This year, February 28th, the 14th of Adar on the Jewish calendar, is the first night of Purim, a holiday the orthodox Chabad organization blithely calls the “most fun-filled, action-packed day of the Jewish year.” Purim is celebrated with two full readings of the Megillah–the Book of Esther–in synagogues; whenever the tale’s villain Haman is mentioned, congregants drown out his name with noisemakers and foot-stomping. Children and adults masquerade and often cross-dress. Plays are performed; Haman is burned in effigy. After a daylong fast, everyone shares a festive meal, where drinking is encouraged, even mandated:
A person should drink on Purim until the point where he can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman. (Talmud – Megillah 7b; Code of Jewish Law 695:2)
It all sounds like great fun. But what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate Purim?
The official explanation is that Purim commemorates the triumph of the Jewish people, saved by Queen Esther after being threatened with extermination in the 5th century B.C.E. by the Persian king, Ahaseurus. As the Book of Esther has it, Ahaseurus had ordered all his subjects to bow before his viceroy Haman. When Mordecai, a Jew, refuses, Haman persuades the king to annihilate the entire people:
And the letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women. (3.13)
It is only Esther’s strategic intervention that saves the day, as she persuades Ahaseurus—who cannot revoke his own orders—to issue a second edict, authorizing resistance:
the king granted the Jews which were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them. (8.11)
The opening chapters of the Book explain how it is that Esther, a Jewish orphan, comes to be Queen of Persia. Some time earlier, at a great feast celebrating his reign, Ahaseurus had ordered his men
To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on. (1.11)
When Vashti disobeys, the King is enraged. His chamberlains advise him to punish her:
“For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes.” (1.17)
The King banishes Vashti. And further, to shore up his own–and all–patriarchal authority, he issues a decree, “that every man should bear rule in his own house” (1.22).
It’s an absurd decree, establishing Ahaseurus as a tyrant and a fool, the kind of man who would later attempt to punish all Jews for one man’s actions, the kind of man who may remind us of the current leader of the free world.
Enter Esther, Mordecai’s cousin and ward. The king, bereft without Vashti, has been sampling all the virgins in his kingdom. Esther, who hides her Jewishness, “finds favor” with him and is crowned Queen. Hence she is particularly well-placed to intervene on her people’s behalf when Ahaseurus issues his dreadful decree.
Mordecai appeals for her help, but Esther at first refuses, saying that anyone who appears before the king without being summoned is put to death. After Mordecai reminds her that she will die anyway, Esther chooses to risk all, famously saying:
“If I perish, I perish.” (4.16)
Esther asks Mordecai to order a three day fast among the Jews and prepares herself to “come unto the king.” Once again, she “finds favor” with Ahaseurus, and she carefully leads him to a new perception of Haman, Mordecai, the Jews, and, perhaps implicitly, women. In the end, the festival of Purim is decreed, and Esther records her own history.
It’s a stirring tale, beautifully written, replete with intriguing parallels and reversals that recall the frame tale for the Thousand and One Nights: Esther is a sort of Shahrazad, and Ahaseurus very much like Shahrayar. Although it never mentions God, commentators viewed the Book of Esther as bearing witness to God’s “non-miraculous providence.” Yet, as most Biblical scholars agree, there is no historical evidence for it: “The object of Esther is undoubtedly to give an explanation of and to exalt the Feast of Purim, of whose real origin little or nothing is known” (The Jewish Encyclopedia).
The Feast of Purim, a carnival day with its cross-dressing, drunkenness, and general merrymaking—like Mardi Gras and the ancient Greater Dionysia celebrated during this season—can be seen as a sort of queer festival, a day when the doors of perception are cleansed, allowing us to experience the reconciliation of apparent opposites: Mordecai and Haman, Esther and Vashti, good and evil, male and female, rich and poor, gentile and Jew.
I would go even further. In Feminist Revision and the Bible, Alicia Ostriker argues that biblical narratives reveal the
moment of transition from a world in which women were humanly and socially powerful because divinity was in part female, to a world in which that divinity and power were repressed. (49)
Yet the Book of Esther tells a story in which women’s power is not so much repressed as affirmed. The king who banishes one queen submits to the will of another. Although male commentators contrasted what they saw as Esther’s humility and obedience with Vashti’s defiance, numerous women writers of various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have found inspiration in the stories of both Esther and Vashti’s courage and disobedience. Consider abolitionist Angelina Grimke, who, in her 1836 “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” wrote:
“If there were but one Esther at the South, she might save her country from ruin; but let the . . . women there arise . . . and that salvation is certain.”
If, as many scholars have noted, Esther’s name is a version of the Babylonian Ishtar, perhaps her Book recounts, not the successful repression of a Goddess but Her triumphant return.
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, argues that Ishtar (also known as Inanna and Astarte) was a “liminal deity” who combined the “passions of sex and violence” (67), and at whose festivals “men dress as women and women as men” (29).
Sounds a lot like Purim to me.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press 2008). She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is the recipient of a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award for her translation of Ce pays qui te ressemble by Tobie Nathan, forthcoming from Seagull Books. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix is forthcoming from New York Review Books.