Exploring Religious Tolerance Through the Heroines of Purim

When he saw how a young female pupil in the Venice ghetto became prey to a Christian missionary of literary prowess, Rabbi Leon Modena responded with his own allegorical creation about Esther and Vashti.

"It is something new to me that a young woman fell so much in love with a poem dealing with great things that she could not refrain from writing to the author of that poem," wrote Ansaldo Ceba, an elderly Catholic poet from Genoa to Sara Copio Sullam, a young Jewish poet from Venice. That was on May 19, 1618. The poem in question is "La Reina Ester," a long heroic poem written by Ceba (1563-1623 ), which was published twice, in 1615 and in 1617. Among Christians, the poem was greeted with indifference but in the literary circle frequented by Sara Copio Sullam (1592-1641 ) in the Venice ghetto, Ceba's "Queen Esther" was accorded a royal welcome.

By the 16th century, many writers - Catholics and Protestants, Jews and crypto-Jews - were writing about the heroine of the Purim tale. During the period when royal courts flourished, Esther was perceived as a woman who knew how to survive even as the court around her was enveloped in intrigue. However, that was not why Copio Sullam admired the character of Esther.

Ceba, the author, wanted to embody in Esther the allegorical figure of Reason who overcomes the primal urges, whereas Copio Sullam perceived her as an exemplary model who restored to Diaspora Jews the heroism of the biblical Hebrews, and she also saw her as an exemplary woman.

Wanting to adopt for herself the resourcefulness of the poem's subject, Copio Sullam wrote a letter to Ceba. The outcome was four years of an intensive correspondence courtship, a courtship that ranged between Ceba's missionary zeal and Copio's ambition. He wanted to achieve the conversion to Christianity and baptism of an intellectual Jewess of good family from Venice and she wanted to find a partner for theological subversion - and that at a time when the Inquisition was at its height.

In response to the correspondence between Copio Sullam and Ceba, the Venetian Rabbi Judah Aryeh (Leon ) Modena (1571-1648 ), Sara's teacher and a protege of her family, wrote the tragedy "Esther," which was published in Venice on Purim in 1619. This tragedy, written in Italian, is the only theatrical work by Modena that has come down to us. It was originally intended for the holiday, and it became a success among both Jews and Christians in the Venice of the 17th century.

In his work, Ceba wanted to encourage the republican system, in opposition to the absolute rule of King Ahasuerus. He also intended to depict Christianity as the faith destined to replace Judaism. Modena, however, wanted to exemplify a Jewish interpretation of the biblical story, to the effect that the Jews are humiliated not because of the superiority of Christianity but rather because they are an "annoying" minority in the midst of the ruling majority.

Of course Modena could not express these ideas explicitly, and therefore he chose to camouflage what he said. And indeed in his tragic "Esther," the truly central and most dramatic character is in fact Vashti, who is perceived as a noble "lady" who suffers because of her uncompromising character and unwillingness to submit to the manipulations at the court.

This is not the place to go into the complexity of the tragedy. A look at some of the important details will suffice: Vashti, a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, is an enemy of Israel, persisting in the hostile attitude toward the Jewish people she learned in her father's house. At the same time, though, Modena depicts her as a woman with greatness of character and self-awareness who is not prepared to submit to bullying from her husband, the king. It was thanks to Vashti that Ahasuerus had ascended the throne.

The play was called a tragedy only because of the character of Vashti, who kills herself rather than forgo her dignity. It is important to note that in the midrashim (the body of exegetic works ), there is no version suggesting that Vashti committed suicide: This is an invention of Modena's, which expresses the fate of a woman doomed to failure precisely because of her qualities, which are superior to the life of the court. Clearly, Modena, in his depiction of the happenings at the Persian court, intended to hint at the intrigues of Venetian politicians in his own day. It is also clear that he chose the character of Vashti to represent the Jews in exile in the countries of the West. Only in such camouflage could the character have come across without arousing the authorities' suspicions.

In the background of the tragedy is the distinction made by poet Torquato Tasso, who back in 1582 had distinguished between ordinary women - "females" - and "ladies" - that is, women of nobility who are therefore equal in value to men. In Modena's play, Vashti is a truly noble lady, who is humiliated because of a "female" of lesser value, and she is aware of the respect she deserves because of her royal descent (a hint to the Jewish people ). Vashti's fate - as the innocent victim - resembles the fate of women in general, innocent victims in the patriarchal society. Was Modena a feminist before his time? Even if he was not, there is no doubt that the far more mature and experienced Modena understood that the young and adventurous Copio Sullam was liable to fall victim to Ceba's missionary aspirations. Therefore the rabbi tried to open his student's eyes. Thanks to Vashti, Rabbi Modena has left us touching testimony to the limitations of a woman's life in his day. Here is Vashti's complaint:

So shall I lament Nature

Everyone's embracing mother

But we have a wicked stepmother

What trouble she caused us, this mother,

When she made us as women

O female sex, doomed sex

Whose whole purpose in this world

Is to be an arrow of disaster and hurt

And all things miserable,

Which in my mouth is named Death

And on my lips is called all of life.

In every situation and station,

Be she a daughter of the gutter

Or a palace noblewoman

Be she beautiful or monstrous,

Impoverished or, like myself,

Queen of a kingdom

At her birth her parents don grief

As though an enemy was born to them.

The moment she is old enough

To differentiate between good and evil

Like a dangerous criminal who for his crimes

Must serve his sentence behind bars,

So must she.

She is imprisoned in her house

Or behind fences and a wall, Ever with guards at her side.

And when she loses her freedom

And leaves her beloved parents' home

As the slave of another

She cannot purchase with her wealth

Escape from her bitter fate.

(English translation by Vivian Eden, based on Dan Shorer's Hebrew translation of the Italian original )

The character of Esther - as opposed to Vashti - can be extrapolated from the biblical "woman of valor" with a few necessary changes: Esther, in her wisdom, is obedient to her Uncle Mordecai. She appears as a "helpmeet," as Eve was to Adam, and expresses herself only once in the tragedy, when she gives her agreement to the order to live at the king's palace, without revealing that she is Jewish. Modena, with a wink, hints that Esther does not obey Mordecai out of recognition of his male authority but rather out of her ability to weigh her own diplomatic benefit. In this Modena also hints at the benefits the Jews of Venice brought to the city, thereby anticipating John Locke's utilitarianism and his idea of religious tolerance.

Not only did Modena want to open Sara Copio Sullam's eyes and warn her, he also wanted to teach the Jews of Venice a lesson: In order not to rush headlong into ruin, like Vashti in the play, it is necessary to follow Esther's considered path, the product of experience. Modena admires Esther, who is experienced in the ways of this world, but he gives his heart to Vashti, who refuses to surrender.