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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?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Aviva Orenstein permalink
    03/15/2011 9:44 am

    My personal favorite — Zeresh — Haman’s wife. She tells it like it is and she and Haman seem to have a real relationship.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/15/2011 11:33 am

      Hmmm. I have to go back and read the text. They certainly seem to have a realistic relationship, but you’d think a wife might mention that killing off an entire people is a bit of an overreaction.

  2. Dan Price permalink
    03/15/2011 2:55 pm

    I’ve always been conflicted over this. I can say I’m totally unimpressed by rabbinic rationalization over the differences. I see no evidence of any of the faults ascribed to Vashti, and no need to turn Esther into the Virgin Mary. I think both women acted courageously, and the fact that Esther did so within the confines placed on her by the culture of the day doesn’t diminish her eforts one bit. Vashti could be said to have been a bit of a visionary for her stand, but we really aren’t told enough about her to know that for sure. Still, she can be an inspiration; Rosa Parks didn’t set out to be leader, she just wanted to sit down; perhaps Vashti is somewhat the same.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/15/2011 3:21 pm

      Thanks for the Esther as Virgin Mary reference. And Vashti as Rosa Parks. You’ve given me costume ideas…

      And yes, the rabbinic rationalizations are unimpressive, downright terrible at times.

  3. Sarah Rubin permalink
    03/18/2011 7:43 am

    I’d rather dress up as Ruth than as either of these women. Ruth chooses the people and place she wants to be. On the other hand, she also gets shorted in the end: she doesn’t get to choose her husband, and the child she has becomes her mother-in-law’s replacement son.

    I don’t think there’s a perfect female role model anywhere in the Bible, in part for reasons Dan expresses — culture of the times. Deborah? Judith?

    But I don’t think there’s a perfect male role model anywhere in the Bible either. I wouldn’t want my sons to be Mordechai (Parashat Kedoshim says you can’t sell your daughters into prostitution, and that’s practically what he does with Esther as far as I can see), and I have problems with some of the personality traits and actions of all the patriarchs, nor do I find a great role model in the various kings and prophets. Moses? Solomon? David? Elijah? Ezekiel?

    Maybe there isn’t a “perfect” role model there, but perhaps what’s to love is beyond the archetypes, and in the very fact of imperfections of these people. I too can be imperfect, and still do some good in the world.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/18/2011 9:06 am

      Point taken. I’m fond of Tamar (as in Judah and), though her life turns out not so great.

  4. 03/20/2011 3:03 pm

    As Sue knows, I’ve always believed that the imperfections of the people in the Torah is precisely why – whether you see it as divine” or divinely inspired or the observations of a variety of disparate authors – it’s worth reading. Our old friend Hilda used to say that if this was supposed to be the ultimate religious scripture it desperately needed a decent editor. What other basic religious text leaves in so many imperfect “heroes?” It’s fascinating [at least to me] that the rabbis left this strange story [Megilat Esther], a book that never even mentions the deity, in the canon at all. But not really surprising for a group of *men* so familiar with lack of power or control over their destiny. As for their manufactured descriptions of Vashti, that tells us that they *were* bothered by the text. Something else: they tell us that after Moshiach comes Purim will be the only holy day we’ll celebrate. Conundrum after conundrum. But maybe not so strange, after all, since the heart of the story is about various kinds of hidden-ness and the need to see what’s behind the “masks.” Is there a message here that the ultimate slaughter of our enemies, in the one book in the Torah that takes place outside of Israel, is *meant* to raise our discomfort. Maybe overwhelming force and revenge *isn’t* the way to respond to evil acts against us. Wouldn’t the death of Haman, his sons and those who could have been identified as their collaborators been enough? Do we really want to be even better at what our enemies do than they are?

    So, back to Esther and Vashti. Why do we have to choose between them, anoint one “better” than the other, one good and one bad? Doesn’t “feminism” try to tell us that it’s good for women – and men – to be whoever they are? We don’t know what went on in the heads, or hearts, of these women – so, like all of us who have, for centuries, written our own little pieces of Midrash, I choose to see that Esther’s “obedience”and sacrifice in the service of her people *was* courageous and something we can learn from. And Vashti? Thank the god who isn’t even mentioned that there was someone [not to mention a *woman*!] who challenged [even male] power. I’d like to think that Esther and Vashti are ensconced in a special palace in heaven where, long ago they forged a peaceful friendship, rooted in their shared knowledge that Haman may have been pure evil and Mordechai not so pure good, but Ahaverous a was just an all around jerk.

    Just a stream of consciousness from a very perplexed [male] Jew!

  5. 03/24/2011 12:32 pm

    Wow, never thought of it that way. Thanks – I’m going to have to chew on this one for a while.

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