement of patriarchy men are to rule firmly over women and households (Esther 1:22), and the trafficking of women from throughout the empire into male custody and sexual servitude in the capital city. (Esther 2:3-4)In a similar way, Mordecai's defiance of Haman's power invokes his edict to kill the Jews. Then as now, racism and misogyny join hands and clink cups at sumptuous tables.
Supported by capable Mordecai and her people, Esther risks her life and succeeds to convince the bumbling ruler that the murderous plot must not proceed. At the peak moment when the policy is to be decided about how to deal with the outstanding order to kill the Jews, Esther proposes her vision: And she said: 'If it please the king, and if I have found favour in his sight, and the thing seems right before the king, and I am pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews that are in all the king's provinces; for how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?' (Esther 8:5-6) Esther's humble and impassioned plea is a clarion call to ethical action - priorities that must be put on the tables of the powerful, inscribed in the hearts of all leaders, and sealed in the legislation of all peoples. Human life and well-being supersede the interest of the writ and the perpetuation of its authority. Esther calls to repeal the edicts of destruction, and to protect life. Instead of adopting Esther's policy,
The king granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey (Esther 8:11).
The justification for the royal policy is simple, for the edicts written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring, may not be undone (Esther 8:8).
For the king obsessed with his law, the canon is more sacred than the lives which it is meant to govern and sanctify. Chapter nine of the Scroll of Esther records the bloody outcome of the phallic decree - Jews slay their enemies who seek their destruction.
The joy of Purim is dark and unrelenting in Purim nothing is hidden from the scathing mockery of the courts of the powerful and power-hungry and their self-serving banqueting on indulgent delusion. Esther calls to dismember the law in order to uphold the integrity of life; the king opts to dismember life in order to uphold the integrity of his law. Esther reveals the consequences and advocates the alternative: commitment to life over death, to flourishing over suffering.
Today, secular and rabbinic leaders throughout the world oppress their people with their can(n)ons.
We fast for Esther. To strengthen the struggle of agunot who are chained by Jewish Orthodoxy's unilateral male divorce prerogative, we fast. May we hunger to fulfill Esther's vision for our people and our world,
And the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book (Esther 9:32)
As we unfurl her scroll, may we steel our resolve to release chains that bind us to cruelty and destruction, and to enact Esther's priority of flourishing life and joy!
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a leading writer on issues of feminism, Judaism, Orthodoxy and education. Elana holds a doctorate in education and sociology from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and wrote her dissertation on the identity development of adolescent religious girls in schools. She then went on to do post-doctoral research, thanks to a grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, on the "other" side of the mechitza, i.e., on identities of Orthodox men.
The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World investigates a fascinating new sociological phenomenon: Orthodox Jewish men who connect themselves to egalitarian or quasi-egalitarian religious enterprises. Sztokman interrogates the ideologies and motivations of more than fifty such men in the United States, Israel, and Australia.
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