A number of years ago, my good friend Shira and I dressed up for Purim festivities on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My costume consisted of platform sandals, bell-bottoms, and a bohemian tunic, my hair parted down the middle and secured with a colorful head-band. Shira wore blue jeans, a tiara, and a black t-shirt bearing the motto: “Safe Homes. Healthy Relationships. Strong Women.” As we walked from party to party, it was easy for revelers to identify me as a 70’s gal. Shira’s costume, however, was more difficult to discern. An activist? A princess? Gloria Steinem’s grand-daughter? None of these guesses were, in fact, so far off the mark. As Shira would proudly tell anyone who asked, “I’m a modern day Queen Vashti.”
I have always had great admiration for Queen Vashti, perhaps the bravest and most misunderstood character in the Purim story. Ordered to flaunt her beauty (naked, according to the midrash) before a room of boisterous men who have been drinking without restraint for days on end, Vashti has the temerity to refuse her husband’s command and is deposed. Were our own daughters to find themselves in a similar situation, I hope we would all praise their courage, good judgment, and ability not to succumb to peer pressure. Vashti, however, is vilified for her impudence and banished from the royal kingdom.
Famously, Vashti is criticized not only for embarrassing the king but rather for “mak[ing] all wives despise their husbands” (Esther 1:17). In other words, her vision of marital parity, in which each party is autonomous and able to make his or her own decisions rather than being forced to cater to a partner’s every whim, destabilizes the patriarchal status quo. King Ahasuerus’ advisors fear less for the honor of their ruler and more for their own self-interest, concerned that the model of a woman allowed to say “no” will diminish the control and power they each wield over their own households. “There will be no end of scorn and provocation,” argue the ministers, “[Unless] the judgment executed by Your Majesty resounds throughout your realm…and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike” (Esther 1:18 and 1:20). It seems that there is nothing as threatening as a woman allowed to speak her own truth and make her own decisions!
The t-shirt that Shira wore so many Purims ago was developed by Jewish Women International, an organization that has as part of its mission to end violence against women. Current research indicates that one in four females will experience abuse in her lifetime and that this violence will take many different forms from physical and sexual harm to financial exploitation, engineered social isolation, emotional cruelty and more. Women will often stay in a situation that is dangerous out of concern for their own safety or that of their children or because they do not have the financial resources to make a new home for themselves. They fear that they will not be believed, that they will have no legal recourse, and that their children will be taken away from them. Women are told by well-intentioned friends and family members to give things another try, and in the past they have been told by their rabbis that Judaism values shalom bayit (peace in the home). Under these terrifying circumstances, making the choice to finally leave an abusive partner is an act of supreme courage and strength.
Abuse against women is not about anger but rather about power – it is the attempt to dominate and control an intimate, and it can often begin innocuously, escalating rapidly over time. Recognizing the warning signs of unsafe relationships and helping loved ones to leave situations that are harmful is one important way that we can help to combat this growing threat. Educating our daughters about what it means to be in a healthy, safe, and equal relationship with a partner is perhaps even more vital.
Safe Homes. Healthy Relationships. Strong Women. May this soon become the ideal not only for ancient Persia but for our modern world as well. Happy Purim!
Rabbi Annie Tucker currently serves as rabbi at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette, IL.