#MeToo and #MeGillah: The Disturbing and Empowering Sides of Purim

This is a powerful, tipping-point moment. From a few brave individuals to waves of women gathering bolstered strength in numbers, #MeToo has been pulling the veil of silence off of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault.  More and more women have been courageously stepping forward to talk about their experiences of predatory and abusive sexual behaviour by men in positions of power. In unprecedented ways, women are being listened to and believed.  In unprecedented ways, the accusations are resulting in consequences and these men are losing their jobs, their reputations and in some instances, are facing criminal charges.  This is a time of well-articulated rage and clear criticism of the patriarchal institutions that have knowingly kept silent, that have protected, excused and even valorized these specific men and these behaviours in general.  We are seeing with eyes wide open how pervasive the experiences of sexual misconduct are in all industries and in all communities. And highlighted by the egregious behaviour of these public figures, this is also a powerful moment of public conversation about sexism in all its expressions and distortions, and what would need to change in society in order to end sexism and gender oppression. We have a long way to go, but the system is crumbling.

In light of all this, as I am preparing for Purim, I am reading the #MeGillah with #MeToo eyes. Megillat Esther – and here I am talking about the actual text of the Megillah, the version written to provoke and stir adults; not the version we tell children – is filled with disturbing sexual behaviour and abusive power.

After months of feasting and drinking, King Achashverosh demands that Queen Vashti come and dance in the presence of a room full of drunk male guests, wearing nothing but the royal crown.  When she refuses, she loses her job, and is either expelled, penniless from the kingdom, or, as Midrash suggests, she in fact is killed for her refusal to be objectified and sexually used.

King Achashverosh’s advisors urge the king to make a proclamation ensuring that women throughout the vast kingdom keep quiet and learn their place, lest there be uppity women, from Ethiopia to India, rising up against their husband’s orders!

When Achashverosh becomes lonely, missing Vashti’s presence, the advisors again offer their “keen” advice, suggesting that virgins be gathered from throughout the kingdom for the King to choose a new queen.  The women spend a year soaking in oils and fragrances until they are ready to have a night with the king.  The one who pleases him most becomes the queen (and one may ask exactly what qualities in this one night were the basis for the King’s pleasure).  Please note, adults, this is no beauty contest. The women are taken without consent from their homes for the King’s pleasure, and all those who are not selected to be Queen spend the rest of their lives in the King’s harem.

In this context, it is no wonder that the way Esther saves the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of the second most powerful man in the kingdom, is by using her sexuality. She manipulates the King’s sexual desire for her to stir him to come to two separate banquets.  She strokes his ego to make him feel important. And she stirs the King’s suspicions and jealousy toward Haman, orchestrating a scene in which Haman throws himself at Esther, pleading for his life, so that just as the King enters the room, it looks like Haman is sexually assaulting Achashverosh’s woman! And he is hanged for his vile behaviour.

These events are disturbing and outrageous. They are unsettlingly similar to real events today. Why on earth, you might ask, would we read this narrative as part of our religious tradition?!  But wait. What makes the fictional Purim story quite brilliantly transgressive, empowering and valuable for this #MeToo moment is that these horrific events are set in the context of a kingdom of explicit violence, abuse of power, and utterly irrational behaviour, led by drunken idiots and egomaniacs.

This story is a dark farce from beginning to end, a sharp critique of precisely the culture of sexual misconduct and abuse we live in.  Nothing in the story of Purim is rational. Nothing about Purim is normal. Everything is nahafoch hu – turned upside down. For the Jews of the time, living in exile, and for Jews to this day, vulnerable to anti-Semitism, the Megillah serves as a powerful revenge fantasy. For women of the time and to this day, vulnerable to sexism, the #MeGillah serves as an unmasking of sexual exploitation, power manipulation and absurdity. It plays with these tropes, exaggerating them, rendering them laughable and overpowering them. Let’s explore what aspects of empowerment and liberation we can discover in this absurdity and what wisdom may arise on the other side.

Join me for #MeGillah reading on Wednesday Feb. 28 at 7 PM at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick, along with the communities of Makom, Annexshul and Toronto Partnership Minyan. Check out Facebook for details of the family programming, adult dinner and party.

Join the DJC for our Community-Wide Campy, Vampy Purim Celebration on Thursday March 1 at 5:30 PM for a Purim se’udah/feast, theatrical Megillah-telling, and activities for families as well as adults.  Bring cash to donate for the mitzvah of matanot le-evyonim – Purim Gifts for the Poor.

COME IN COSTUME – exaggerate something that scares you.  Make absurd something you stand against. Find fierceness in revealing a hidden aspect of yourself and make it roar!

On a serious note, here are two Jewish organizations doing important work in preventing institutional abuse in the Jewish community: