Don’t look now, but Esther was a woman

Don’t look now, but Esther was a woman

Shhh. Do not breathe a word of this, please, or we may be forced to drop a fun holiday from our calendar just as quick as you can say M’gillat Esther. This whole Purim thing revolves around a woman. Seriously. There is no Hasmonean strongman here; no great prophet getting coded messages in his sleep; no kolel fortysomething keeping the world safe by studying a blat g’mara. Just a woman who risked her life to save the lives of her people.

Keeping the faith: One religiou perspective on issues of the dayAnd if she came back today and tried to get on a bus in Mea Shearim, she might be spat on, called a whore (or worse), and possibly even beaten unless she agreed to sit in the back.

So please, do not let on that Esther was a woman. A great many bakeries depend on hamantaschen sales this time of year and we would not want the economy to suffer merely because our hero is a heroine.

On the other hand, what is wrong with Esther being a woman? In fact, what is wrong with women in general?

Nothing, we are told. It is just that women cannot help being sexually provocative even when they do not want to be and men cannot help themselves to not be tempted. After all, Sarah was 90 years old and pregnant, but she still enflamed a king’s passion.

It is an old story. The Talmud tells of two Babylonian sages, Rav and Rav Yehudah, who are about to walk in the street when a woman passes them. Rav suggests that they wait a few moments, because of the rule that a man should not walk behind a woman because it might excite him.

“But,” said Rav Yehudah to Rav, “you yourself said that this rule doesn’t apply to people who are as respectable as we are?”

Said Rav, “Who said that you and I are respectable?” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin 81a.)

From the Torah’s point of view, women are not second-class citizens. They are not an afterthought of Creation, presented to man as a servant. The Torah from “in the beginning” onward has held women to be the equals of and, at times, the betters of men. Whatever chauvinistic views were espoused by individual rabbis and regardless of the impact those views had on subsequent Jewish law, their opinions are not “Torah from Sinai.”

The Torah transmits this to us in a variety of ways. Its narrative in Genesis 2 regarding the dividing of the original hermaphrodite human into a woman and a man “proves the absolute equality of men and women in the Torah,” explained the late 19th century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

The women who play major roles in the Torah are the four matriarchs and Miriam, the sister of Moses. Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel were all strong figures. Miriam stood beside Moses in Egypt and in the desert. To quote the prophet Micah quoting God, “For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)

What makes Micah’s reference even more pointed is that it is the only reference to Miriam outside the Torah, other than a genealogical reference in the First Book of Chronicles. Coupled with its matter-of-fact tone, it testifies to an Israelite belief that Moses headed a troika, of which a woman, Miriam, was a God-appointed part.

Throughout the Torah, at least as I read it, we see the law striving to achieve equality for women, usually accompanied by an understanding of human nature and the power of societal norms.

Thus, it was not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern cultures for a man to sell his daughter into slavery if he needed money. The Torah accepts that such things will happen regardless of what it says, so instead of banning the practice, it takes steps to protect the young girl. She must be raised in the master’s house and (as interpreted by the sages of blessed memory) assigned only light duties; when she becomes of age, she must be married to the master, or his son; she may not be sold to anyone else; and if the marriage is not to take place, she is to be set free. If the master or the son do marry her, and then marry someone else, the former “slave girl” is guaranteed her food, her clothing, and her conjugal rights. (See Exodus 21:7-11)

Indeed, it is from this law that the sages derived a woman’s rights in marriage (not slavery, marriage), including that she has conjugal rights, rather than conjugal obligations. That a husband can be guilty of raping his wife is only a few decades old in America and still not universally accepted; based on the Torah, the sages of old taught that a woman can say no to her husband, but he cannot say no to her. (Women, by the way, are not obligated under Torah law to have children; only men have that obligation.)

This kind of protection extended to all women, not just Israelite ones. Thus, when an Israelite soldier in wartime saw a woman who sent his hormones into overdrive, the Torah creates an extensive cooling-off period. (See Deuteronomy 21:11-14.)

This approach – adopting a chauvinistic veneer in order to level the playing field – may not sit well with us modern folk, but the Torah was dealing with a different reality.

The Torah does not bar women from, say, wearing t’fillin, or putting on a tallit; men do. The Torah does not deny a woman the right to be called up to the Torah; men do – and the Talmud is very clear on that point. (See BT Megillah 23a.)

Twice, Abraham puts his wife’s honor and her physical person at risk. Twice, God is forced to intervene to protect her, although it apparently never occurred to Abraham to ask God to do so. On the other hand, men (Rashi and Rambam most notably) praise Abraham for passing God’s test; they differ only on which incident was the actual test.

If men tell women to go to the back of the bus, or insist that they must dress in a certain way, or must walk on the other side of the street, it is not the Torah talking and it is not Judaism talking. It is men talking.

When they talk that way, they show disrespect for God and His word.

So keep secret the fact that Esther was a woman. They might burn the book – or change its name to M’gillat Mordechai.