Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Tzav/Purim 2014

Parashat Tzav / Purim
Rabbi Anna Gerrard
14 March 2014

·The Book of Esther is full of high-society drama, political scandal and glamorous women – it is an entertaining book and certainly not a book for children.· Yet Purim has become a children’s festival in our communities and the sanitised version of the Book of Esther, in which there is no revengeful massacre and which replaces the tyrannical harem with a tasteful beauty contest, has become one we remember and pass down through our collective memory.

·It was not always this way; the Rabbis of the Talmud were happy to emphasise the ribald and violent nature of the text.· But over time and influenced by changing cultural norms, the Jewish literature interpreted and re-interpreted the story until it contained an acceptable female role model for Jewish girls and women.· By censoring the more gruesome and sordid elements of the story, we have gained a family-friendly festival but we have lost the opportunity to be confronted by the text and prompted to think about its relevance in our time.

·This week, the UK government has been challenged to consider the legality of the British sex industry.· Campaigners for the “Nordic Model” believe that criminalising the purchase of sexual services will reduce demand and therefore reduce the number of women who are trafficked, pimped or otherwise forced into non-consensual prostitution.· Critics of the model, which is gaining popularity across Europe, claim that it will have no impact on the prevalence of the sex trade and will only serve to push it further underground where sex workers will have even less rights or protection from exploitation and violence.

·The debate is complex and there are no easy solutions but I think the Book of Esther has something important to contribute.· In my Rabbinic Thesis, I explored the use of sexuality in the second chapter of the Book of Esther.· In this chapter every young virgin in the land is brought by soldiers to the King’s harem to undergo a year-long beauty regime before spending a compulsory night with the king.· Faced with these experiences and knowing their place in society, the young women would not have put up any resistance so it is difficult to claim that Ahasuerus was a perpetrator of rape against the individuals.· But the system of which Ahasuerus was a part certainly did take away their choices and force them into a sexual situation to which they had not consented.

·It is this distinction between consensual and non-consensual sexual activity that the Book of Esther can bring to the debate.· I concluded that Esther was a victim of ‘institutional rape’, that she was subject to a system that removed her sexual agency.· It is not just Ahasuerus but the entire society that must be held accountable for such a thing to be allowed.· In the same way, the legality of the sex industry and the protection offered to ensure that women and young girls are not victims of any kind of non-consensual sexual activity, whether paid for or otherwise, are our society’s collective responsibility.· This is in our back yard and it is the system that must be examined not only the individuals involved.