Let’s face it. Queen Esther is a controversial figure in the story of Purim, certainly for the feminist community. On the one hand, she is the heroine of the story that ends well for the Jewish people. On the other hand she is handed over to the King of Persia by her uncle, without much choice in the matter. I personally have always been ambivalent about her. Is she a heroine or is she a victim? In 1990, the ICAR – the International Coalition for Agunot Rights – succeeded in having the Fast of Esther proclaimed as International Agunot Day, dedicated to the plight of women whose husbands are unable or unwilling to grant them a divorce. An interesting choice. Why the Fast of Esther? Why not Passover, for example, the festival of freedom?
Israel has no civil marriage authority. Marriage and divorce for all women – Jewish, Muslim, and others – are governed solely by religious law and religious courts. According to Jewish law, a Jewish woman may not receive a final writ of divorce or get without her husband’s consent. Thousands of women in Israel, called agunot or mesoravot get, are unable to remarry because their husbands either left or refused to grant them a divorce. For these women, a civil divorce obtained outside the country does not resolve their status in Israel.
But again I ask, why on the Fast of Esther? Living in Israel for 34 years now, I have gone to the polls eleven times voting for unstable governments that for the most part do not last more than three years at a time. This time in March, there are more women running for election to the Knesset than ever before, and why? Because all the research shows, and in particular the work done by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, that in Israel, the women’s vote counts and all the politicians know it. Who do women vote for? Other women running for office. And why? Because women elected to political office work on issues that concern women – families, security, and peace – more than men do when elected to political office.
We should be encouraged that in the last few years, a consensus in support of enacting an alternative to religious marriage is gaining strength among the Israeli public and among Israeli political leaders. We continue to look to the political and religious leadership in Israel for solutions acceptable to all. Resolving this situation would not only help Israeli women seeking a divorce, but all Jewish women seeking a get in the rabbinical courts of other countries as well. But without more women in the political sphere, it may not happen.
I think Esther knew that instinctively and so chose to work within the system with all its weaknesses. Let’s face it – she made it happen, but only because she was close to the decision maker and worked to engage him in her quest for the survival of the Jewish people. Thus, the celebration of Purim. I don’t know what party she would have belonged to today, but what I do know is that she would have stayed in the system, working it, determined and unafraid. Let us hope that the women elected to the 20th Knesset will do the same.