by Julia Shedlin
What would Queen Esther and King Ahashveros’ marriage be like a year after he banishes Queen Vashti from the kingdom, he chooses Esther, and she saves the Jews? What about seven years later? And would that relationship still be a strong one decades beyond?
Jewish Women International, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence against women and girls in the United States and around the world, wants Jews to consider how the images they traditionally associate with Purim can be reexamined to reflect on modern times and today’s relationships. To this effect, they’ve released “Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships and Jewish Texts,” the first of a series of resources guiding people on how to contemplate Jewish holidays in the 21st century. JWI has so far released guides for Purim, Shavuot and Sukkot. Each guide combines a reading of classic texts with insights, questions and ideas designed to motivate reflection on how to shape healthier relationships. A Shabbat guide is due to be released later this year.
According to JWI, the series, created through JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, can “help raise awareness of the ways in which issues of gender and power intersect with and can be addressed through such Jewish values as k’vod ha-briot (respect for the dignity and integrity of each person) and kedusha (sanctification).”
Last week in honor of Purim, a group of women gathered at the Bethesda home of Vivian Bass, who serves on JWI’s board, to talk about how the story and motifs of Purim can be applied to modern relationships. Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation, explained how JWI’s guide, “Rethinking Purim,” suggests that three characteristics of healthy relationships are developing a strong voice, cultivating the conscious use of self, and striving for parity.
“JWI convened tonight’s conversation because we wanted a place for women to come together where they’d feel comfortable talking about relationships and using Jewish texts as a way to talk about them,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI’s director of programs. “Of course, our Purim guide – and our entire “Rethinking” series – isn’t just for women. It’s for anyone seeking to use Jewish texts as a means to think about relationships. The guides can be used at home, with friends and in study groups.”
When Rabbi Shankman asked guests to name their favorite character from the Purim story, many chose Esther, citing her heroism and their own personal fond memories of dressing up as her as a child. Few mentioned Vashti and her ability to stand strong and say no to King Ahashveros, which later became a theme in the discussion about healthy relationships.
In Megillat Esther Chapter 4:13-17, Shankman related, Esther tells her uncle, Mordechai, to gather the Jews in Shushan and to fast for three days while she does the same. After that, she will risk going to the king to ask him to not follow through with Haman’s plan to exterminate the Jews. This sparked discussion in the group about finding one’s voice like Esther, who did what Mordechai suggested but turned it into her own plan.
What gave Esther the strength at that moment to take matters into her own hands? How could the group apply such a situation to their own experiences? A few of the women at the gathering, including Rabbi Shankman, shared their own stories about when they first found their voice in Judaism, and some shared memories of strong Jewish women in their lives.
For attendee Linda Yitzchak, Mordechai’s question of Esther, “And who knows whether or not you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” resonated for her for the first time at the session.
“I have studied this text before, but sitting with a group of women, it hit me in a different way in that it applies to each of us, we’re all put here for some reason,” she said. “Sometimes, we don’t realize it or go out and seek it, but it is a very validating and challenging statement, to make us try to find what we were put here for as women.”
Jewish Women International plans to organize future similar sessions to introduce its Shavuot, Sukkot and Shabbat guides to more people, as well as to bring the “Rethinking” series to college campuses, where discussions about healthy relationships and finding one’s voice can be particularly important, Rosenbloom said. The series has already been distributed to hundreds of rabbis across the country.
“The ‘Rethinking’ guides are designed not just for rabbis and Jewish communal leaders interested in taking people through a discussion of the relevance of Jewish texts for today’s relationships, but also are ideal for any individual or group interested in examining classic Jewish texts in today’s context,” said Rosenbloom.