Will we as women, not to mention as role models for girls, be able to extricate ourselves from the cultural framework into which we’ve been born, built for competition among women rather than mutual support?
by Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum
English could really use a word like the Yiddish firgun, meaning “to take pleasure in someone else’s achievement, to feel glad for someone else’s success.” That single word could replace the many words it takes to express this imaginary idea: “Vashti took pleasure in Esther’s achievement, she felt glad upon learning that Esther had saved herself and the Jewish people of Persia.” Of course this assumes that Achashverosh’s first queen lived to hear the good news about Esther; in some Jewish traditions, Vashti is identified as Babylonian royalty, getting what she deserved by being killed, not merely banished, for mistreating Jewish slave girls and/or preventing the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But if, as the megillah text says, she was commanded never to appear before the king again – maybe hiding in permanent disguise or living indefinitely under house arrest – would Vashti have been able to take comfort in a sister-queen, Esther, speaking up not only for herself but for a group of people not Vashti’s own?
This question, clothed in modern dress, seems essential to ask right now if this extraordinary ‘me, too’ moment is going to lead to permanent change. Will we as women, not to mention as role models for girls, be able to extricate ourselves from the cultural framework into which we’ve been born, built for competition among women rather than mutual support? and how can we help men and boys become our allies in helping us leave behind the terrible history of rivalry between women? Part of the answer surely lies in learning to identify and then resist the pressure to stop knowing what we know deep down about life’s interdependence at all levels*; another part of the answer surely involves getting behind women-led initiatives that lead to an increase in empathy and mutual support and, yes, even to an increase in firgun.
*“If the capacity for mutual understanding – for empathy, mind-reading, and cooperation – is innate, this capacity has to be broken or at the very least relegated to the margins. This the task of patriarchal initiation, which if successful, implants in the psyche things foreign to our human nature, “ observes Carol Gilligan. “Resilient girls will resist the pressures they feel to split their minds from their bodies, their thoughts from their emotions, themselves from their relationships. Pressures to bury an honest voice, which in our post-modern culture is said not to exist. In such a context it becomes hard for girls…to know what they know without feeling crazy. And saying what they know, especially what they know about the people around them, can make trouble for others and for themselves.” Joining the Resistance, page 67.