Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Discrimination, Purim and International Women’s Day

Tomorrow, 8th of March 2012, Jews will celebrate Purim and may others will mark International Women’s day.  A common thread is discrimination, which so often involved the strong seeking to dominate and oppress the weak.

The book of Esther has an early enlightened almost multicultural element.  The king’s ball will not require guests to adhere to the Persian custom that forced people to drink a lot of wine[i], instead there will be no compulsion to accommodate the will of every man[ii]. Commentary tells us the background to this decision was the king accommodating a religious request from the Jewish sage Mordechai[iii].

It goes downhill quickly.  The drunken king demands that the queen Vashti, appear before the guests wearing nothing[iv] but her crown to show off her beauty to the nations and officials[v]. The king is very angered by her refusal, his anger burned within him. According to one interpretation he seeks advice from Jewish sages, who are afraid to get involved so they say they don’t have the authority to judge such a matter[vi]

Haman[vii] steps into the vacuum and suggests that what is at stake here is the authority of men over women[viii]. He argues that women will despise their husbands and there will be much disgrace and anger. Women having some right to make decisions for themselves is equated with anarchy, much as arguments were later made for paternalistic attitudes toward blacks and colonised peoples.

The King decrees that men rule in their own home and speak in the language of his own nation[ix].  Ironically, this instruction about language dominance is conveyed to each province in its own language and script[x]. I see a civilisation that is aware of the importance of language and yet seeks to deprive its women the right to full expression in their own native language. Essentially, communicating in a language learned later in life can often make it very hard to express emotions[xi]. This is has a significant impact on the power dynamic, as I think the following anecdote shows. 

Rabbi X. was one of the scholars at the Talmudic college who had quite a harsh way of dealing with his students. His first language was Yiddish, which I speak fluently, but I spoke with him in English. He once asked me why other students would stop by my table during study for a chat. I told him, I guess I am a nice guy. He said “you not nice guy, you nice garbage!” He probably meant that I was not respecting myself and my study time and wanted to put me in my place. The fact that he had to deliver his sting in a non-native language made him clumsy and weakened his position of authority over me.  

Demonstrating the principle that where inequality takes root it soon spreads, we see bigotry soon follows the sexism.  The king accepts Haman’s argument that there are a people who don’t assimilate, as they have different laws[xii]. They are assumed to be disobeying the king’s laws, no trial, evidence, due process or consultation of the “wise men” required for this judgement, following the precedent of the quick decision to execute Vasht[xiii].  It is not worth the kings while to spare them. 

Fittingly, it is the words of a woman that save the day, as the king listens to Esther’s words and cancels his decree to kill the Jews of his kingdom.  

[i] Ohr Hachayim on Esther 1:8
[ii] Esther 1:8
[iii] Meam Loez
[iv] Midrash
[v] Esther 1:11
[vi] Talmud Megilla 12b
[vii] The text attributes the advice to Memuchan but the Midrash and Talmud tells us this was a nickname for Haman
[viii] Esther 1:16-19
[ix] Esther 1:22
[xi], first brought to my attention by my colleague, life coach Ronit Baras
[xii] Esther 3:8
[xiii] Yosef Lekach

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