Esther’s Purim message and how women save the world
Using Esther and other Biblical heroines we explore a feminist take on a Rabbinic theme of women sinning for the sake of heaven and for a greater good….
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The podcast was recorded in front of a live audience at a Kavanah session at TCS – The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT.
Esther sent a message to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise, and so will I go in to the king, not according to the custom” (Esther 4:16). Rabbi Abba said: It will not be according to my usual custom, for every day until now when I submitted myself to Ahasuerus it was under compulsion, but now I will be submitting myself to him of my own free will. And Esther further said: “And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). What she meant was: Just as I was lost to my father’s house ever since I was brought here, so too, shall I be lost to you, for after voluntarily having relations with Ahasuerus, I shall be forever forbidden to you. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 15a)[i][ii]
לך כנוס את־כל־היהודים הנמצאים בשושן וצומו עלי ואל־תאכלו ואל־תשתו שלשת ימים לילה ויום גם־אני ונערתי אצום כן ובכן אבוא אל־המלך אשר לא־כדת וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי עד אשר לא כדת אמר רבי אבא שלא כדת היה שבכל יום ויום עד עכשיו באונס ועכשיו ברצון וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי כשם שאבדתי מבית אבא כך אובד ממך
Ulla said: Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with her father-in-law, Judah (see Genesis, chapter 38),] and Zimri ben Salu also engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with a Midianite woman (see Numbers, chapter 25).] Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse and merited that kings descended from her and she also merited to be the ancestor of prophets [e.g., Isaiah, who was related to the royal family]. Conversely, with regard to Zimri, several multitudes of Israel fell due to him.
Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Greater is a transgression committed for its own sake, i.e., for the sake of Heaven, than a mitzva performed not for its own sake.
The Gemara questions this comparison: But didn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav said: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot even not for their own sake, as it is through acts performed not for their own sake that good deeds for their own sake come about? How, then, can any transgression be considered greater than a mitzva not for the sake of Heaven?
אמר עולא תמר זינתה זמרי זינה
תמר זינתה יצאו ממנה מלכים ונביאים זמרי זינה נפלו עליו כמה רבבות מישראל
אמר ר”נ בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן
Rather say: A transgression for the sake of Heaven is equivalent to a mitzva not for its own sake. The proof is as it is written: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Hever the Kenite, above women in the tent she shall be blessed” (Judges 5:24 Etz Hayim p 425), and it is taught: Who are these “women in the tent?” They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Yael’s forbidden intercourse with Sisera for the sake of Heaven is compared to the sexual intercourse in which the Matriarchs engaged.[iii]
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: That wicked one, Sisera, engaged in seven acts of sexual intercourse with Yael at that time, as it is stated: “Between her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; between her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27). Each mention of falling is referring to another act of intercourse.
אלא אימא כמצוה שלא לשמה דכתיב (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נשים שבאהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה
א”ר יוחנן שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותה שעה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כז) בין רגליה כרע נפל שכב בין רגליה כרע נפל באשר כרע שם נפל שדוד
Lots Daughters Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa said: A
person should always come first with regard to a matter of a mitzva, as in reward of the one night that the elder daughter of Lot preceded the younger for the sake of a mitzva, she merited to precede the younger daughter by four generations to the monarchy of the Jewish people. The descendants of Ruth the Moabite ruled over the Jewish people for four generations: Obed, Yishai, David, and Solomon, before the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose mother was Naamah the Ammonite. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nazir 23:b)
א”ר חייא בר אבין א”ר יהושע בן קרחה לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשכר לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה
זכתה וקדמה ארבעה דורות בישראל למלכו’
Starting with Eve and that damned apple, women have been depicted (and mostly condemned) as the willful and wily seducers of men: …Even the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, a woman who is the apparent victim of rape, is blamed by some of the more misogynistic rabbinical sages for provoking her rapist. And a minority tradition in the rabbinical literature reaches a similar conclusion about Lot’s daughters: “Lot is a warning example to men to avoid being alone with women, lest [they] should entice them to sin, as did Lot’s daughters.”
However, “an open-eyed reading of the Bible reveals that women play a crucial and dynamic role in the destiny of humankind, in both Jewish and Christian tradition. Inevitably, a woman figures decisively in the recurring theme of “the birth of the chosen one,” starting with the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible and culminating with the Virgin Mary in the Christian Bible. As we have already seen, Lot’s daughters and Judah’s daughter-in-law are examples of how the bearer of the “chosen one” is not passively impregnated with the seed of a patriarch; rather, these women take it upon themselves to defy the will of powerful men and sometimes God himself in order to bring about the crucial birth. Indeed, the Bible frequently singles out “the woman as initiator of events,” as Ramras-Rauch puts it. “From Eve through Sarah and Esther, women have shaped sacred history through word and deed.””[iv]
Contemporary Feminist Interpretations of the “Sin” of Eve [v]
Mieke Bal[vi] does not see the action of eating the fruit as sin. Rather, Bal views the woman’s choice to eat as a way to gain the wisdom that will make her like God. Ironically, her choice also fulfills God’s intention of humanity made in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). By choosing to eat and gain knowledge, including sexual knowledge, the woman makes the continuance of the species possible, even though the individual will not be immortal. Her choice is a choice for reality. Her choice puts an end to the fantasy of individual immortality. It opens up reality as we know it.
Lyn Bechtel asks, why, if humans were created immortal, were they also created sexual? If they were created immortal, why were they made of finite clay? Why after eating the fruit do the humans fear their nakedness rather than death? Why is it considered punishment for Adam to be sent into the world to be a farmer, when Genesis 2:5 tells us that humans were intended to cultivate the ground? Bechtel interprets the Adam and Eve story as the story of human maturation…. Thus it is better to interpret this to mean that those who eat will become aware of the reality of death. That is what gradually happens as we mature. … After the humans mature, they are ready to enter the world where they will take up their life’s work, the work God intended them to do from the beginning. Although Bechtel sees the story as androcentric, she does not believe it is sexist. In addition, her reading has the advantage of placing life in the real world in a positive light. It is not a punishment for sin, but the world God created for mature men and women to share as partners.
Dutch scholar Ellen van Wolde discusses this problem in her treatment of the Adam and Eve story, which is similar to Bechtel’s. She sees the clue to the whole story in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” She writes: As man leaves his father and mother to become independent, so man, male and female, leaves YHWH God by means of his transgression of the prohibition in 3:1–7 to become independent. . . . The realization that verse 2:24 presents man’s process of development in a nutshell and the realization that a similar behavior can be observed in man’s attitude towards YHWH God, makes the reader aware of the fact that Gen 2–3 is really one extensive description of this growth. Van Wolde sees the transgression as a necessary disobedience, because freedom is the one thing that God could not build directly into the universe. Freedom cannot be conferred. It can only be grasped.
Carol Meyers, one of the most important recent interpreters of the Adam and Eve story, treats Genesis 2–3 as a narrative of human origins, as a story that explains why certain human conditions are as they are, and as a parable or wisdom tale. … The prominent role of the female rather than the male in the wisdom aspects of the Eden tale is a little-noticed feature of the narrative. It is the woman, and not the man, who perceives the desirability of procuring wisdom. The woman, again not the man, is the articulate member of the first pair who engages in dialogue even before the benefits of the wisdom tree have been produced. This association between the female and the qualities of wisdom may have a mythic background, with the features of a Semitic wisdom goddess underlying the intellectual prominence of the woman of Eden.
[i] See also Tosefot Ketubot 3b “Lidrosh”
[ii] According to Rabbinic tradition, Esther was married to Mordechai: The verse states: “And when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). A tanna taught a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: Do not read the verse literally as for a daughter [bat], but rather read it as for a home [bayit]. This indicates that Mordecai took Esther to be his wife. (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 13a)
ובמות אביה ואמה לקחה מרדכי לו לבת תנא משום ר”מ אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית
[iii] Alternative reading in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Horayot 10b: Who are these “women in the tent”? They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and Yael is more blessed than they are. Apparently, a mitzva performed not for its own sake is a negative phenomenon.
אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקיני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נינהו נשים באהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה
[iv] Kirsch, Jonathan. The Harlot by the Side of the Road (pp. 58 and 251-252). Random House Publishing Group.