With a gold curtain behind her and colorful masks hanging from the wall, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein asks the assembled audience: “Who here dressed up as Vashti as a kid?” Not a single hand is raised, at this Tel Aviv event celebrating the “Power Women of Purim.”
This Purim, though, things might be different. In the #MeToo age, Vashti can be seen as one of the world’s original #MeToo role models – the queen who said no to a king. In the Book of Esther (which Jews read on Purim), Vashti refuses a summons by her husband, King Achashverosh (aka Ahasuerus), to appear before him and his guests at a banquet wearing only her crown.
Concerned that word of her disobedience might spread throughout the Persian kingdom, the king’s advisers tell him to banish her and find a new queen, lest her example encourage other women to disobey their husbands. And so, according to traditional commentary, by the end of the first chapter of the Purim story Vashti has been banished and never heard from again.
Traditionally, it is Esther – the queen who replaces Vashti and goes on to save the Jewish people from extermination by bravely telling King Achashverosh his top adviser is plotting to kill the kingdom’s Jews and that she herself is also Jewish – who has been celebrated. But American-Jewish feminist scholars have embraced Vashti in recent years, championing her as a hero who took a stand against patriarchy in a story dating back to around 355 B.C.E., even though no movement arose from her action.
English Beit Midrash Tel Aviv Director Zoe Jick says she finds the Purim story especially relevant this year, and knows she and her friends will be hearing the stories of Esther and Vashti differently because of #MeToo.
“The #MeToo moment is bringing up among my social circle and female friends more intricate conversations about our sexuality than before and how we are using it – or not – to gain power,” says Jick, 30. “I feel there is some wisdom in the megillah [Book of Esther] that we lost and are now regaining. The megillah showed us very different ways women used sexuality to act with agency.”
Noga Brenner Samia is deputy director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, which hosted the “Power Women of Purim” event together with its secular yeshiva, Beit Midrash TLV, and the School of Shine.
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She believes it is enlightening to pair the Esther and Vashti stories.
“Vashti is a protest movement of one who was punished, whereas Esther uses her beauty to gain power,” says Brenner Samia. “Putting two characters in conversation together goes to show the different ways women can use sexuality to gain power – and what the limits of that power is.”
Samia continues: “Stories like this are so important for BINA because we have a social activist lens, and as activists we are always asking: Do we act within the system or against the system? Do we play the game or make noise and change outside of the palace?”
Biblical scholar and Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow Orit Avnery argues that Esther was not just a tool of her Uncle Mordecai, who drafted her for the job of savior of her people, as some feminist scholars have maintained. In fact, she says, she mobilized her people – asked for their support – so she could work within the court to defeat the plot to kill the Jews. And so, in this spirit of movement building, Esther too should be lauded for her #MeToo spirit, says Avnery.
“Esther had her whole community’s support, it embraced her and she needed to have them behind her,” explains Avnery. “It’s the power of the group, and that is what the #MeToo moment understands – the need for women’s solidarity and activity together. Because once you have that, you have a better chance to stand up against the men or whoever is standing up against you,” she adds.
Dr. Channa Pinchasi is director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Shalom Hartman Institute and founded the Cheider Mishelach forum for influential female leaders in Tel Aviv. She makes the argument that feminism should also take Esther seriously.
“We see she goes through a process of maturation,” says Pinchasi. “At the height of tension in the story, she says that what we need to save the Jewish nation is solidarity. So she asks for everyone to fast, so that she can feel that communal power and then she can go to the king. How she succeeds in finding her power is one of the best definitions of feminism – that is, to feel comfortable with having power,” she explains.
Pinchasi wrote about Esther’s sacrifice in the essay “Esther’s Not-So-Fairy-Tale Ending.” In it, she notes that after calamity is averted and the Jews are saved following her intervention, Esther pays the ultimate sacrifice, disappearing back into the palace with the king, apart from her Jewish community, and married “to Achashverosh for the rest of her life.”
Jewish tradition doesn’t view Mordecai’s plan to save the Jews by marrying his niece Esther off to Achashverosh as an act of pimping her out – though that interpretation has surfaced in modern times.
In a comedy sketch on the Israeli TV show “The Jews are Coming,” for example, the character playing Esther asks Mordecai: “Doesn’t sending me to Achashverosh seem a little problematic to you? It would make me kind of a whore to be with Achashverosh and do a little hanky-panky.”
Mordecai responds indignantly: “To save the people!”
Esther replies: “OK, so that’s like a whore.”
Avnery points out Esther’s “is a difficult story of a woman in a complex situation – her ability to act is limited.”
The #MeToo movement promises a world where women will no longer be forced into impossible situations. As for the stories of Vashti and Esther, Avnery concludes: “Vashti lost a lot. But because of her, someone like Esther could take the next step. Those who take the first step will always have the hardest path and often won’t see the results of their bold move.”