02/22/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

From Vashti and Esther to Women of the Wall and U.S. Nuns

Ridiculing the Powerful, Resisting Their Power

Purim, the Jewish "spring fever" topsy-turvy festival for which we read the Scroll of Esther, begins this Saturday night. For centuries, the Scroll has been read as a triumphant celebration of the overthrow of an anti-Semitic, genocidal official. Though this would seem to be a serious business, the festival has been celebrated with mirth, costumes, purimshpiels (farcical plays) poking fun at all authority, even at the rabbis who might be overseeing the celebration, even at Torah itself. And wearing costumes becomes a way of laughing at our own "serious," "established" identities.

Understanding Purim as the Jewish version of the celebrations of "spring fever" in many cultures, poking fun at conventional values and power-centers, evoking early-spring hilarity at the defeat of winter, encouraging topsy-turvy behavior and ideas, makes sense of the levity hidden in the gravity, the gravity hidden in the levity. What unifies levity and gravity is satire -- and the Scroll of Esther is indeed not factual history but a truth-filled satire of the pomposity and cruelty of The Powerful 1%.

Megillat Esther was the first Purim-shpiel. It was written to celebrate a Purim that already existed, and its deepest joke is that it claims that its story is the reason Purim exists.

But that is not the only joke in this satire. For centuries, it has been apparent that the fall of tyrannical Haman comes in the form of a classical joke -- the "slipped on his own banana peel,"  "hoist on his own petard" variety: Haman the anti-Semitic, anti-stranger xenophobe gets hanged on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.

When I wrote "Seasons of Our Joy" in 1981, I pointed out that Esther is woven around not one but two jokes of that same classic form: The king, who begins the whole action by insisting he and all the men will never take orders from women, ends by doing exactly what Esther tells him to. Anti-Semitism and anti-feminism, or xenophobia and gynophobia, go hand in hand in the story. Queen Vashti had the courage to resist male chauvinism; Queen Esther had the courage to resist both aspects of tyrannical power.

I think I was able to see this in 1981 because Purim already showed signs of becoming a celebration of Jewish feminism.

In the new edition of "Seasons," I am happy to report on the much stronger sense that Vashti as well as Esther have become heroines for modern emulation, and I quote a few verses of "'She [Vashti] Said No!" (The whole song is available here. The new edition of "Seasons," published by the Jewish Publication Society, is available from The Shalom Center.)

Now this feminist understanding of Purim has taken a major step into becoming explicitly political -- that is, about power.

Here is a powerful statement about Purim from this angle, by one of the Women of the Wall, who are resisting the anti-woman behavior of a modern "king" -- the government of Israel. Women of the Wall insist on their right to pray and chant aloud, wearing the sacred shawl of fringes, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. For this chutzpah they are arrested, humiliated, sometimes beaten.

In my own view -- not necessarily that of the Women of the Wall -- it is an echo of the ancient double satire that today, the same Israeli government that jails women for praying at the Western Wall oppresses Palestinians and militarily occupies the nascent Palestine. The same U.S. politicians who oppose the Violence Against Women Act spew contempt on immigrants. Those who rule near the top of the pyramid are most frightened and most disgusted by the strangeness of strangers (and for them, women are strange).

Tradition has it that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Shekhinah, feminine aspect of God, weeps at the nearby Western Wall for all the injustices and idolatries of the world.  Indeed! And Her daughters, Her sisters, Her mothers weep with Her at the Wall, though at the same time they laugh at the ridiculous behavior of the cruel and pompous 1 percent of our own day.

Laughing at the 1 percent is an early stage of shattering their power.  What comes later is Passover, when our laughter drowns them out.

This year, celebrating Purim as it begins this Saturday night, let us celebrate the courage to defy authority, to affirm and defend whoever are the "strangers" in our midst and whoever has been excluded from dignity and empowerment: women, gay people, Palestinians there, Muslims and Hispanics here.  

And let us take joy in the courage of Sheckinah's daughters -- Vashti's and Esther's sisters -- the Women of the Wall; the American nuns whose work for the poor the Vatican has tried to suppress; the women of the U.S. Senate who insisted on renewing the "Violence Against Women Act" despite the cruel and pompous politicians who are still opposing it -- and let us welcome into courage the countless unnamed women abused and beaten in their homes.