Purim is the holiday of coming out, of sharing a dangerous secret. Indeed, the rabbis mark Purim explicitly as the holiday 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 is any occasion 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, Marranos disguised in costume. 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. Each of them is managing a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that if revealed would seem to undo them.
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 consequently terribly insecure, anxious to build and secure his political base and fearful of being challenged or manipulated. Of course this is just what happens.
Esther and Mordechai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordechai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court but he does not flaunt his Jewish identity. Indeed, perhaps for this very reason he warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without 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, boldly and publicly expressing his solidarity with his doomed people, his internal state of affairs no longer concealed in beautiful robes. Mordechai’s naked protest 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 approaching 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 decides to reveal her secret identity smartly, playing in to the political and sexual motives of both the king his vizier, but even so, she remains keenly aware of the risks and uncertain of the outcomes…“if I perish, then I perish.”
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as an parable, a midrash on diaspora Jewish life—how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is surely 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 selfִexpression. 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 commands 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 appears to be 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.
It seems to me that the time has come for a National Jewish Coming Out Day and the fast of Esther is right day to choose. Choosing a fast day may seem a bit austere for such a commemoration, but actually it possesses a potent acknowledgment of the fears and the dangers of those living in the closet and holds as well a place for the confusion and disruption that the coming-out of a loved one can have for parents, siblings, extended family and friends. Perhaps we ought to construct a ritual opportunity for coming-out during the last moments of the Fast of Esther, just before the reveling of Purim begins. Gay Jews wishing to use the day as an occasion of coming-out might well decide to employ the fast of Esther in order to center themselves in clarity and in prayer, in commitment to their own integrity and truth and in soulful preparation.
And then, as the Megillah is read, and the reveling begins, as the masks are put on and taken off, we can feel for the first time that our story of hiding, of self-discovery and of public self-affirmation is both a potent human story and truly and deeply, a Jewish one.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg