Rabbi’s Corner: Esther – Going Beyond the Biblical Text

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen for Purim.  She cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style.  She also made a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, and tied it around my neck with a string.  As Purim approached, I began to dread getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume.  I hated it!  I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway?  Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther.

For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives.  Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic!  I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine.  Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes.  The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.  We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers.  Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate.  If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Since the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.  Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman.  She is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her, Ruth is the other.  Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls.  Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities.  The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people.  This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit.  The rabbis of old even attributed  God’s spirit was with her, thereby saying that all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure.  They attribute to her great courage and authority.  They portray her not only as the saviour of the Jewish people, but also as an halachicauthority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure.  The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine.  For the actual text of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner.  It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is androcentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine.  It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children.  It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models which exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did:  we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.  We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti.  Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself.  Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.  Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom

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