Uplifting Unnamed Women

The Talmud teaches us “mi she-nikhnas Adar marbin b’simcha—when Adar begins, joy increases.” For centuries, Jews have used Adar’s holiday of Purim as a day to rejoice in our triumph over our oppressor. In more recent years, Jewish feminists honor the female heroines in the Book of Esther.  

But while it is always worth rejoicing in Jewish survival, we cannot ignore the more troubling undertones of Megillat Esther in its depiction of women and their sexuality. 

Despite wielding some political power, both Queen Vashti and Queen Esther are stripped of their personal sexual autonomy (if they ever had it in the first place.)  After Vashti is deposed because of her refusal to display her beauty before the king and his guests, the king becomes lonely and decrees a beauty pageant of sorts. 

Young women— specifically, virgins—are gathered from all of the 127 provinces of the realm and put under the watch of a eunuch before spending the night with the king. This is when we meet our heroine, Esther, who is quite literally taken (2:8) from her home and brought to the king’s harem. As were, presumably, most, if not all, of the girls and women there. 

In the harem, all the women are rubbed for six months with the oil of myrrh before their intimate meetings with the king (2:12). Myrrh was a known contraceptive in the ancient Mediterranean, understood to prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs, similar to some modern contraceptives like the hormonal IUD. The “aromatic ointments” may also have been used in service of pregnancy prevention as well. None of these girls and women were asked if they wanted this contraceptive treatment, but “whatever she asked for would be given” (2:13)  for her visit with the king. The women in the harem had agency only in regards to sexually pleasing the king; they could determine how they went about sex with the king, but they could not opt out. And even then, after the king tries them out, the women don’t get to go home. They are kept in a second harem until the king summons them again – or not (2:14).  It makes narrative sense that the text doesn’t tell us what happens next for these women and instead focuses on Esther’s success story. 

But what doesn’t sit well with me is the dearth of midrash, or rabbinic legend, that tells their stories. Even in a genre devoted to analyzing and providing literary context for every word in our holy texts, the rabbis never return to the unnamed women (at least not in any well-known collection of text).  If we say that every person is a world unto themselves, how many worlds have we ignored by ignoring these women?

Just two weeks before we read the Megillah, Jews around the world will read Parshat Mishpatim, the weekly Torah portion that includes the verses from which we derive the Jewish legal approach to abortion. For the first time in decades, we will read those same verses in a country where the legal right to abortion is no longer federally protected under Roe v Wade. But while people and communities with privilege— from predominantly white and/or more economically secure backgrounds— benefited from the victory of Roe, the Hyde Amendment began prohibiting federal funding for abortion care in 1976, a mere three years after Roe

In practical terms this has meant that anybody on Medicaid could not use Medicaid to pay for abortion care. Because of social and economic barriers and discriminatory public policy, the Hyde Amendment prevents 30% of Black women and 24% of Latina women ages 15 to 44 from accessing abortions. 

In our focus on Esther’s victory and Vashti’s assault, we forget those who are left behind.

 In the months since Dobbs, feminists with economic and social privilege have bemoaned losing access to safe and legal abortions—too often, without acknowledging that this was long the reality for many. Despite the disproportionate impact that restrictive abortion laws have on those with marginalized identities, mainstream feminist discourse – news articles and Instagram posts alike – often overlooks those without structural power when talking about abortion. Even progressive news outlets and media glides over the stories of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, of trans and nonbinary folks, of people with disabilities, of youth, of those who struggle to make ends meet, or who live in rural communities.

Just as in the Purim story, it is much easier to remember the victors—to remember Esther and how she subverted expectations to save her people—it is much easier to focus on the victory that Roe symbolized, than it is to tell the stories of those people for whom Roe made no difference. In our focus on Esther’s victory and Vashti’s assault, we forget those who are left behind. We forget to tell the stories of the women in the harem whose lives were permanently disrupted—without catharsis. 

The Reproductive Justice movement, founded by Black women and led by Black and BIPOC women and trans and nonbinary people, advocates for “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong). The Purim story tells us how oppressive power structures take away the human right to bodily autonomy. In Shushan, men in power made decisions about what and how women and others should act; when and with whom they had sex, when and how they got pregnant. 

So too, today, the right to decide whether or not to have children, and on what terms those children may be raised, has been taken. 

Reproductive Justice offers us a vision of what the world looks like when women, when all people, can exercise the most basic human rights. When we remember the unnamed women in the Purim story, we can remember the people whose lives have been endangered and forever changed by oppressive abortion bans. When we allow ourselves to see parallels between the Purim story and our current political reality, we come to a deeper understanding of the urgency to fight for reproductive justice for all. 

That’s why the National Council of Jewish Women started the now annual Repro Shabbat, which takes place every year on the Shabbat that we read Parshat Mishpatim, and is an opportunity for Jews of all backgrounds to come together in community and engage with reproductive justice and its place in our shared tradition. (To host your own Repro Shabbat event or find one in a community near you, head over to ReproShabbat.org.)

By understanding the biases we absorb from both modern media and our own holy texts, we will be better equipped to shatter expectations of who is most harmed by restrictive abortion bans and to raise up their experiences as a tikkun for the unnamed women whose stories were lost to history.

Naima Hirsch Gelman is a third year student at Yeshivat Maharat and a Rabbinic Fellow with the National Council for Jewish Women. She earned her BA from Hunter College in English (Creative Writing) with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. Naima cares deeply about building inclusive communities, making Judaism accessible and engaging, and eating ice cream in the winter. You can read more of her work at naimahirsch.com