#HerToo: The Role of (Jewish) Men in Counting Women Among Us

Purim arrives in just a month! Purim is a joyous holiday, filled with costumed children, merrymaking and all-around silliness. Since this blog is usually about justice though (and this piece is to be cross-published for my March “Baltimore Justice” JMore column), you might be wondering what Purim has to do with issues of bettering our society. The truth is The Scroll of Esther, the core text of the holiday, is all about justice. It’s a tale of marginalization, attempted genocide, redemption and salvation.  Good triumphs over evil, the queen, her cousin and their people survive, and the villain gets his just desserts (and not hamantaschen).

And yet, the way Jews observe Purim itself betrays a deep anxiety about the elusiveness of justice in the world. We wear masks and (deliberately) confuse our fellow as to our identity. We laugh in the face of evil and spin our noisemakers at the sound of Haman’s name, a temporary salve for the wounds of oppression. And we drink – by tradition, so heavily we can no longer distinguish between the words “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.”

On Purim, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right. We challenge assumptions about good and evil not because we’re moral relativists but because any fool can look at the world and figure out in short order how frequently evil effectively masquerades as good. Because the Megillah invites questions as to what is seen or unseen, even right or wrong, I find myself reflecting on what wisdom the Purim story might offer those of us moved to action this year by the #MeToo movement. Does this book, named for a woman, have something to add to our conversation about the place of women (and men) in society?

Recently, as I was traveling to Israel for my twice-yearly fellowship learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I had an experience fairly common to someone who regularly wears a yarmulke. I was sitting in the Toronto airport terminal when a man stood over me and beckoned, “Nu?  You’ll come daven Mincha?” [Translation: “You, who is clearly a Jew and because you’re a man (and therefore counts in a religious quorum for prayer), should come join us in the corner so we can collectively offer the afternoon prayers.”]

Most Jewish men, I think, experience this occasional intrusion as a heartening one.  Indeed, in my own past I felt blessed to be counted and, therefore, to enable others to fulfill their worship obligations – particularly when someone is saying Kaddish. But that day, I refused. I did so in part because I was confident he would form a minyan without me (there were plenty of guys with yarmulkes) but also because I am becoming increasingly sensitive to what my counting means for those who happen to have been born with different anatomy then my own. So, instead of mechanically saying “yes,” I looked up and said, “no thanks.” And when he persisted I asked, “Are you counting women in the minyan?”

My point here is not to denigrate Orthodoxy. I believe there is great value in having multiple perspectives on Jewish practice. But increasingly, I’m feeling less sanguine about the positive contributions of non-egalitarian Judaism to the dynamics of women and men in our Jewish community. I could go into the halachic (legal) arguments in favor of counting women in a quorum, but that’s not really the point. Knowledgeable and committed Jews can disagree on the particulars of halacha. What’s more important is that we begin to confront, honestly, the ramifications of our choices as men, the privileged gender – including in our religious life. What does it mean to define default Judaism as we have? What are the implications when half of the world’s adult Jewish population, in the eyes of many, quite literally do not count?

Consider Purim. The book is named for Esther. She risks her life approaching the king, outing herself as a Jew and calling Haman out for his wicked scheme.  And yet, by tradition, of the four verses that are repeated by the congregation during the Megillah reading, one is about Jewish survival generally and three are only about Esther’s cousin Mordechai!

One innovation we’ll be trying this year at Beth Am comes from my colleague Rabbi Julia Andelman who suggests three additional verses for the community to repeat – verses that celebrate Esther as hero of the story.  In giving voice to Esther’s name, we remember how she leaned into history. She showed up for those who were voiceless and powerless and, in doing so, she made her life count.

What does it mean for her legacy and the place of women in Jewish community when we undervalue her contribution? What would it mean for us if Esther showed up in shul on Purim and we didn’t count her in the minyan?