Purim is the festival on which we celebrate the power and the pleasure of masks and unmasking. We play with fixing and unfixing our identities in order to figure out, at the deepest level, who and what we are, what we stand for, where we will bend and where we draw the line.
In the story we tell about this raucous, playful day, Esther and Mordecai are willing to compromise away much of Esther’s Jewish identity—external observances, certainly any public statements of faith or affinity—in order to secure her position as Queen of Persia. But we see Mordecai literally standing up for his faith in his refusal to bow to Haman (Jews are forbidden to bow not to other people as a sign of respect but rather to other gods; Jewish tradition suggests that perhaps Haman presented himself as a demigod, much as Egyptian pharaohs were considered to be part divine). And of course the climax of our tale comes when Esther finds the courage to “out” herself as a Jew to King Ahashverosh under perilous circumstances—for should the King find her uninvited presence in his throne room irksome (much less her surprising revelation), it could cost Esther her life!
Indeed, there would be no Megillat Esther (scroll of Esther) at all had Queen Vashti not spurned the King’s request that she provide lewd entertainment for his drunken guests. In this story, every major character save Haman appears to have his or her breaking point, beyond which principle outweighs material self-interest.
How appropriate (if ironic), then, that the story of Jewish women getting arrested at the Kotel for the crime of wearing tallit and praying aloud has resurfaced with new vigor in this season of Purim. Jewish women, practicing their faith as God calls them to, are once again being detained, fingerprinted, and charged with criminal activities by the Jewish government of Israel.
Israel, as we know, has its share of problems. And far be it from me to present any of you with a reason not to love Israel with all your heart, as I do—after all, we love our families, with all their problems. To be honest, it would be far too easy to take from this story a depressing lesson about sinat hinam—senseless hatred—among Jews. This is most definitely not why I’m sharing this story with you today.
Rather, I share it now because this week I read two pieces about the arrests of women at the wall that, explicitly or implicitly, connect these events with Purim in an instructive way, and offer inspiration as we, members of the gorgeously diverse tapestry that is the Jewish people, travel this rocky and even fractious road toward identity, self-determination, and ultimately, we pray (as we will celebrate one month from now with the festival of Pesach, Passover), to redemption.
First, on Wednesday, I encountered JordanaHorn’s Kveller post, “What’s Truly Holy About the Western Wall?” She had me from the first line, but she really caught me with her last paragraph:
On Friday night, let’s light the candles and think about that which is truly holy: the people of Israel, surviving years of persecution and praying according to different customs and traditions, but praying with devotion and love to the same God. I believe in a God who expects more from us.
Yes, let’s, I thought. For what is Purim if not a celebration of Jewish survival in exile, Jewish survival as a value above the letter of the law, and certainly above sectarianism. As Horn points out, the stones of the Kotel are not holy. They are made holy by people, who have gathered near them over the millennia in service of “the same God.” And people are holy, not inherently, not all the time, but when we see and honor what connects us above what divides us. Take off the “masks”—the shifting externals of religious garb and ritual practice—and we just might (we might!) recognize in one another—feminists and traditionalists, progressive Jews and fundamentalists—a common love for justice and peace, and a desire for the wholeness and healing of all God’s creatures, and all of God’s creation.
Perhaps it was some variety of this recognition that led Esther and Ahashverosh to their celebrated deeds, their respectively brave and compassionate choices that saved the Jewish people. Persian or Jew, we all seek out love, loyalty, and dignity. (Who knows? Perhaps even Ahashverosh found some dignity in the end!) And another lesson: perhaps only by shedding our pride—even, temporarily at least, letting go of dignity—by immersing ourselves in the masquerade of Purim, say, or by opening ourselves up to police detainment for the sake of our beliefs, only then can we see clearly what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, what is a mask, and what is holy, an integral, permanent and good part of ourselves.
On Thursday I saw another piece, this time at the Jerusalem Post online, written by a very young, impressively wise and articulate woman who was among those detained at the Kotel two weeks ago on Rosh Hodesh Adar. As a condition of her release, she was required to sign an agreement to stay away from the Kotel for 15 days, which would mean she could not join her sisters in reading Megilat Esther there, as they had planned. The author compared her plight to that of both Vashti and Esther, who refused to bow to conventional wisdom, to quietly settle for what was most personally expedient. Just as both Vashti and Esther resisted oppressive decrees, this young woman found the courage to return to the police station where she had been detained and request an exemption for Purim, to hear the megillah read by and with her sisters at the Kotel. “Miraculously,” she writes, “the police…granted it!”
As we celebrate Purim this year, let us think not only of the Women of the Wall, but of all people around the world, of every race, religion, and nation, who seek the strength and courage to strip away the masks—of fear, docility, prejudice—that lead to suffering and oppression. Let us celebrate the potential for holiness that connects all people. Let us celebrate our freedom to hear and recite the Megillah, the story of our deliverance from destruction. Let us celebrate together. Beneath the masks, we have so much in common.
For another Purim reflection on the Women of the Wall, which I read after I wrote this, check out Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz’s sermon from this past Shabbat at her wonderful blog, This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.