Exploring Purim’s ‘dark side’
With the dysfunctional marriages of King Achashverosh front and center in the Purim story — his first wife Vashti is summarily dismissed; his second fears for her life when she wants to discuss the pending annihilation of her family — the holiday has become an opportunity to talk about the dark side of relationships, whether it be domestic violence, sexual trafficking, or relationships gone wrong, as in domestic violence, or the plight of agunot (“chained women,” a reference to women whose husbands refuse to give them Jewish divorces).
Jewish Women International’s (JWI) motto is “safe homes; healthy relationships; strong women,” and this positive approach of the former women’s affiliate of B’nai B’rith International sets the tone for its new study guide, “Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts,” which can be downloaded from http://www.bit.ly/js-jwi
“The purpose of the guide is to have people talk more about healthy relationships. To use the richness of our heritage to do that,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, director of programs at JWI.
“The idea is that you can use this at your Purim s’udah over hamantaschen, you can use this in your book club, you can use this in a formal or informal setting.”
“We chose to focus on what’s positive in relationships, which we hope will raise awareness of what’s not positive in relationships,” said Rabbi Amy Bolton of Teaneck, a member of the JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, which drafted the guide. Bolton serves as a spiritual counselor at the hospice and palliative care program at Holy Name Medical Center, and is an educator for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Florence Melton Adult Mini School.
“Jewish women today are making a new kind of ‘noise’ on this holiday by using it as a time to speak out against the mistreatment of women and against abusive relationships,” wrote Rabbi Donna Kirschbaum in the guide’s introduction. “We decided to go a step further and see what Purim could teach us about healthy relationships.”
The authors highlighted what they consider to be three characteristics of healthy relationships:
• “Developing a strong voice”
• “Cultivating the conscious use of self”
• “Striving for parity”
For each characteristic, texts from the m’gillah and its commentaries are paired with contemporary analysis, leading to questions for discussion.
Does a story where a queen is chosen based on a one-night audition really provide a guide for healthy relationships?
“Esther, like all books of the Tanakh, has values that are timeless for us. My own approach to studying Torah and Tanakh is to look at the characters and see what they have to teach us, both positive and negative,” said Bolton.
“One certainly can look at the way Esther grew into the role that was thrust upon her by Mordechai,” said Bolton. “She was reluctant, but she did step up to plate. She asserted her strength of character.”
This growth is important to notice and to emulate, said Bolton, because “one of the ways relationships break down and have the danger of domestic violence is when you have one partner who is submissive to the other partner, who has an unhealthy level of control.”
Of course, this is not only a problem in Middle Eastern harems.
“This is an issue that affects everybody,” said Bolton. “If this guide prompts one person to seek out help, it will have served its purpose.”