Thursday, March 17, 2011

Help Agunah on Ta'anit Esther

Today is Ta’anit Esther (Fast of Esther) that precedes Purim every year. Purim is one of the more obscure Jewish holidays. Celebrated around March, it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a genocidal plot, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther (Megilla). The Megilla begins with a party thrown by the Persian king Ahasuerus, the public disobedience of his wife Vashti, and her subsequent banishment. Soon regretting his decision, he searched the kingdom for a new wife and chose Esther, a Jewish woman. Because the prime minister, Haman, was severely anti-Semitic, Esther’s uncle Mordecai advised her to conceal her Jewish identity from Ahasuerus. During Esther’s reign, Haman began plotting to wipe out the Jewish nation. Esther told Ahasuerus that she was a Jew and then informed him of Haman’s plot to destroy her people; Ahasuerus then killed Haman, sparing the Jews.

When Mordecai told Esther about Haman’s plot, he asked her to go Ahasuerus “to implore of him, and to plead with him for her people” (Esther 4:8). Esther, however, was reluctant to go to the king without an express invite; “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court, who is not summoned, the law is one - to be put to death; except for the one to whom the king shall extend the gold scepter” (Esther 4:11). After Mordecai asked her again, she agreed, but requested that Mordecai gather the Jews for three days of prayer and fasting. We commemorate Esther’s three days of fasting with Ta’anit Esther.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has made Ta’anit Esther the International Agunah Advocacy Day. Agunot are women whose husbands refuse to give them a get (religious divorce papers). Since in Jewish law, the husband must give his wife the get, women whose husbands refuse to do so are stuck in unwanted marriages. This situation is clearly a horrible one; at the 2010 JOFA conference, Blu Greenberg mentioned at her session about agunah that agunot she has met act similarly to victims of domestic abuse.

“Like Esther, the agunot of the present era do not want to be in the marriage in which they find themselves. Like Esther, many women who are refused a get live in fear of their spouses and live a double life. Like Esther, the agunah, a victim of get-refusal, finds herself lacking control of her own freedom,” a recent JOFA email said. When Ahasuerus searched the kingdom for a wife after he banished Vashti, people were reluctant to hand their daughters over, since they knew that they would spend a night with the king and the rest of their lives in his harem. Jewish women like Esther were particularly afraid, since Ahasuerus was no friend of the Jews; when Haman proposed his idea to wipe them out, Ahasuerus gave his blessing. As a result, Esther was not happy when she was chosen to be his new wife.

Sefer HaToda’ah, a commentary, explains what Esther said as she prayed for the three days before she approached Ahasuerus. (It’s my own translation from Hebrew, so I apologize in advance for mistakes.) “God, the god of Israel, who ruled before the creation of the world, please help Your maidservant [Esther], an orphan without father and mother, equivalent to a poor woman who asks for money from house to house. I ask Your mercy from window to window in the house of Ahasuerus. And now, God, please save Your maidservant the poor woman, and save Your sheep [the Jews] from the enemies that arise against us. You have no inhibition to save in large or in small amounts. You are the Parent of orphans; please stand to the right of this orphan that trusts in Your goodness, and give me mercy before this man [Ahasuerus], because I dread him…”

I think Esther’s prayer would resonate with many agunot today. It is a miscarriage of justice that the situation is still a prevalent issue, and we have to end it. This Ta'anit Esther, say the prayer for agunot. Listen to Blu Greenberg’s 2010 JOFA conference session about agunah and the possible solutions. Help out your sisters in need. Queen Esther would be proud.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment