Purim begins at sunset tonight. This has got me thinking about Esther, although I am still mostly thinking about the upcoming Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Consultation that is now less than two weeks away.
[And speaking of the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Consultation . . . Have you turned in your works of art or other interesting items for the Spring Silent Auction? There’s still time! Have you registered to attend the Reception and Silent Auction (to benefit the Women’s Center), the Lecture, and the events – worship, workshop, lunch, and “Gendered Dimensions of Global Migration” presentation – on Monday? There’s still time! If you are an alumna, have you received an invitation to have breakfast with Friends of the Women’s Center on Monday morning? We hope so! And RSVP’d? There’s even still time for that!! There’s still time – but not much!]
Purim, for those who don’t know, and even for those who do, is the annual festival on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the events celebrated in the scroll or book of Esther. You can read more about the celebration protocols – which include sharing food with at least one other person, giving help to the poor, dressing up in costumes and depicting characters in the story, hearing the story of Esther read and making lots of noise at the appropriate parts, and perhaps even drinking a lot of wine – at lots of internet locations. (E.g., Torah.org, Judaism 101, and MyJewishLearning.com)
Esther seems significant for the Women’s Center for more than one reason. Esther is one of the Big Biblical Heroines. (She gets a WHOLE BOOK, which puts her in the category of Ruth, or Judith, and well ahead of Mary.) She is a complex and provocative Biblical heroine, too, who has excited a number of conflicting responses, who may or may not be able to support a proto-feminist reading, or alternatively, a feminist critique. (For a review of responses along these lines, check out a paper by Sylvia Barack Fishman, “Reading Esther: Cultural Impact on Responses to Biblical Heroines”, here.) Esther has been the subject of extensive scholarly study, including books by Dr. Johanna Van-Wijk Bos (inter alia, Ruth and Esther: Women in Alien Lands, Abingdon, 2001), Dr. Patricia K. Tull (Esther and Ruth, Interpretation Bible Studies, 2003) and Dr. Linda Day (Three Faces of a Queen: Characterization in the Books of Esther, JSOT Supplement Series 186, 1995, as well as the volume on Esther in the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series, 2005).
[Purim also contextualizes (by culinary custom and satirical mood) a long-standing and continually unresolved debate between the relative merits of latkes and hamantaschen, which has in recent times taken on a feminist twist. In this connection, I’ve only been able to find a full-text version of Robin Leidner’s response to Judith Shapiro’s opening salvo. The print source for both is The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, Ruth Fredman Cernea ed., University of Chicago Press, 2006.]
This year, Purim coincides with Maundy Thursday, which as most Christians know commemorates Jesus’ last meal with “the twelve” and the beginning of the story Christians re-enact and remember every year, that leads up to Jesus’ heroic self-sacrifice and then, finally, Easter.
How much of a contrast is that?
Well . . . The text of Esther may be well thought of as a meditation on the presence and activity of God in exile and hiding, in events that don’t seem at first to have much of God in them at all. (See e.g. the reflections by Rabbi Irving Greenberg at MyJewishLearning.com) We here might add to that, “and in and through the activity of women as well as men.” So it seems to me that it will not be a bad thing if I am thinking of Esther tonight and tomorrow. It will not hurt if I am thinking of the way God works through all sorts of people — women as well as men, high as well as low, unknown as well as famous and eminent – and events – unpleasant as well as pleasant, inexplicable as well as routine. Indeed, maybe it will help, on Maundy Thursday, that I have read the story of Esther and have thought about the courage in the face of mortal peril and high stakes that impels someone to take the side of life by confronting the powerful with the attitude “if I perish, I perish.”