An opinion piece by Rabbi Steven Greenberg (Orthodox), originally published in the American Israelite, February 10, 2011.
Letter to the Editor, Feb. 10
February 10th, 2011 | Section: Opinion
Purim is a holiday that celebrates the power of secrets and their revelation; it is, in effect, the holiday of “coming out.” The rabbis of the Talmud mark Purim explicitly as the festival of masks, which calls for nothing less than an unmasking of ourselves and ultimately, of God. This is the one time of the year when drinking a bit too much is a “mitzvah” because, in their words, “the wine goes in and the secrets come out.” If there way any day that might be employed by gay Jews to signify the meaning of coming out, the fast of Esther ending in the celebration of Purim is it.
The story begins with all its characters in lavish concealment. Each of them manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that if revealed would seem to undo them. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward and it is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.
King Achashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and because she refuses to take off her royal robes she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up (or in this case down) as something she is not. Achashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a fool and a degenerate, a common lout dressed up in royal robes. He is also terribly insecure, anxious to build his political support and fearful of being challenged or manipulated.
Esther and Mordechai are closet Jews. Mordechai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court but he does not flaunt his Jewish identity. Indeed, it is perhaps for this very reason that he warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen.
Haman, like the king, rises to power with little, if any, merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordechai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordechai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, he understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordechai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to
how Mordechai’s secret is found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to revenge himself of Mordechai and his people.
Mordechai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sack cloth, a bold and public expression of his internal state of affairs no longer concealed in beautiful robes. Mordechai’s self-expression sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Achashverosh.
It is, however, Esther’s moment of courage that carries the most dramatic turn of story. She is at first resistant. Her coming to the king uninvited is mortally dangerous. Moreover, even if he is willing to hear her out, she has no reason to think that he will not side with Haman against her. Her cousin presses her not to try to save herself by passing. Esther reveals her secret deftly while aware of all the risks and uncertain of the outcomes.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we conceal and reveal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordechai teach us something about the search for wholeness? At the end of the story all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordechai the king’s most trusted counselor. Even Achashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these fuller identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace Mordechai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later he implores her to do so. It seems that there is a right and wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self- revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses his disguise for singularly destructive ends, and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch revealing more than an urge for power. Mordechai is revealed by his principles; Haman by his hubris and his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a
Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. The name of Esther in Hebrew means, “I will hide,” which is nothing less than God’s invitation to us to start looking for him. We too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principle, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.
The time has come for a National Jewish Coming Out Day. The fast of Esther may seem a bit austere for such a commemoration, but actually it possesses a potent acknowledgment of the fears and the dangers of those in the closet and holds a place for the confusion and disruption that the coming out of a loved one can have for family and friends.
Those actually using the day to come out may indeed wish to employ the fast in order to center themselves in clarity, prayer and soulful preparation. Perhaps in those last moments of the Fast of Esther, just before the reveling of Purim begins, it is the right time to start telling the truth. Others may wish to skip the strum and drang and come out to friends and family on the day of Purim, as a celebration of Esther’s courage. In either case, the moment is perfect for the taking off of masks and conveying, perhaps for the first time, that our story is a Jewish one.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg