Vote for Vashti! Vote for Esther!
This Saturday night is Purim — that crazy upside down holiday where God is not mentioned, men dress as women (and vice versa), drunkenness (though not stupor) is encouraged, and Jews get to vanquish their enemies 1-2-3 with the full permission of the State. Truly, I love Purim, not least because it allows me to forget for a few short hours what a miserable freaking place the world can be (see: Japan, Libya, Itamar) and to imagine a happy (albeit bloody) ending to the usual unhappy story. It is one giant joke on the tyrants of the world.
My pre-holiday reverie, however, has been waylaid by a question from my friend Nancy. Couple days ago, she expressed her dismay over the holiday’s heroine Esther. Sure she saved the Jewish people, but she did it a) on the basis of beauty, and b) was coached every step of the way by her uncle Mordechai. Doesn’t that bother you? It sure bothers me. I said NO, and I meant it, but still. I got to thinking: is Queen Esther a lousy role model for Jewish women? For Jewish girls?
Quick summary. King Achashverosh calls for Queen Vashti to appear before a palace-ful of drunk guests, possibly sans clothes. She refuses and is banished. A call goes out for a replacement, and Mordechai tells his niece to enter the fray, keeping her Jewish identity hidden. She’s chosen (of course), but before long Prime Minister Haman proposes that the nation be rid of Jews. Why? Because they (as it turns out, Mordechai) refuse to bow before Haman. Esther risks the King’s displeasure by revealing her tribal membership and saves her people. Haman and his 10 sons are hung and the Jews get to take bloody revenge on those who would attack them. Yay! (For a full explanation of the holiday and the entire text, click here and here.)
So. Two women, both beautiful. One refuses to dance, one wins a beauty contest. One has a book in the canon named after her; one not so much. It’s clear who we’re supposed to root for — Esther.
Talmudic & later commentators tell us that Esther was not only beautiful & courageous, but that she never consummated her marriage with the King. Some say that in addition to being orphaned at a young age, she was already married when she entered the royal harem but gave up her personal happiness. Hers was a pure heart, concerned only with the fate of the Jewish people. Vashti, on the other hand was vain & power-hungry. She had Jewish women abducted (on Shabbat!) to work for her. She refused to dance for the King because she thought she was better than him, not because of any claim to morality.
Another way to see it: Vashti said no and Esther said well, okay, honeybunch. Vashti’s no angel, but she has clear limits. Harriet Beecher Stowe said Vashti took “the first stand for women’s rights.” Esther hides much of herself away, manipulates with a whole toolbox of tricks, and is at the beck & call of her uncle. Her actions save the Jews, but also help us Jews slaughter upwards of 75,000 Persians with impunity. Vashti’s sexuality is seen as crass, Esther’s as ladylike. I see Nancy’s problem. We’ve got a bad queen/good queen thing going on here, and the good queen isn’t exactly the role model I’d like for myself and my daughters. Neither is the bad.
So gang, how do you vote? Who would you dress up as on Purim? Which queen is your stand-in? What’s a feminist to do?