Frank talk about Judaisms most famous beauty queen

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In the story of Purim, a comely Jewish female orphan manages to save Persia's entire Jewish population from certain destruction.

What bravery. What boldness. What a great role model. What a sweet victory for the forces of right.

Right?

Esther wins a kingdom-wide beauty contest. She uses her feminine wiles and beauty for a just cause, making fools of the menfolk and foiling the evil Haman's plot to destroy the Jews.

And herein lies the problem with Purim, which starts Monday at sunset. Reading this story with a post-modern sensibility creates a bit of a cringe factor.

After all, do Jewish parents really want to teach their bright, strong young daughters that the way to get ahead is through feminine chicanery and blatant sexuality, instead of hard work and intelligence? Do Jewish parents want their sons thinking that women should emulate Esther?

Even though the reasons for Esther's actions may have been noble, how can Jews draw a positive, egalitarian message from this seemingly sexist tale?

The problem, suggests Ellen Frankel, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, lies in the way that Jews interpret the story, not the story itself.

"We must read this story in the context within which it was told — not necessarily in our own context," she said. As a product of her culture, Esther used the only means at her disposal in order to do what she had to do.

Frankel, who wrote "The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah," said that Jewish tradition is full of stories of powerless people resorting to whatever subversive actions they could find to prevail over the bad guys.

"Personally, I think Esther makes a rather interesting role model because in that society women were so subordinate to men. Esther used the only means available to her to accomplish something rather remarkable," Frankel said.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin agrees.

Cardin, a scholar and lecturer at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said she believe Esther "has gotten a bum rap," particularly from Jewish feminists.

"To me," she said, "Esther is a genuine heroine."

Cardin, like Frankel, suggests that such stories cannot be read without understanding the societal climate of the times. She points to the fall of Queen Vashti as a good example of the way in which women held power during the time of the Persian kings.

In the story, Vashti refuses to "reveal her beauty" — which is interpreted as appear nude — before the drunken king and his friends. The king banishes the strong-willed queen, proclaiming that Vashti's actions were not just against him, but against every male head-of-household in the kingdom.

The king fears that other wives will see what Vashti had done and try to stand up to their husbands.

"The queen disobeyed the king in public. That was really threatening to men. The implication of this is that women may have had much greater power within the home than was apparent on the outside," Cardin said.

In fact, some scholars compare the plight of the Jews through the ages to women's struggles for equality.

Frankel cites feminist author Aviva Cantor, who wrote "that in Europe, in the Middle Ages and through the enlightenment, Jewish men were the women of European culture, meaning they played subordinate roles in society."

Back in Shushan, once Mordechai tells Esther that she can no longer afford to conceal her Jewishness, she also begins the slow process of becoming more assertive as a woman.

Toward the end of the story, after she finds it within herself to become strong enough to reveal Haman's true colors, the king rewards Esther, giving her all of Haman's property.

"That was a remarkable gesture in an era where women were treated as property, not as owners of property," Cardin said.

Had the story ended with the description of Esther gaining control over Haman's property, it might have made a perfect template for redemption through noble, selfless acts. A beautiful young woman rises above the somewhat seamy circumstances of her initial foothold into the corridors of power to reveal her abilities as a powerful leader of the people.

However, the story does not end there. It goes on to say that Esther hands over control of Haman's property to Mordechai, perhaps an indication that society could not quite handle the prospect of a woman with so much public power.

Cardin asserts that Esther triumphs even after relinquishing control.

"After all, she was the one who did the actual saving of the Jews. And, at the end of the story, though Mordechai made some decrees, the language of the text suggests that she trumps Mordechai. She says 'I will confirm your words', meaning that without her confirmation, Mordechai's word has no authority."