The painfulness of Purim

Back lit image of the silhouette of a woman with her hands pressed against a glass window. The silhouette is distorted, and the arms elongated, giving an alien-like quality. The image is sinister and foreboding, with an element of horror. It is as if the ‘woman’ is trying to escape from behind the glass.

Purim is a jovial holiday, but the holiday’s heroine, Esther, has a darker reality that is similar to what many sexual assault survivors experience.

“Purim contains joy but isn’t automatically joyful,” said Rabbi Aviva Richman, of Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshivah in New York City. “The joy of Purim isn’t a naive joy, it’s a fragile joy and it is a hard-earned joy that comes through the story of Esther.”

Richman spoke by Zoom last week to the D.C.-based Jewish women’s organization SVIVAH. The group looked at the scroll of Esther through the lens of being a women and sexual victimization with Richman and Guila Benchimol, a researcher and public educator on sexual violence.

Benchimol posed two questions: “What has been joyful for you in the experience of Purim and what has been painful?”

Answers poured in from more than 80 women. They shared anecdotes of celebrating the holiday with their children, as well as painful memories of being excluded from rituals. A common theme was that they enjoyed the female-centeredness of the story of Esther, but felt pain about the overarching sexism.

“What has been painful is the misogyny throughout the story,” a response read. “That Esther doesn’t get a happy ending even after saving the day.”

Benchimol said she began relearning the story of Esther with her daughter and stepdaughter. To her, critically analyzing the text doesn’t take away from the celebration of Queen Esther’s triumph, but allows for support of victims.

“I’m not trying to darken or dim the light of Purim for you. If anything, I’m hoping to shed light on the dark corners so that we can uplift survivors,” she explained.

Benchimol is the senior adviser on Research and Learning with the Safety Respect Equity (SRE), a Jewish network of 150 organizations. In this role she has crafted standards and policies for Jewish workplaces, institutions and communal spaces and has worked with many survivors of sexual assault.

As she went through the book of Esther with the group, she pointed out the similarities between how the women are treated in the story and how sexual assault survivors are handled in modern times from what she’s seen in her studies and work.

“We tell people when we know they’ve been victimized, ‘You have to come forward because you know you might save other people!’ But we don’t always recognize that it might be dangerous for them to come forward,” she said.

Just as Queen Esther tells Mordechai to ask all the Jews to pray for her and fast for her as she prepares to carry out a life-threatening act, people have to offer their support to victims of sexual assault, she said.

“Do we ask victims to bleed for us, when we don’t do the same for them? What are the guarantees that we can give them in support,” she added.

“Torah is very powerful. But it is not automatically good, and our sages know that,” said Richman. “It is called an elixir but it can be a poison. A deadly poison or a life-giving elixir. What makes the difference is how we approach it.”

For her, that approach requires a lot of motivation, effort and community. It takes reflection through discussions like the one the women had that night because they set the tone for what is acceptable in society.

“Law and policies are critical and important but actually what matters is culture,” the rabbi said. “The role of leadership is critical in creating a culture that cares.”

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