International Women’s Day, Purim, and Feminist Parenting

Today is International Women’s Day. It also happens to be Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating (as always) a story of someone trying to kill the Jewish people and the Jews somehow surviving against all odds. I used to teach Sunday School at my synagogue, so I got used to summarizing our holidays so the kids would stay awake. And by “teach Sunday School,” I mean I hung out with a bunch of boys and girls who would rather have slept in than analyze Torah stories through a feminist lens… “Now kids, how do you think Rebecca felt when she had to leave her whole family and way of life behind to go marry Isaac?” Stuff like that.

This colliding of holidays is particularly special for me because it reminded me of some of my earliest feminist memories. I guess it’s no surprise that a lot of my feminism developed through, and in response to, organized religion. The first thing you need to know to understand how this works is that my mom is a HUGE feminist. Like, whatever the most kind of feminist there is… she’s that. It’s wonderful. The second thing you need to know is that on Purim, you wear costumes to celebrate.

The way I remember and probably taught the story of Purim (NOT the official story) is that it takes place in a Persian city called Shushan. The king has a wife named Vashti and he tells (not asks) her to come perform for his dude friends and she’s like “no thanks”. So, like any self-respecting king, he banishes his disrespecting, non-subservient, no-good wife. Then he realizes he’s down a wife and needs a new one, so he holds a contest. Shockingly, it’s a beauty contest (insert shock here). Meanwhile, Mordecai is a smart Jewish guy in the city (who refuses to bow down to stuff that isn’t the one and only deity he prays to, including the king’s wicked advisor) and works at the palace as a scribe. He overhears a couple of soldiers plotting to kill the king. His warning saves the king’s life. In order to thank him, the king makes his evil advisor (Haman) parade Mordecai around the city like royalty, which doesn’t help matters. Haman plots to hang all the Jews. Mordecai convinces his niece, Esther, to enter the wife contest so she can try and save the Jews. Not a super feminist plan as far as plans go, but she’s down. So, shockingly, she wins and the king totally falls for her. There’s a big rule that prohibits people from approaching the king uninvited. She risks her life (remember Vashti?) to go to him uninvited to reveal that she’s Jewish and ask that she and her people not be killed. He’s horrified and wants to know who’s big idea that was. Haman is outed, hanged from his own gallows, and the day is saved.

Action-packed story, right? Still awake?

So all the other little girls used to dress up as Esther, of course. She’s the heroine and the only lady, except Vashti who everyone (except my mom) either forgets about or vilifies. My mom’s a major Vashti fan.  So you can guess who I used to dress up as.  It was my little brother who would go as Esther. He’s cool like that. We had to explain these choices to a lot of people, but that’s just something feminists get used to doing. I want to give a big kudos to my Ma for always ensuring my Judaism was filled with feminism and making today the unexpectedly easiest combination of holidays ever. Happy International Women’s Day!

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Judaism and Feminism

Guest Blog by Benjamin Barer

If the recent uproar about Jews renting homes to Arabs in Israel (including this, this and this) has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish canon can quite legitimately be interpreted in almost any imaginable way.  That fact is both what has sustained the religion over millennia and what constantly poses a problem for anyone wishing to posit a uniform ‘Jewish view’ on a given topic.  The texts are complex and often (on the fact of it) contradictory.

Personally, I struggled with the notion of orthodox feminist Jews for a long time, as I saw the two concepts as mutually exclusive.  Only after talking to people willing to defend the existence of such people – and talking to some of those people themselves – was I able to understand that I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the issue.  To ask what Judaism has to say about feminism, and whether the two can co-exist or interact depends much more on who you ask than on which texts are consulted.  Someone for whom Judaism and feminism are both important will have no trouble citing texts (if that is the proof that you are after) supporting a more egalitarian society than most strands of the religion practice today.  Equally easy is the task of finding texts that seem to make the mere notion of being Jewish and feminist absurd, which are quickly quoted by anyone who feels that Judaism is more important than feminism, or that Judaism is so archaic that it cannot accommodate modern values.  Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Wendy Zierler (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College) when she says that “[i]f halacha [Jewish law] is a way of walking with God in the world, it cannot be compatible with a status quo that denies the personhood and rights of half of the Jewish community.”

One theoretical point is worth making here, though.  The blind spot that I had in thinking of orthodox feminists as a contradiction in terms stemmed from what I perceived as systemic oppression of women in orthodox communities.  It is therefore important to keep in mind that if your definition of oppression hinges on the agent themselves feeling oppressed or not will ultimately decide whether you are willing to entertain the notion of orthodox feminists.  As if you a priori assign a ‘status of suffering’ to all orthodox women, then there is little room to admit of women in such a society also defining themselves as feminists without wishing to remove themselves from their society.

So what does Judaism have to say about feminism?  Studying Jewish texts in an institution that is aware of and sensitive to the modern world we live in as well as the world in which these texts were written has exposed me to beautiful ways of making traditionally difficult texts jive with our modern sensibilities.  But at the end of the day it is more about whether one wishes to discard the tradition because of examples of moral imperatives contained in the text (and there are many) that are repugnant to modern readers or whether one wishes to save the baby while throwing out only the bathwater.

— Benjamin is a Philosophy student and recently returned from studying in Israel for four months.  He also hosts his own blog.

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