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A Woman’s Voice

02/03/18 11:16:34


We had a riotous run-up to Purim with our young bubs (Caulfield Mums & Bubs) in their colourful Purim costumes, a spectacularly smart and entertaining Grand Debate on the “Future of the humble ham (entasch) and topped it off with a splendid carnival of Purim activities for our kids. Not to mention 5 Megillah readings (including one at Arcare Kooyong Rd by Rabbi Gedaliah Levin).

Purim is a day of delight and daring. In the spirit of the Megillah and its topsy-turvy theme (“ונהפכו”) in which everything is reversed, we’re encouraged to abandon our usual restrictions and formalities. Cross-dressing is permitted. Dress, dining and drinking feature prominently in the Story of Esther: the dressing up for the beauty pageant, Esther in regal garb and Mordechai being dressed up in the manner Haman had wished for himself (which marks the dramatic denouement of the story). The drink flows especially in the first chapter where the king shouts drinks for all at his royal parties and in a drunken stupor deposes his queen. And then there’s lots to “fress” about; the Purim seudah or meal is surely based on the elaborate intimate dinners that Esther connives for the king and Haman.

The Halacha permitting cross dressing on this day is especially intriguing. Usually the Torah and Rabbis are unyielding in their binary division of the sexes; the Torah declares ‘a man shall not wear a woman’s clothing’ and vice versa (hence the strictures on women wearing trousers although this could apply specifically to men’s clothing or unisex pants like denim jeans).

The Rabbis extended the strict division between the roles of men and women, women being excluded from ‘time-bound’ mitzvot or commandments. Thus the gender fluidity of this day is surprising if not fascinating. I would suggest that it is related to the blurring and even questioning of gender roles in the Megillah. Esther takes on the role of the traditional male. She takes charge of rescuing the Jews and Mordechai falls in meekly behind her. She is the driving force in the story and it is due to her that the Jews are saved and Jewish destiny redirected. The Megillah itself, in recognition of this is called the scroll of Esther and not Mordechai.

In view of this, the prevailing Halachik view that a woman cannot read the Megillah on behalf of men, seems surprising. Surely on this one day, this one time, the voice of the woman should be welcomed and broadcast across the rooftops. There is a basis for this in the Halacha (according to the Mechaber, the Shulchan Aruch) but it is challenged by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama) and our contemporary practise is to disallow it. The Chafetz Chaim remarks that it would lower the standing of the community – Kvod Hatzibur – and embarrass the men if women were to read it.

I would suggest that today it could both strengthen and enhance our community to have women reading the Megillah. In fact, the usual understanding of “Kvod Hatzibur” (standing of the community) has been challenged by some Modern Orthodox rabbis. Surely the time has come to encourage the voice of the women in the life of Modern Othodoxy. Women are already teaching and preaching Torah on the highest level in the non-chareidi world. Exploring ways of including women in our Halachik religious leadership and practise should be a priority not a luxury.

Esther remains a model of conviction and courage. Her voice rings throughout our history and has a special resonance today. May there soon be heard in the streets of Jerusalem, the cities and shules across the world the voices of joy and rejoicing, the strong principled and knowledgeable voices of Jewish women claiming their rightful role to lead and inspire their community.


Shabbat Shalom, Ralph Genende

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780