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Purim, Queen Esther and Women's Prayers At The Western Wall

02/23/2013 05:24 pm 17:24:09 | Updated Apr 25, 2013

One Purim, shortly before my second daughter, Hallel, turned 5-years-old, she sat rapt, listening to the Book of Esther. The story opens with King Ahashverosh hosting a banquet, and demanding that his wife, Queen Vashti, come dance for the male merry-makers. She refuses. When Hallel heard Vashti say no to the king, she sat up straight, her eyes widened, and she called out, "Like Rosa Parks!"

Again it is Purim, and again Hallel will celebrate a birthday. Now she is turning 18. She spent the past summer in Ghana with the American Jewish World Service, volunteering at a school for children who had been slaves in the fishing industry. These children were rescued or purchased to freedom by the organization, Challenging Heights, that runs the school. Its founder was a child slave himself, the only survivor of his sibling group of four. Some of the children at Challenging Heights are orphans, some have families who were too poor to protect them from such evil.

Hallel's two sisters, Aliza, 19, and Ashira, 9, are also my husband's and my biological children. Her two brothers, our sons, were once orphans in Ethiopia. Our older son, Adar, now 14, came home when he was 9-months-old. Our younger son, Zamir, now 11, came home more recently, when he was 4-years-old. We were matched with Adar on Purim in 1999 and he's named for the month in which Purim falls. Zamir came home to us one week before Purim in 2006. It was the first Jewish holiday he celebrated.

Our family has a deep and joyful connection to Purim. Even though it is a day of hafuch-al-hafuch -- everything upside down and inside out -- of games and costumes and hidden identities, it's been, for us, a time of transcendence and purpose. Of clarity. After all, Purim bought the revelation of our two sons.

Esther is an orphan who is also revealed, or reveals herself. But in kind of the opposite -- hafuch! -- way from our sons. While being Jewish was something that my sons grew openly and joyful into, it was something Esther hid. Raised by her older cousin, Mordecai, she competed with many Persian women to replace Queen Vashti after her abrupt departure from the palace. Once there, she discovered a plot by Ahashverosh's right-hand-man, Haman, to slaughter the Jews.

"Mi yodea?" Mordecai asks his younger cousin, his ward. Perhaps, he suggests, saving our people is the reason you were brought here. Mi yodea? Who knows?

This Purim season, on the first day of the month of Adar, Hallel and I joined more than 100 women on the women's side of the sex-segregated courtyard of the Western Wall, praying, singing, dancing, blessing. And immediately after, along with eight other women, getting taken away by the police and detained for four hours. Our crime? Wearing prayer shawls and singing joyfully at the Western Wall.

You can find the details of the law preventing Jews from practicing Judaism in Jerusalem, and all over Israel, frankly, online. Let me give you my experience of this phenomenon. First, the coalition political system here in Israel gives small, extreme groups, specifically religious ones, disproportionate power. The Knesset could be compared to Achashverosh, the King in our Purim story, who was a wuss. He leaned toward evil when Haman had his ear, and toward good when Mordecai and Esther had his ear. Too many in the Kneset will bow toward those who can bring them power. But I want to look at theological power, at religious abuses of power. Some in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has Kneset Ahashverosh's ear. And they claim authority, authority over Jewish religious practice, over holy sites, over what women wear and where we sit on buses. Power for all Jewish practice to conform to their understanding alone.

All Jews who take Sinai as their paradigm for authority and purpose -- God's command that we become a Kingdom of Priests, each one of us in direct relationship with and an interpreter of God -- are obligated to reveal ourselves as brave and proactive Jews, like Esther. And the few who seek to hoard God, idol-like, for themselves, in their own images, are obligated to learn from Mordecai's humilty and ask: Who knows?

Some Jews will prioritize care for the orphan and the stranger, and ignore Jewish ritual practice. Some will keep kosher and the Sabbath to varying degrees and in various ways, while seeking justice in society. Some will take the smallest, most extreme and skewed rules and make them into the whole of Judaism. And everything betwixt and between. It is an endless variety, as it should be. That is the democratic power of Judaism that somehow and eventually manages to allow the highest ideals to gain momentum.

We end public readings of the Scroll of Esther with a blessing. "Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes." It's a tragedy when those we have in mind are other Jews.

Women of the Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman lives with her husband, Yosef Abramowitz, and their five children in Jerusalem, Israel. She just completed a book, Casting Lots: A Memoir of Family, Adoption and God.