From Our President…
Purim, like most of our holidays, has multiple layers of meaning and grows with us as we gain experience in life and consider different parts of the story. Young children (and their parents) can celebrate the holiday as a joyous and chaotic break from the dreariness and grey sameness of an endless Albany winter. Costumes! Games! Candy! Hamantaschen! And who on earth wouldn’t love a story that has not one but two queens, an unambiguously evil villain who receives his just desserts, a reversal of fortune engineered by two brave heroes who embrace their Jewish identities and an ending exhorting us to have a party every year?
We can read the holiday in other ways. In recent years, feminist readings have emphasized the role of Vashti, elevating her from a minor character whose only significance is to clear the way for Esther, to a model for strong women, banished because she refused to obey the king’s humiliating command. The holiday also has a dark side. Underneath the hilarity that accompanies a story where all ends well lies a genuine threat to the Jews that resonates across history. And when Haman – and his presumably uninvolved sons – meet their gruesome fates, we do not pause the celebration for a moment to acknowledge their deaths, unlike our experience with the Egyptians at the Red Sea. To the contrary, we cheer these deaths.
But what does Purim teach us about Jews and Judaism? We get two archetypes. Mordechai is the very visible and known Jew, a leader in the community, who earns Haman’s ire through his public performance of Judaism in not bowing down. Esther, well, what can we say? “But you don’t look Jewish!” Indeed, through her entire preparation period, her relationship with the king and her interactions with Haman, no one seems to realize that she is a Jew until she publicly asserts her Jewishness and warns the king that Haman’s decree will reach her too.
Mordechai and Esther are opposites in many ways. Male and female, of course, but their interaction styles differ greatly, with Mordechai as an assertive and confrontational type, while Esther prefers gentle, drawn out persuasion. Mordechai saves the king from physical peril, while Esther rescues him from moral peril. Haman fears both of them, but in different ways, reacting confrontationally to Mordechai and with obsequiousness to Esther. Ultimately, though, both are absolutely necessary to execute the Purim reversal of fortune that saves the Jews. And herein lies an important lesson about diversity.
At the February board meeting, the Board of Trustees voted to commit our congregation to the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality initiative. As the URJ describes it, “Audacious Hospitality is a transformative spiritual practice rooted in the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we fully incorporate the diversity that is the reality of modern Jewish life.” This practice aligns with Reform Judaism’s understanding of itself: “As a movement, we stand for a Judaism that is inclusive and reflective of a wide range of identities and accept the responsibility of dismantling oppression both inside and outside of our communities.”
Many of us have been involved in or experienced diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in other organizations or in our workplaces. These efforts often emphasize righting historical wrongs of oppression and exclusion or embracing an ethical stance of equality and inclusion. Implicitly, they orient toward the dominant group and presume the need for persuasion. Maybe the Purim story, though, points us in a slightly different direction. Mordechai’s moral compass and his robust, open and visible representation of the Jewish community is necessary to thwart Haman, but so too is Esther’s very different way of being Jewish. Both Mordechai and Esther have to realize that Esther’s full inclusion not just as a member of the Jewish community, but as a crucially placed leader, is the only path forward for Jewish survival. Mordechai and Esther, coming from different backgrounds and ways of being, work together. Mordechai’s insistence that Esther is, despite her difference, the best and only advocate for the community, persuades her to step forward bravely as a Jew.
Audacious hospitality will likewise make us stronger by embracing our differences as advantages and reaching out to be a congregation known for its openness and welcoming nature. This orientation will help us to follow in Mordechai and Esther’s footsteps, unifying around our different ways of being and experiencing Judaism to dismantle internal and external oppression. While I certainly don’t anticipate an existential conflict that ends in the same bloody fashion as the Purim story, we will likely face some challenging times ahead. May we, like the protagonists in the Book of Esther, face them together, openly, and experience a joyous outcome in which we celebrate our diverse Jewish identities.