Purim is just around the corner (it begins February 28th), and that means just one thing: yummy yummy hamentaschen. Well, two things: yummy yummy hamentaschen and a long essay in Commentary decrying feminist reinterpretations of the holiday.
The article—by Abby Wisse Schachter, an editor at the New York Post—employs the common Commentary tactic of labeling a non-traditional idea “trendy,” then further using it as an example of something Wrong With Society Today. The “trend” that’s been spotted this month is the practice of seeing Vashti, the queen of Persia who is deposed at the beginning of the Purim story for refusing to dance naked for her husband, King Ahasuerus, as the true heroine of the holiday tale. In this reading, Queen Esther—Vashti’s replacement, and the traditional one worthy of praise (the scroll that tells the story is named after her)—is a lesser figure: she lacks her predecessor’s admirable chutzpah, relying instead on a more old-fashioned brand of feminine wiles to get what she wants (that is, to save the Jews of the kingdom).
These trendsetters—mostly veterans of the original 1960s/70s women’s movement—are launching a “feminist war on Purim,” Schachter contends. She is justified in her scorn for some of the more inane Purim revisions: surely it is simplistic (not to mention self-parodic) to extol Hillary Clinton as a modern-day Vashti figure, right?
But these extreme, erroneous interpretations may just be the price we pay for the ability to update our readings of ancient stories in light of contemporary values. And it is a price worth paying: the only alternatives to such reinterpretation are to adopt religious fundamentalism or to reject the tales’ teachings altogether.
In fact, that’s what’s happened recently with the Hanukkah story, which a number of readers—and not raging liberals, either—have argued is deeply jingoistic, and bears a moral that extols fanaticism. Rereading the Purim story, which ends with the Jews killing 75,000 Persians, is what allows us not to throw the whole thing out.
The Problem with Purim [Commentary]
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.