Vashti is Now: Accountability in the Reform Movement and in Our Communities

March 3, 2023Rabbi Jill L. Maderer

Should this topic trigger trauma, please consider reaching out to the resources offered below.

It is undisputed: the Purim story is implausible—never happened. Megillat Esther/the Book of Esther is a farce. A text for a ridiculous time when the Jewish calendar prescribes that we let go of the weight of the world and laugh. 

And. Even comedy offers some truth. That’s what makes it funny— a shared understanding. With Megillah, sure enough, there are moments when we say: yes. That tells our story. We see our world, our society, ourselves. 

The Megillah teaches: King Ahashverosh attempts to coerce Queen Vashti into dancing naked for his party guests. Queen Vashti refuses. And she is never seen again – Banished, killed, or somehow disappeared. For years, I’ve told this coercion part of the story, by mocking Ahashverosh, making fun of this silly man — or of any man – who does not understand how wonderful it is to be with a partner who can think for themself. Twisting it into a positive message that we can draw out of our Megillah.  

But I think it’s time to look at the King with eyes wide open. What does King Ahashverosh’s story say about consent, and what does our storytelling of an abusive king — cast as a silly fool – say about accountability? In ultimately protecting the Jews at the end of the story, Ahashverosh does finally see things Esther’s way, and ally with our people. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget the king’s role in the first half of the story. The king abuses his power with Vashti.  Reflecting a different time and society, the text does not even pretend to respect women’s agency. 

And the king…is it because the king eventually helps to save the Jews, that when it comes to his abuse of women we tend to let him off the hook?  Do we forgive Ahashverosh his misogyny because he joins our stand against Jew-hating?  Let’s lift the masks and uncover the truth. Let’s not miss this: in his abuse of women, the king takes no responsibility. He is never held to account. And we cannot pretend that only happens in ancient Persia. Aren’t there today, too, the many who feel license to coerce, who abuse power, and often because of their talents, contributions, friendships, or status, they are never held to account. Silenced, their victims witness their impunity.

Indeed, something of Vashti’s truth is shared with many women and people of all genders who sit and listen to Vashti’s story, and knowingly nod and understand.  Victims and survivors who have been unseen, unheard, dismissed, disappeared. 

Important reckoning has begun in our Reform Movement institutions. I honor the courage of survivors who came forward and also respect those who have chosen not to. And still, no justice can feel complete. Among the many tragic effects of misconduct, I see the fate of Vashti. So many of these victims were dismissed, unseen, even vanished. Their disappearance from Jewish life reflects deep pain that breaks my heart. But it is not only the victims’ loss. It is the Reform Movement’s loss, the Jewish People’s loss. Potential talents, clergy, would-be leaders, congregants, Early Learning Center parents, souls…lost to the Jewish world. We will never be able to reconnect them all.  What has been taken cannot fully be restored.  So we devote ourselves to ensuring: we do not allow for another Ahashverosh.

I do not believe the Movement’s misconduct reports reveal a particular problem in the Reform Jewish community. The reports reveal a problem—a truth—that exists throughout our society, our institutions, our communities, Jewish and not.  It is not only hundreds of women who were abused by power in the Jewish community; it is hundreds of all genders in your workplace, at your school, in your neighborhood. 

The words from the Book of Esther “you are here for just this purpose” demand the Reform Movement, our congregations, and each of us, hold up a mirror and ask ourselves: “for what purpose can I use my power?” compelling us to bring our voice where we have influence:

  • to do the hard work of improving systems that hold predators and enablers accountable and guard against retaliation;
  • to update staff trainings, reporting practices, and HR manuals;
  • to reject excuses for the abusers who are contributing to their field or donating to our cause;
  • to transform cultures of absolute power and covering into cultures of safety and respect;
  • to listen when someone discloses even if they accuse someone you admire, even if your support puts at risk your own friendship, career network, financial gain, or reputation;
  • to never ask what she was wearing,
  • to share resources for survivors’ healing—to combat shame and ensure no one faces pain alone;
  • to learn more about how we can shape communities that are worthy of trust.

This is the ongoing work for our Movement and for us all.

Refuse to be Ahashverosh, the one with no accountability. And refuse to be his enabler. See Vashti in her story of invisibility. Hear Vashti’s calls from banishment. Know Vashti in our story of tshuvah. Because Vashti is not in Persia, and Vashti is not in the 5th century BCE. Vashti is here, Vashti is now, her fate, our responsibility, her story, our truth. In our holy communities, may we use our power for justice, compelled to heed the words of Megillat Esther— you are here for just this purpose.

___________

To help you bring your voice forward in your congregation, visit the WRJ says STOP website. WRJ says STOP is an initiative with a broad range of easy-to-use materials and resources to empower lay leaders to work with professional partners to create a safe, respectful, and affirming culture for our organizations and congregations by educating them about the abuse of power dynamics, gender-based harassment, and sexual assault.
 

If raising this topic triggers trauma or pain for you, please consider reaching out to a resource:

In the United States, call the RAINN National Sexual Assault hotline at 800.656.HOPE, or 800.656.4673. 

In Canada, find support and reporting information at Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres or  Ending Violence Association of Canada, and in Ontario at Assaulted Women’s Helpline

For URJ or other affiliate reporting information, go to:
WRJ says STOP Materials and Resources
URJ's Ethics Accountability
CCAR Ethics Systems Report
HUC 

Local in Philadelphia:
WOAR: Philadelphia’s Rape Crisis Center
Children’s Crisis Treatment Center
Jewish Family and Children Services counseling and support groups

 

An earlier version of this blog was posted in March 2022 on Congregation Rodeph Shalom's website. We thank the author for updating her article for us. 

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