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Mansplaining Vashti

(Edited from March 3, 2018 Shabbat sermon)

In last week’s Torah Portion, we learned that the first set of commandments were given by God alone, כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים, written with God’s ‘finger.’ (Ex. 31:18).

After these are shattered, the second set of commandments were carved in partnership – on God’s command, but by Moses’s hand.

There are some who teach that the first set of laws, carved by God alone would have been unlivable. Only in partnership can we live and flourish.

As you know, we just finished our joyous Purim Celebration. Thank you to Karen Abells, Alana Steen, Rob and Hannah Eisenberg, Rabbi Bill Tepper, and so many more that made our Purim celebration come to life!

This Purim was different than past Purim celebrations, because of the #metoo movement. On Facebook, you may have seen pictures of women wearing “Vashti #Metoo” shirts, as Vashti’s story of resistance – and of her punishment for fear that she would create a great social change – have resonated.

This led to a public debate in the Jewish Forward, where Rabbi Joshua Krisch, a Chabad Rabbi in upstate New York challenges this choice – a choice which he points out is often made by more progressive Jews. He writes, “But Vashti? She’d be dumbfounded. Because it’s not every day ostensibly progressive folk reclaim a vicious anti-Semite and serial abuser of women, crowning her a liberated icon…. It’s time to retire the Vashti-Feminist myth. She was a powerful executive who used her throne to discriminate against minorities and commit sexual assault with impunity.”

The Women’s Rabbinic Network, a coalition of Reform female rabbis, responded through a member of its communications committee, Rabbi Rachel Bearman in a letter titled, “Don’t Mansplain Vashti to us!” which made three powerful points.

  1. “The version of Vashti that appears in the Talmud is the product of the (male) rabbinic imagination.”
  2. Even when the Talmud does portray women well, it is still from within the male imagination. Rabbi Bearman points to a case of a woman who is lauded as a hero, which Rabbi Krisch mentioned in his article, and who is still treated as an object of desire.
  3. “Third and most importantly: Jewish feminists don’t need Rabbi Krisch or anyone else to tell us who we should and should not regard as a hero. Some of us love the idea that a woman in the ancient world could defy her husband and smash the expectations of the patriarchy. Some of us think of Vashti as a hero from a time period in which she and so many other women lived and died at the whims of careless and cruel men. Some of us think that Vashti is a feminist icon. None of us needs anyone to approve our assessment of this or any other character.”

The first set of commandments were given by God alone.
The second in partnership.

The first two-millenium of rabbinic tradition and textual interpretation were inclusive of men alone.
The second two-millenium (at least), we pray – will be in full partnership.

Come to Torah study, every Saturday morning at 9 am, and learn from Rabbi Splansky as she makes ancient text come alive for today. By participating, you enter into partnership in her teaching and learning.

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  • Cheryl Sylvester

    Rabbi Helfman, thank you also for partnering in keeping the ancient text relevant by standing with women of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and women of the #MeToo movement.

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