Ahasuerus' first wife reappears as a feminist role model
Queen Esther is the religious girl's superhero. There is no prettier Purim costume than a pale blue dress tinged with gold. But it isn't just because of Esther's glamorous dress that she outnumbers Vashti at the Purim parade. Esther is the undisputed heroine of Jewish mythology. She represents the ultimate observant woman; her beauty and righteousness is hailed in Jewish literature.
In contrast, Vashti, who did not obey her husband King Ahasuerus, was excluded from the scroll and from Jewish history. However, despite the ridicule heaped on her, for the past several years the religious feminist movement has adopted the intriguing figure as a role model for women.
The story of Vashti's punishment at the beginning of the Scroll of Esther is misleading. It appears to be marginal drama designed to push forward the real plot: Esther and Mordechai's victory over the evil Haman.
However, on second reading, it is impossible to ignore the important social debate surrounding Vashti. Vashti's tragedy takes place during a feast at Ahasuerus' Shushan palace. On the seventh day of the feast, "when the king's heart was merry with wine", Vashti is invited "to show the nations and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on" the scroll states. Vashti refuses, sentencing herself to death. The king's anger burned in him, but it is his advisers who consider her representative of her sex.
"This is an ancient patriarchal society," says Dr. Yaakov Maoz of the Israel Association of Community Centers' Jewish Studies Department. "The advisers warn the king against a trend of contempt for husbands in the kingdom, nipping the Vashti feminist revolution in the bud."
In a modern, feminist reading of the scroll, the heroines Vashti and Esther are diametric opposites. Vashti is strong, does not agree to showcase her beauty, does not agree to be a sex object; while Esther uses her beauty and her sexuality.
According to Hanna Kahat, founder of religious feminist forum Kolech, the selection of Vashti as the new female model by religious women in the U.S. in the 1980s, followed by religious women in Israel, is an expression of rebellion against the religious establishment. As such, it suited early Orthodox feminists to adopt Vashti, as women sought models of women leaders with whom to identify. In this way, they began to revive and redeem marginal characters who had been excluded from mainstream interpretations because they threatened the male establishment.
"This is also what happened to Lilith," Kahat explains. "She became more popular than Eve." According to talmudic literature, Lilith was Adam's first wife and his equal. The feminists love the egalitarian aspect.
According to Kahat, the sages did not like Vashti. "She is so prominent in her determination that it surprises me she wasn't identified as a positive character. For them, she represents the foreigner, the stranger, and is virtually satanic. There is no compassion or understanding for her."
Kahat points out that Vashti becomes a fantasy "sex symbol." Why, she asks, isn't Esther who acts in a blatantly sexual manner, held up to that kind of characterization by the commentators?
Ruhama Weiss, an instructor of Talmud at Hebrew Union College, believes the sages were in conflict regarding the fact that "Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor, while our heroine Esther is willing to work through the bedroom."
However, it was important for them to show the different fates of she who is willing to integrate into the patriarchal system and obey its rules, and she who fights it, which is why Weiss says the sages blackened Vashti's name. Why didn't she show up when the king summoned her?
Some commentators say she developed leprosy, others that she grew a tail. In other words, because her beauty faded on the day in question. Other interpretations argue that her fate was retribution for mistreating Jewish women.
Vashti may be the new heroine of feminist women, but Kahat says in recent years there has been a return to Esther, as well as to the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
"It is not post-feminism or a return to conservatism," she says. "There is an understanding that these characters are part of our tradition and maybe we are trying to deny them. For instance, Esther's heroism. She starts out completely passive but undergoes a transformation. She takes her own fate and the fate of the Jewish people into her hands and becomes a true Jewish leader."