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Between the hidden and the revealed: Purim as a Jewish National Coming Out Day

The Esther story celebrates the outing of nearly every one of its characters, assuring LGBTQ youth that the Jewish tradition recognizes their experience
Reading of Megillat Esther during the holiday of Purim, at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Reading of Megillat Esther during the holiday of Purim, at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

If there is a moment in the Jewish calendar for a Jewish Coming Out Day, it is surely Purim. The Megillah is rife with the keeping and spilling of secrets. The plot is shaped by tensions between text and subtext, between the overt and the covert.

Each of the main characters in the Megillah is struggling to maintain a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that would undo them if it were exposed. Purim celebrates the outing of nearly everyone in the story at one point or another.

Before we take a look at each character, it is important to note one glaring omission. There is not a single mention of God in the story. The sages resolve the problem of a biblical book without God by reading the story as a game of hide and seek. God is present, shaping the story from behind the scenes. They remind us that the letters of Esther’s name in Hebrew form the word, astir, meaning, “I will hide” setting the stage for us to wonder what else is hidden in the book.

Achashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. He is a fool dressed up in royal robes. His parties don’t signal mastery, but insecurity. He is terrified of being challenged or manipulated – which is exactly what happens.

Vashti, the true Persian princess, is banished for her insubordination, for refusing to take off her royal robes. She is the only one who refuses to dress up (or, in this case, down) as something she is not.

Mordechai is a Judean refugee, now a statesman in the Persian court, but he doesn’t flaunt his Jewish identity. Social climbing requires that he hide his Jewish roots and he warns Esther to do likewise. They are immigrants who have adopted names of Mesopotamian gods – Markuk and Ishtar. Esther’s double identity is explicitly marked in the book when we first meet her. She is Hadassah in Judea and Esther in Shushan.

Haman rises to power with little merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. We see behind his facade when he demands that everyone in the court bow down to him (and later, by sharing his fantasy of dressing up in the king’s robes and wearing the crown).

The Megillah’s conflict begins when Mordechai is told to bow down before Haman, and he is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Persian noble, or a Jew? At the moment of reckoning, he decides that he will not bow. When the king’s courtiers ask why he is flouting the royal order, he reveals to them that he is a Jew. Haman learns this, and in his fury, hatches a plot against Mordechai and his people.

Mordechai now bears full witness to his inner truth. He comes out in the most public way possible, sitting at the gates of the palace in sackcloth, as a Jew in mourning. This public congruence between person and performance sets in motion the outing of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Achashverosh.

Esther’s courageous reveal is the climax of the story. Risking mortal danger she approaches the king with a secret. She troubles the king for a desire that she will share with the king…but only later. She marks the distance between interiority and expression, at two separate parties, private parties with only two guests, the king and Haman, stoking the king’s intense curiosity. What does my queen really want and why is Haman here? The apex of the drama is when Esther shares that her desire is for her people, that Haman is the villain and the king has been duped.

As the story unfolds and truths come to light, there seems to be a redemptive quality in selfִ-expression. Esther becomes a powerful queen, and Mordechai, the king’s most trusted counselor. Simultaneously they both rise to leadership within the Jewish community, orchestrating literary memory and communal observance. Even Achashverosh seems to have a more royal demeanor by the end. Each of these fuller identities was achieved, not by choosing one self over another, but by pulling together disparate elements of the self—by reconciling inner and outer persons.

The story doesn’t totally reject the closet. It marks the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace, Mordechai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later he implores her to do so. It seems that there can be a right and wrong time for revelation. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self-revelations but by our careful nurturing of a private world.

As well, not all inner lives are equal. Mordechai’s revelation shows his commitment to his principles, while Haman’s exposes his hubris and lust for power. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals her wisdom and inner strength as she comes out as a Jew to the king. Though the battle between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead, there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.

Purim may be the perfect time for an International Jewish Coming Out Day. Perhaps in those last moments of the Fast of Esther, as the queen is on the verge of her own dangerous coming out, it is the right time for us to start telling the truth. Those who prefer the backdrop of the Purim comedy and the bravery of a little liquor to push them out of the shadows might choose a moment during Purim day to share the truth with those near and dear to them. Whenever we choose to open that closet door, our family, our friends, and the organized Jewish community need to be there on the other side, embracing us as we venture forth, if the story is to end well.

Considered in this light, Purim as a Jewish Coming-Out Day assures LGBTQ youth that the Jewish tradition recognizes their experience. Like Mordechai, we can stand up to bullies, and like Esther, we can carefully plan our coming out, to achieve the best outcome. And finally, we can draw strength from the hidden God who has often been our only companion in the closet and who – when the moment is right – dances us into the light.

For anyone struggling in the closet, you can connect to Eshel via their website, Eshelonline or write directly to Rabbi Greenberg.
About the Author
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL, a faculty member of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and a founder and director of Eshel, a national Orthodox LGBT support, education and advocacy organization. He is the author of the book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, (University of Wisconsin Press) which was awarded with the 2005 Koret Jewish Book Award for Philosophy and Thought. Steve lives with his partner Steven Goldstein and his daughter Amalia in Boston.