The Power Paradigms of Queen Esther

Four years ago, in the middle of March, I became involved in a Facebook conversation surrounding a woman in the community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I had just relocated, in order to be closer to the vibrant, young, evolving Jewish community of neo-Hasidic, modern-Orthodox, formerly-Orthodox and hippie-Hasidic Jews living there. I was confused about my relationship with organized Judaism, with the laws of the Rabbis, and particularly with my role as a woman in the scheme of it all.

The woman we were discussing was on her deathbed, and desperately demanding a gett – a Jewish religious divorce – from her husband. She was adamant that he wouldn’t be given the chance to mourn her death as a widower, since he had abused her emotionally for so many years. She was fighting his family, a community of Rabbis who thought they knew better, and fought til death – literally. Once she passed, the cries of women throughout the town were palpable. In Jewish law, a Gett can only be granted by the male partner of a male-female couple. Abusive men find the legalities of the Gett the perfect opportunity to continue abusing their female partners, leaving them without a gett, in a status known as “agunah”, sometimes for decades. As this woman’s soul departed, many found ourselves galvanized by her story. One friend of mine, having recently given birth, sold her business and finding herself with time to absorb the story, took it in her own hands and arranged a march for awareness of Agunot, addressing this now-widower, former Gett-refuser.

In the weeks leading up to the march, I found myself surprised by myself. I was always the defender of the faith, a good Rabbi’s daughter who often justified and explained why Judaism was always right in a particular situation. Suddenly, I was taking up arms alongside my sisters. I was addressing where the issues were in the community systems; I was noting the concerns in Jewish law; and I was calling for change. Slowly, hesitantly, behind my keyboard, I began to speak.

The morning of the march was cold and crisp, and when I met my friends at the starting point, I found myself frozen. I walked alongside them, but the words wouldn’t come. As a friend next to me chanted, “Only change will unchain,” I felt the phrase stick in my throat. I couldn’t bear to speak out, even though I knew my insides were being torn apart in the meanwhile. Weeks earlier, I’d been in Israel, where standing at the Western Wall, I’d written a letter to God – using my iPhone, of course! – and called it, “Dear God. It’s Me, A Woman.” I’d asked whether it could really be true that those who speak in the name of God would really tell me that my prayers aren’t wanted, that my sisters should remain chained, that this tradition wants me and others to feel so trapped. I knew there had to be another way. What it was felt too far away, back then.

That day was a turning point, the kind that you look back on later and realize was a formative moment of meeting new people, experiencing new things, and leaving behind a comfort zone where it’s at the edge, that life begins. I even had that on my fridge at that point – Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I was ready to do something completely different than I’d ever done before, and it began with using my voice. With speaking, even with those stuck words in my throat, that only change will unchain.

(I have since written about the Agunah crisis on this site, 3 years ago here)

In the Jewish mystical tradition, we are taught that every single thing that we are seeing around us is a mirror of our own personal journey. What we see in the world that challenges us, is a reflection of our own deepest struggles. What we see that needs fixing, is what can be fixed inside us.

And as we near the holiday of Purim, on this week known as “Parshat Zachor”, the Shabbat before Purim, I wonder how we can use the story of Purim as a window into those areas where we can improve.

In the Purim story, power takes all sorts of shapes and forms. There’s the king, Achasheverosh, who rules over 127 provinces and wants to wield his strength by showcasing his beautiful wife. There’s the queen, Vashti, who exercises her voice, stating an emphatic “No!” that rings throughout the kingdom, though is ultimately punished for it. There are the men of the kingdom, afraid of the paradigm of the woman who says no, who respond with a backlash limited the rights of women throughout the kingdom, insisted all wives follow their husbands’ customs in the home. And there is Mordechai, a learned Jew without royal connections, who uses his knowledge and smarts to thwart a plot on the king’s life, setting up the story for an even greater display of power.

While Vashti is often discussed as the paradigm of the strong, feminist woman, saying no and standing up for her values, Esther is sometimes dismissed for her “aydelkeit”, as we call it in Yiddish. When I was growing up, aydel girls were the sweeter, kinder, more demure girls who got smiles and pats on the back; those of us who had a “mouth” were sent to the principal’s office. It was Vashti who sparked the backlash that limited the agency of the women of Persia, and It’s that fear of backlash that shows up so often in our world today.

It’s why women in Jewish communities have remained silent around sexual harassment, gender based discrimination, lack of voting rights, blurring of faces, silencing their voices, trapping them in marriages. It’s why during the decades I identified as Orthodox, I was afraid to use the dreaded f word, “feminist”. It’s why on that cold day in March 2014, I barely dared to say anything. Speaking out can only result in pain, in harm, in something infinitely worse than sitting trapped.

Vashti’s archetype, however, isn’t the only powerful woman in the Purim tale. Esther, heroine and queen, operates in a model of power that is sometimes hard to recognize. It is a model that is situated differently on the continuum from the silent oppressed; to the loud activist.

It is a space of soft power. It is a space of sacred vulnerability.

And it is a space of infinite power to people of all genders today, in the Jewish world and elsewhere.

When Esther finds out about the plot against the Jews, we are told by the writer of the Megillah, “vatischalchal hamalkah me’od,” and the queen was deeply disturbed.

But as her conversation goes back and forth with Mordechai, the power dynamics seem to shift. Mordechai is entreating her to go outside her comfort zone, do something she absolutely doesn’t want to do, and appears to hang a huge guilt trip on her, too.

“If you are silent at this time,” he warns her, “the people will be saved in some other way. But you – your name will be forgotten forever. Who knows – this could be the reason you are here.”

Everything you’ve gone through, he says, is because of this moment. Your being married against your will to a despotic king, your leaving your home, family and religion – it is all for a reason. You have power, and now is your time to use it.

Esther isn’t asked to make a loud statement, to make a Vashti-style move, which, while it has a time and place today, wasn’t the methodology of choice. She is asked to find ways to exercise her sacred vulnerability, to use her raw courage and honest openness to make real change.

A place of sacred vulnerability means knowing from the deepest most intuitive place that laying oneself bare, open, raw and real, leads to the greatest power. That speaking from a place of need and awareness is the greatest in courage. That our abilities to be honest about ourselves, neither inflating nor deflating our own abilities, can enable us to work through that which holds us back to become infinitely more powerful as we move forward.

Brene Brown, a researcher who has spent years exploring ideas around love, connection, confidence and vulnerability, extols the virtues of vulnerability as a way of experience true courage and freeing oneself of shame. When I came across her teachings, I had lived most of my life in fear. In fear of speaking out, of writing publicly, of articulating my own personal thoughts about Jews and Judaism and being a woman in that space. I didn’t want to draw attention to my flaws, didn’t want to leave open a space for people to critique me, my family, my practice, my work. I still feel that fear, palpably, almost every day. But I know that each time I write, share an Instagram story, or talk honestly to a group of people, that vulnerability gives me my greatest power.

Soft power is defined as the ability to persuade, attract, and co-opt, rather than coercing. Often utilized in international relations, it’s also an approach taken in corporations, communities, workplaces and households. In a society that for so long has been dominated by a masculine form of power that involves aggression, coercion and outward displays of dominance, the power of emotional intelligence, of empathic understanding, of persuasive diplomacy and personal influence has been less valued. Even today, many Jewish organizations are run by hundreds of women from entry-level to senior management who use soft power to produce, create and innovate; while the predominantly male CEOs view the lack of hard power (coercion) as a lack. While these traits can apply to people of all genders, and should no longer be considered predominantly ‘male’ or ‘female’, the fact is that in a workplace, it is often a drawback to be seen as vulnerable.

When Queen Esther was called to save her people, she knew she had nothing to lose. She may have been comfortable in the palace, but that would not have saved her from feeling the pain of her brethren as the Jewish people were on the brink of extinction. Like the text says she was exhorted by Mordechai, she knew she could not remain silent. It was her time.

And when she did, she insisted on shifting the paradigm to include everyone. Not only would she appear before the king, vulnerable and afraid. She would fast for three days and nights, and so would the rest of the Jewish population of Shushan. She would show herself at her weakest, knowing that within that sacred vulnerability lay the deepest strength she possessed.

Five years ago, I knew I couldn’t be silent. I knew that my entire life had brought me to a place of needing to step forward, to march for other women, to comment on Facebook groups, and soon after that, to start writing op-eds. I had years of experience I refused to speak of, that I learned would stay stuck in my throat, destroying me, if I didn’t fail to be silent at this time, as Esther was asked by Mordechai. In the years since, I have written articles, recorded Facebook Live videos, been a guest on Podcasts, and today, I’m standing before you here, in this wonderful House of Peace at Beth Shalom. I am now in the Rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I stand with other powerful women, in the footsteps of incredible women like Rabbi Grossman who paved the way for women such as myself to stand up in our vulnerability, using our voices to end the silence forever.

This week, on Taanit Esther, the day before Purim, is a day marked throughout the Jewish world as International Day of the Agunah. It’s the day for advocating for women, those who are trapped and chained, remembering the refrain that “every agunah is my sister”. When I first began advocating for Agunot, I had no way of knowing it would open the floodgates for me advocating for women in all kinds of ways throughout the Jewish world.

At this time, female voices are more necessary than ever, and have the power to affect change in ways previously not understood. Along with the Vashtis who cry out, doing the work of the innovators at the forefront, we have the Esthers, the women who stand in full, vulnerable glory, stepping forward with honesty and rawness to show their true strength. We have non-binary people and men and children and people of all shapes, colors, sizes and genders stepping forward to tell their stories and remind us what is possible in the world that we are creating. We are able to cultivate relationships, to build communities, and to listen deeply to the changes that are already being activated, through the strength and power of being at our most vulnerable. It is this courage, strength and power that it is time to embrace, on the eve of Purim and at this pivotal moment for our people.