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What we talk about when we talk about the Purim story

It’s very hard, I discovered while writing the Forward’s guide to celebrating Purim, to write a straightforward summary of the Purim story. Did the Persian king Ahasuerus command his wife, Vashti, to appear before his friends or dance for them naked (the text relates that he asked her to “display her beauty”)? Did she refuse because she was an early feminist, or because she was vain, and does it even matter what her reasons were? Did Esther become Ahasuerus’s wife or a particularly favored concubine? Was Mordechai, the uncle who put her forward for the king’s inspection, a sex trafficker or an advocate for his people? And when the vindicated Jews killed Haman’s relatives and hundreds of other people, were they defending themselves or engaging in indefensible slaughter?

It felt impossible to even tell the story without commenting on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence, the rights of a minority group under extreme duress, or the moral fiber of the story’s female protagonists. So I knew there was only one thing to do: Call a bunch of rabbis and ask their advice on engaging with an ancient text as a 21st century Jew.

Most of us first come in contact with the Purim story, which is found in the Book, or Megillah, of Esther, as children, through carnivals, games and shpiels that tell a simple and distinctly celebratory story. “When I was growing up, Vashti was bad, so she got banished,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, describing how she learned the Purim story in Hebrew school. “And Esther, who was pretty, and good, got to be the queen.”

But as an adult, she was drawn to feminist readings of the Megillah, which identified Vashti as a victim of sexual assault and saw her refusal to dance not as an act of disobedience but a brave assertion of autonomy. Meanwhile, while Esther’s selection by Ahasuerus is often portrayed as a sort of benign beauty pageant, Ruttenberg describes it as a “sexual audition,” through which Esther becomes not a respected consort but a glorified concubine with little power of her own.

The rehabilitation of Vashti is hardly a new phenomenon. As far back as the 19th-century, Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to her refusal to dance as the “first stand for women’s rights.” In the 1970s and 1980s, she became newly popular as second-wave feminists examined classic texts for assertive and independent female protagonists. And in 2018, during the first Purim celebrations after the rise of the #MeToo movement, Jewish Women’s International started the viral hashtag #IamVashti, encouraging Jews on social media to consider the very current issues of consent and sexual violence that Vashti’s presence in the story reveals.

But it’s as easy to dismiss Esther as it is to demonize Vashti. Esther does save her people not just by being beautiful, but by seizing on her beauty as a path to agency when no others were available to her. In fact, says Rabbanit Leah Sarna, Esther “exercises power in an extraordinary and redemptive way,” and her action shouldn’t be lost in our newfound regard for her queenly predecessor. In the early 2000s, Jewish feminist organization Ma’yan popularized Purim flags that display Esther’s face on one side and Vashti’s on the other. Rather than pitting the two women against each other, the now-ubiquitous flags reflect a reading of the story in which both women demonstrate bravery in different ways.

While Esther begins her tale as a demure beauty queen worried that her husband might execute her at any moment, by the end of the Megillah the tables have turned. Easily manipulated by everyone around him, Ahasuerus turns out to possess little in the way of independent spirit himself, and even becomes “a tool of Esther,” Sarna says. Once she gains his favor, Ahasuerus lets Esther make political decisions on his behalf, and it’s she who persuades him to execute Haman’s sons and allow her people to take revenge on their enemies.

It’s great to see a woman giving commands in the halls of power, except for the fact that Esther’s rise to power results in the massacre of hundreds of people. When the dust settles and the Jews pause to feast — inaugurating the festival we now know as Purim — they’re celebrating not just survival but violent triumph.

For a people who had been oppressed for decades and just barely escaped extermination, that’s an understandable reaction, said Rabbi David Wolpe, pointing out that when the Megillah was written, most Jews lived in small, precarious Diaspora communities. The Purim story’s ending, which may in fact be a narrative invention rather than historical truth, displays the “imagination of a powerless people.”

The Jews of the Megillah, he said, were enacting “a revenge fantasy that is legitimate for a vulnerable people to feel.”

But these days, said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who has written about violence in the Purim story, “the Jewish people globally have never been stronger.” Under these circumstances, it’s easy for celebrations of survival to morph into displays of Jewish militarism, or for extremists to use the story as justification for violent behavior. Yanklowitz pointed out that the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre, in which Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshipers, took place on Purim; Goldstein may have believed he was re-enacting a story of Jewish revenge.

While it’s important to understand the role of violence in the lives of the Jews of the Megillah, Yanklowitz said, reveling in it at the current moment obscures the “universal” questions the holiday raises: what does a just society look like? How can a despotic ruler be checked? How does a religious minority obtain rights in a larger society? Those philosophical quandaries can get lost when Purim turns into an unquestioning celebration of Jewish strength.

So how to celebrate, I wondered, while acknowledging all these complexities?

All the rabbis contacted for this article stressed the importance of seeking out discussions or opportunities to engage with the text, alongside carnivals and other lighthearted celebrations. Most synagogues host a traditional reading of the Megillah on Purim, and some communities are experimenting with less structured discussions: Adina Schwartz, the Director of Engagement at JCC Harlem, said that the community center’s family-friendly carnival will be followed by an adult discussion where people can share “what’s bubbling up in the moment.”

Even with children, it’s possible to initiate a deeper conversation about the Purim story without diluting the holiday’s celebratory atmosphere. Rabbi Yanklowitz suggested that families make mishloach manot, the custom of giving gifts to friends and the needy, as central to holiday observance as carnivals or games, communicating that Purim’s “central theme is giving back and fulfilling our moral commitments.”

Ruttenberg encourages her own children to retell the Purim story in the car or at the dinner table, prompting them to analyze the text by asking small questions, for example: “Do you think Esther wanted to go to the palace?” Strategies like this allow children to “own the paradox of Purim” as they grow into a deeper understanding of the text.

And Sarna added that it’s important to honor each other’s readings of the Megillah, even when they’re vastly different. “Any piece of literature will speak to you differently every year,” she said. “That’s the whole point. That’s what makes these texts timeless.”

Irene Connelly writes about life and culture. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

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