Friday, March 14, 2014

Vashti vs. Lady Gaga: A Modern Day Purim Battle

    Since moving to Maine, I have spent a great deal of time with 92 Moose.  Listening to high energy pop songs keeps me awake and alert on the road, and helps me (at least somewhat) connect with the our Hebrew school and Hillel students.  While I grew up with various CDs with the "Parental Advisory" label on them, I was still shocked to hear the latest song from an artist whose music I usually love, Lady Gaga, "Do what you want /What you want with my body/ What you want with my body/  You can't have my heart /And you won't use my mind but /Do what you want (with my body)."  I clearly remember hearing this song for the first time while sitting outside of the synagogue a few minutes early to a board meeting.  As catchy as the music was, I needed to turn the song off. I was just too disgusted.
     How far have we come since the Book of Esther? The book begins with the saga of King Achashverosh demanding that his wife, Queen Vashti, come and strip before his friends.  Deeply insulted, she refused, and was willing to give up her title, status, and life instead of degrading herself.  While the rabbinic tradition does not view Vashti in a positive light, when we read the Biblical text itself, she clearly acts in a laudatory fashion. She is a role model for women and girls who are asked by society to surrender their agency for the approval of others.  Regardless of a) how badly a woman feels about herself or b) what can be gained socially or financially, she should not allow herself to be fundamentally degraded for the pleasure of others.
      Esther acts with bravery and cunning throughout the book named in her honor, but she is not our only hero or role model.  Vashti is not the villain or the shrew she is often depicted to be in our traditional Purim schpiels; she is a woman who knows her own worth and is not willing to devalue herself for the comfort, profit, or enjoyment of others.  We live in a world that is not only often hostile to Jews, but also to our Torah values: self-respect, modesty, restraint, and iconoclasm.   This Purim, let us do more than have fun and recall our physical preservation from the evil machinations of Haman.  Let us recall the values embodied by Vashti, role model them for our community, and support our children in adopting those values daily in their lives.

Chag Purim Sameach!