We are no longer in Shushan

Jan Steen: Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman. Wikimedia Commons

For many years, many of us Israeli activists and lay persons grappling with the problems of marital captivity – a.k.a the problem of the agunah marked by the upcoming Fast of Esther – have assumed that the way to help our clients was to prop up the authority and jurisdiction of the state. We demanded, and still do, that state rabbinic courts punish recalcitrant husbands, even those who are not citizens of the state. We demanded, and still do: more rabbis; more courts; more creative and harsh decrees. If a recalcitrant husband won’t release his wife from marital captivity, we ask that the state: take away his right to travel; shame him; keep him in jail forever; put him in solitary; take away his canteen privileges; confiscate his mattress, tefillin and mehadrin food; refuse to bury his dead mother; call out Interpol. Whew.

More recently, we at the Center for Women’s Justice have begun to understand that all this hyper-activity – while well-intentioned – is misdirected and counter-productive. It is misdirected because it wrongfully places blame on bad husbands or irresponsive rabbis, rather than focusing on the fact that Jewish women should not be placed in marital captivity from the get go, under the huppa, the marital canopy. It is also misdirected, because it fails to place any blame on the state for adopting a regime of marital captivity that violates the civil liberties of Jewish women, in the first instance, and then exacerbates those violations against Jewish men in the attempt to sustain the regime rather than amend it.  

The danger of a state violating the civil liberties of its citizens is uncannily underscored by a close look at the parallelism between the political regime of the modern State of Israel and that described in the Book of Esther.

The Book of Esther depicts a monarchic dictatorship in which subjects have no liberty. Their bodies are not their own. They belong to the Sovereign, the King. He rounds up virgins and locks them up in a harem, segregating them for his personal pleasure behind bars guarded by eunuchs, men castrated by the King (2:3). The King commands how his designated virgins must bathe – six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics (2:12). He even kills any subject who refuses his command – such as to dance naked (Midrash Esther Rabbah 3:13), and empowers state servants to kill subjects who refuse to bow down to them.

Like King Ahasuerus who orders his subjects to bath in the oil of myrrh, Israel requires Jewish women to bathe in ritual baths (mikveh) in order to obtain a license to marry and engage in what the state deems to be “legitimate” sex, regardless of the women’s own religious beliefs. King Ahasuerus holds women captive in his harem, sequestering them behind actual bars; with no option for civil marriage, Israel demands that Jewish women marry in a particular religious manner that allows their husbands to hold them indefinitely in a form of marital captivity, sequestering them behind legal barriers nearly impossible to overcome. Like Ahasuerus who shames his errant subjects by parading them around in public, Israel shames women who have sexual relations with men who are not their husbands (no’afot) by placing them on a state-sanctioned and state-financed blacklist, together with children suspected of being born of those relations (mamzerim), denying or limiting their legal rights to marry. King Ahasuerus beheads or hangs subjects who disobey his orders; Israel can imprison husbands, sometimes even for life, who abuse the religious privilege given to them by the state to keep their wives in marital captivity.

We are no longer in Shushan. And all this is not how one should be conducting a modern, democratic regime. Nor a Jewish one. The state should not be placing women in marital captivity; it should not be shaming women for their sexual activity; it should not be blacklisting and punishing children for their mothers’ deeds; nor should the it be imprisoning obstinate husbands for taking advantage of the very privileges that the state should never have given them in the first instance.

A recent Israeli TV series Matir Agunot highlights the absurdity of this system as well as the lies and contortions necessary to sustain it. There, the writers describe the extreme efforts made by the rabbi-hero, a state official, to keep his personal theocratic universe in tact, as well as that of the state. All efforts taken to keep them safe require him to lie, cheat, and manipulate others, as well as – and not the least – himself. 

As we approach Purim and the Fast of Esther that commemorates the plight of the Jewish woman held in marital captivity – the Agunah – the Center for Women’s Justice and the actors and writers of Matir Agunot invite you to join us in an evening of contemplation and thought at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 16 at 20:00 so that together, we can imagine a truly Jewish and democratic state that does not sacrifice the liberty of its citizens, men or women, for the Glory of the King nor for the Glory of the state’s projection of God. 

May this Purim be the beginning of a time of light and gladness, of joy and honor, of liberty and freedom for all citizens of Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Susan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center for Women's Justice, an NGO leading the battle to advance the civil and religious liberties of Israeli women when compromised by state institutions..
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