Purim and the End of “Don't Ask Don't Tell”—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10
Purim and the End of “Don't Ask Don't Tell”
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10
Tonight marks the start of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Jews around the world will read the Book of Esther, chronicling the traditional story of the Jewish people's salvation from destruction over two millennia ago.
The Purim story has a special resonance this year: The Book of Esther marks civilization's first recorded repudiation of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT).
In the Book of Esther, the central heroine is removed from her home and married to the Persian King, Ahasuerus. Queen Esther keeps her Judaism hidden from the King on the instruction of her Uncle Mordechai. Only when Ahasuerus's adviser, Haman, institutes a murderous decree against the Jews does Esther reveal herself to Ahasuerus and save her people.
The rabbinical commentaries relate that Queen Esther led a closeted Jewish life while in Ahasuerus's palace. In order to keep kosher, Esther became a vegetarian. In order to pray, Esther worshipped in private. In order to find wise counsel, Esther kept the Jewish prophet Daniel, disguised as a Persian, close by.
Esther's odd behavior could hardly have escaped King Ahasuerus's notice. However, at no point does Ahasuerus ever ask his Queen about her heritage or religion.
Ahasuerus did not ask; Esther did not tell.
The Book of Esther relates that Esther had not "told of her people and her ancestry" since Mordechai instructed her not to do so. The Hebrew word used for "told" is particularly poignant: it shares its root with the word that mandates the "telling" of the Exodus narrative on Passover. Esther's decision not to "tell" is thus a deeply powerful act.
In the Purim story, the ancient DADT policy ultimately collapses under the pressure of impending military action. Haman's decree for the destruction of the Jews in Persia forces Esther to reveal herself, and the story closes with both Esther and Mordechai serving openly as Jews in the Persian government.
There are two important lessons from the Book of Esther for the modern movement to repeal the U.S military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy:
First, for all its problems, DADT has a silver lining. Even as it requires them to remain closeted, DADT allows gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military and to build allegiances with straight fellow service members. Just as Esther's integration into Ahasuerus's palace ultimately helped her reveal her identity, military brass today say that they support repeal because they served alongside gay soldiers with equal effectiveness.
DADT thus contains the seeds of its own downfall. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, DADT is like the "gallows of Haman . . . on which [it is] doomed to be hanged [itself]."
Second, DADT is destined for obsolescence. While DADT may be a brief bridge between bigotry and acceptance, it is not a stable equilibrium. The arc of history bends toward equality and away from DADT.
Fittingly, the modern Israeli Army is often held up as an example of a high-functioning military which allows gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. The Israeli military has learned the lessons of the Book of Esther, and it is time ours did as well. Just before Purim, Senator Lieberman announced that he will introduce legislation seeking the repeal of DADT.
The Book of Esther is clear: DADT bears within itself the seeds of its repeal. "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is as wrong now as it was over two thousand years ago, and it's time for it to go.