Rabbi Stern’s reference to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is right on the mark in our discussion of the place of women in today’s Jewish power structure. This week’s Jewish Week contains a front-page story on how that organization has been thwarted in its efforts to bring together mainstream (male) rabbis to even consider discussing the issue of agunot–women whose husbands refuse to grant them ritual divorces and so, by traditional Jewish law, are unable to remarry. According to the article, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, was going to convene a series of meetings to discuss this rank injustice–until threats from right-wing Orthodox leaders knocked out even the possibility of discussing the issue, let alone working toward a resolution.
Sounds a lot like the words of Ahasuerus’ advisors in squashing Queen Vashti’s attempts at self-assertion: “For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come’” (Est. 1:17). How do you fight the existing power structure when its guardians–be they the buffoonish advisors of Ahasuerus or the equally buffoonish Haredi rabbis who support the status quo–see even talking about the problem as an admission of weakness?
Perhaps that’s why Purim is our holiday of farce, where Vashti is divorced against her will, standing up to the existing patriarchal power structure and being squashed by it. And Esther, who plays along with a system of marriage that only celebrates beauty and objectifies women, ultimately uses it to her advantage and the advantage of the Jewish people. For women who wish to take the system on, there isn’t a lot to dance about this Purim.