Imagine this scene: The raw hatred of the villain Haman towards the Jews of Persia is known to a few court appointees charged with vetting him for presumptive appointment to the palace governance team. Conveniently looking the other way, those responsible ensconce Haman in authority.
When his outrageous attitudes and violent intentions are disclosed, after an initial defense and denial, the court of King Ahashveros “accepts with regret” Haman’s resignation, even as it supports his protestations of innocence. As the outrage about the history of the appointment escalates, a palace spokesman meekly suggests, “We could have done better.”
The recent imbroglio over a White House official whose former wives provided known and credible testimony to having been victims of domestic violence at his hands, reminds us that when it comes to abuse perpetrated by one spouse against another, “doing better” is hardly an adequate response — and never an acceptable excuse.
What an odd moment in American cultural history surrounds this coming season of Purim. The opening chapters of the Megillah are replete with narratives that resonate in contemporary terms. A husband orders his wife to appear wearing her royal diadem — and, in the midrashic imagination, “nothing else” — for the amusement of his banquet guests, none of whom speak to the inappropriate and degrading demand. In the context of the exposure of the abusive behavior of Harvey Weinstein and his systemic network of enablers, the silence of those with knowledge of the abuse implicates them.
The banishment of Vashti “lest the women of Persia emulate her” seems uncomfortably similar to the wave of out-of-court accusations of abuse settlements, surely designed in part to discourage other women from coming forward to tell their stories and to protect the powerful.
Like so many issues in this fraught political moment, the responses to the wave of recent accusations of inappropriate behavior against women, ranging from boorishness to outright assault, has been polarizing. On the encouraging end, there has been the steady and continual stream of women coming forward to reveal abusive behavior. And there have been, in many instances, steps taken to hold people accountable — in particular, where long-standing patterns of harassment, abuse and violence have been brought to light.
And yet, as the support for former Senate candidate Roy Moore and the defense of former White House aide Rob Porter — to name just two recent examples — reveal, there is good reason to feel discouraged. Predictable patterns, in which accusations of abuse, even when documented, are conveniently dismissed as “false news” or ignored, prevail. Women who come forward, often at considerable risk, to reveal abuse are as likely to be impugned as to be believed, and often become victims of social media barrages of hate.
Perhaps polarization might be reduced if agreement was reached regarding what sorts of behavior are unacceptable in relationships, domestic as well as professional. No woman — no mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, aunt, cousin — should be subject to physical, emotional, economic, elder or any other type of harassment, abuse or violence.
We can do better by enacting a robust, fully funded and holistic Violence Against Women Act in 2018. This needs to be a congressional priority.
Despite the polarizing debate over guns and the Second Amendment, in 1996 Congress passed legislation that restricted those convicted of assaulting a spouse or a child from purchasing firearms. But that legislation allowed for significant loopholes to emerge, allowing boyfriends convicted of abuse to own and use guns, putting the survivors of that abuse in grave peril. We can do better by advocating for Congress to take the necessary remedial steps to ensure that the intent of that legislation is reflected in its application.
Ending abuse and violence against women ought not to be a partisan political issue but rather a motivating moral message.
Recognizing both the systemic enabling of abuse and the credible accusations of those abused deserves advocacy rather than attack. It would be encouraging if voices at the highest levels would speak out against intimate partner violence and other forms of relationship abuse. When those voices are absent, then, as the story of Esther suggests, help must come mimakom acher, “from a different place.”
Rather than settling for “we could have done better,” we need to ask why in so many cases we did not do better, and uncover the causes and conditions that condone harassment, abuse and violence against women. Rather than seeking to silence those who want to bring to light often systemic and pervasive patterns of misconduct, we need to ask how we will repair the conditions that allow such patterns to be perpetuated. What steps will each of us take to ensure that, regarding abuse in our homes, schools and workplaces, we will in fact do better?
The chasidic teacher Yehudah Leib Alter comments on the story of Purim as follows: Mordechai believed that even if Esther avoided using her access to the king to plead for the Jews of Shushan, help would come “from another place” — traditionally understood to mean “from God.” Then why did Mordechai ask her to go to the king? Because in a time of distress, it is necessary to speak out. That is when change begins to happen.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is a member of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community. To join the conversation about Vashti, sexual harassment and the Jewish response to the #MeToo movement, follow #IAmVashti on social media.