As a child, I delighted in the story of Esther, who appears before King Ahashverosh in a "beauty pageant" and is promptly chosen to be his queen. Imagine my surprise when, as a rabbinical student in my early 30s, I finally did a close reading of the Biblical Book of Esther and discovered in Esther's tale a much darker story:
Our heroine and hundreds of other young virgins are sent by their families to be showcased for the king. The girls are subjected to 12 months of purifying rituals, and forced to spend an evening in the king's quarters. After the king has his way with her, each girl is sent to spend the rest of her life confined to the harem, unless he chooses to summon her again. While the story is clearly farcical and as far as we know unhistorical, it is still deeply disturbing to read a tale which features vulnerable young women forced to have sex with a wanton emperor and then discarded when they are not chosen.
What is far more real, and even more disturbing, is the fact that rape and violence against women are no less common today than they were two thousand years ago. According to the United Nations Population Fund, one out of three women worldwide will be abused, beaten or coerced into sex in her lifetime; in some countries, that number is as high as seven in ten. The suffering of women and girls is particularly high in war-torn regions like the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the aftermath of tragedies like the Haitian earthquake. Behind the shocking statistics are heartbreaking individual stories of violation and suffering.
Fortunately, there are women in the Purim story -- and in real life -- who are working to change this devastating reality. Queen Vashti abdicates her position rather than humiliate herself before the king, and Esther goes on to become an activist for herself and for her people. Today there are countless Vashtis and Esthers around the globe, working to halt the scourge of rape and violence against women. And the good news is that this spring there is a tangible way that all Americans, including the Jewish community, can help support their courageous work.
The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bipartisan bill, the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which, if passed, will make permanent recent laudable efforts by the Obama administration to make gender-based violence a focus of American diplomatic efforts and funding. The IVAWA will ensure the continuity of the Office of Global Women's Issues at the State Department, will dedicate U.S. aid dollars and diplomatic efforts in at least five countries with high rates of gender-based violence, and will make sure that at least 10 percent of U.S. assistance on these issues goes to local groups working on the ground to effect change in their own communities.
Congress needs to hear from us, to know that as American citizens we support our government's efforts to halt violence against women. It is imperative that we write, email, tweet, call or visit our members of Congress and urge them to sign on to this important piece of legislation.
I am speaking out on this issue because I am part of American Jewish World Service's We Believe campaign, which is working to end violence against women and girls. I hope the Boston Jewish community will join me and other Jews around the nation in doing our part to ensure that women and girls today can stand up for their rights.
As Mordechai admonishes Esther, now is not the time for silence. This Purim, may we as a Jewish community and as a nation step up to this challenge, and help make the world a bit safer for every girl who comes into it.
To learn more about this issue, to read moving stories of women affected by gender-based violence and their organizing efforts to stop it, and to sign a petition supporting the IVAWA, visit www.ajws.org/webelieve.