Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Tzav • Purim • 14 March 2014
Consider the following two statements:
• “That new rabbi is really assertive.”
• “That new rabbi is really bossy.”
In your mind’s eye, was there a gender difference between the two, assertive and bossy? If Sheryl Sandberg is right, there was: women are called bossy; men are assertive.
Sandberg’s view has gone viral with the success of Lean In, her book on women, the workplace, and leadership. She is on a mission to strike “bossy” from our vocabulary. As a word, it is used not merely to describe, but to deride and marginalize women.
Writing today in Tablet Magazine, Rachel Shukert offers a tongue-in-cheek counterproposal to Sandberg’s anti-“bossy” crusade. We will still need, she asserts, a word to describe people like that – people who look over our shoulder and dictate how we should be doing things – you know, backseat drivers. Let’s follow Sandberg’s lead, she says, and choose a word that doesn’t have all the anti-feminist baggage of “bossy”, but rather “merely” some anti-Semitic resonance: how about “pushy”?
It’s a word mainly applied to things like jostling for bar mitzvah dates and looking for loopholes in medical-school applications, and you know what? I say we give it back to the world. True, it’s not a perfect synonym for “bossy,” but it’s close enough, and once it’s everyone’s, it’s no one’s. Maybe this time next year [since we’ll have reappropriated “pushy”], we’ll be debating a new term for the person cutting in line at Bloomingdale’s –for example, “Jewish.”
Every year, Purim confronts us with a story of gender and power, of blurred identities, of leadership that is either bossy and pushy or bold and assertive, depending on your perspective.
This year, as Batya Ungar-Sargon reports, two viral Purim videos from Orthodox corners of the Jewish world made their own gendered statements about this holiday. One, a parody of “What does the fox say?” entitled “What does Haman say?” casts the Haman-Mordechai conflict as the central narrative of the story. Esther has barely a bit part and doesn't speak at all.
Another, entitled The Story of Lester, removes Esther entirely. In this hour-long computer-animated tale, a young yeshiva boy who is responsible for producing his shul's Purim spiel hits his head and time travels back to ancient Shushan, on the eve of the Purim events. Knowing the ending, he warns Vashti what will happen to her if she doesn’t obey the King – so she isn’t banished, and Esther never appears. It’s Lester’s job to save the day.
In both stories, anxiety about a female heroine – for whom, lest we forget, the biblical book and the ritual fast are named – prompted the substitution of male characters (in Lester’s case, quite literally) for Esther’s queenly leadership. But as the article points out:
...any child who understands the bare minimum of the holiday’s text—the Megillah—will be forced to confront the gloriously discomforting fact that a woman with power was given her own holiday. And not just any woman; a woman with what can only be called sexual power becomes a leader of her people by using said power to save the Jews. So while we might (please, let’s!) debate whether the text is a feminist text or not, there is no question that the text is not only about female power, but about...canonizing it.
She goes on to warn readers that if they are deeply concerned about exposing their children to this discomforting, gender-role-bending, provocative story – then they definitely shouldn't go to shul on Purim.
And especially not to OUR shul, where we’ll be taking the gender-bending theme to a whole new level… It’s not just for the cheap thrill of seeing a man in a dress or a woman in a mullet wig (although that may be worth the price of admission). There’s something deeper going on that gets to the heart of what the holiday of Purim is all about.
When we talk about gender-bending, we are talking about bending the rules. In this case, rules about gendered clothing. Tomorrow, when you see men in skirts, and women with mustaches, you may be both amused and somewhat uncomfortable. That’s because of how deeply we have internalized our culture’s rules about gender identity and presentation.
This is true any time we bend the rules. It is destabilizing, even threatening. It invites chaos, anarchy. It might just feel wrong. But when we dwell in that discomfort, we can begin to learn the powerful lesson of Purim.
Jews are a people of rules. We have a tradition of halakhah. We have 613 mitzvoth. This week’s parashah, Tzav, contains detailed rules upon rules about making sacrifices. Mitzvoth pervade our tradition – and mitzvoth are good! They define our relationships to God and others, they teach us our obligations to the world and ourselves, they allow us to maintain a functioning society and enforce justice, they train us to walk in the ways of righteousness. Mitzvoth and halakhah are paths to goodness.
Except when they aren’t. As with most things in our world, even mitzvoth, even rules, can become idols. They can become ends in themselves, disembodied from the real lives and situations they affect. When we become too fixated on rules, too obsessed with the letter of the law, we risk losing its spirit. We compromise our humanity. Rather than paths to righteousness, rules can become obstacles to what really matters. They cause us to forget that every human being is a unique soul, created in God’s image, who often doesn’t fit the neat categories that the law or social convention lays out for us.
And so on this day of Purim, we bend and suspend the rules. We dress up (and perhaps cross-dress). We get rowdy (and perhaps tipsy). It’s like Thomas Jefferson said (although he wasn't talking about Purim): “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” (letter to James Madison, 1787). Well, it’s necessary in the religious and spiritual world as well. For one thing, a night of irreverence helps us celebrate and laugh as a community, and that’s a holy thing. Everyone’s soul has wounds and dark places that welcome the soothing light of laughter.
But it’s not that alone. Purim’s suspension of rules, its blurring of lines, should shake us out of complacently following rules without minding their purpose. It should ease our fear that the sky will fall if things aren’t always “by the book.” No one’s going to get struck by lightning because a man wears a dress and heels, or a woman puts on a fake mustache.
Of course, it’s not just about breaking down traditional gender roles. It’s about seeing all people for who they are beneath all the layers of stereotype and artifice that culture and religion and good manners impose. Purim is trying to teach us to see past disability, language, faith, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, age, intelligence, net worth – all the ways we let ourselves be defined and define others – too look past those things and really see each other as a neshamah kedoshah, a sacred soul with its own God-given dignity.
Don’t worry though, the only stripping we’ll be doing tomorrow during the spiel is the stripping away of preconceived notions, of judgment, of insecurity. In Purim’s perfect irony, we dress up in costume to dress down our shortcomings. We put on masks in order to really see each other. And in light of the very serious and difficult work we have to do, as individuals and as a community, to walk in God’s ways, we can’t help but laugh.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Purim Sameach.
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