International Religious Freedom: Learning from Esther
Hamentaschen, costumes and mishloach manot, oh my! We are just a few days away from celebrating the holiday of Purim, which means gathering in our synagogues for Purim schpiels and carnivals. Purim is a fun holiday for kids and grown-ups alike, and connects to many of the social justice themes we care about as Reform Jews, including the death penalty, women’s rights and anti-Semitism. Another social justice value that is ever-present in the story of Purim is the importance of religious freedom.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Purim–King Ahashverosh banishes his first wife Vashti after she refuses to dance for him and his guests; Esther wins a contest to become King Ahashverosh’s new wife; Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman in the streets; Haman plots the death of the Jewish people,;Esther reveals her Jewish identity to King Ahashverosh in order to save the Jewish people; Haman’s plot is foiled; and we celebrate that the Jews were not killed on the 14th of Adar. Every year, we read the Megillah and tell the story of Purim to celebrate our good fortune that Esther was able to use her voice and her influence to help the Jewish people.
Throughout the world today, however, the freedom to practice one’s own religion is not guaranteed. 75% of the world’s population live in countries that moderately or severely restrict religious freedom. Pew Research Center published a report in January of 2014 detailing their findings that global religious hostilities had reached a six-year high. Baha’is in Iran face persecution in higher education as well as incidents of violence. Christians in Syria are taxed and persecuted for their religious beliefs. Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group operating in Nigeria, has carried out hundreds of attacks in 2012 alone against police officers and Christians and Muslims who cooperate with the government. Myanmar’s Rohingya population, a Muslim minority in a primarily Buddhist country, is one of the most persecuted populations in the world. This list is certainly not comprehensive–around the world today, there are billions of people living in places in which religious freedom is not valued.
As we prepare to celebrate Purim and retell our own story, we should also remember that for many people throughout the world today, they are not yet free to practice their religion in safety. Queen Esther initially hid her Jewish identity from King Ahashverosh, but when it became clear that she was the only one who could influence the king to save the Jewish people from destruction, Esther was willing to raise her voice. She knew that by approaching the king, she was putting her own life at risk—“If I must die, I must die,” she said—but she chose to approach the king anyway (Esther 4:16). May we continue to be grateful for the opportunity to worship freely as Jews in North America today, and may we all be inspired by Esther’s courage to stand up for persecuted religious populations around the world.