By Miriam Shaviv
February 26, 2010
For me, Purim always brings memories of my Batmitzvah year, when each
student in my class was supposed to create a project about a Biblical
Most of the girls chose Sarah, Rifka, Rachel, Leah -- the usual suspects.
I chose Vashti.
My parents were called in for a long talk with the teacher and I narrowly avoided getting kicked out of school.
For me, Vashti was always a positive role model - she refused to appear before the king and his followers at the men's banquet (actually the Hebrew word for banquet - mishteh - implies there was less eating on and more drinking, so it is a fair assumption they were all drunk). The text does not actually explain why she wouldn't turn up but the most straightforward explanation is that it was for reasons of modesty - after all, Achashverosh wanted her there 'to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look at'.
For her disobedience she was dethroned. This was explicitely meant as a warning for other women not to disobey their husbands.
And yet, she is vilified in the midrash, which has turned her into some kind of monster who abused Jewish women and who did not want to appear because of vanity, not modesty (there are various tales about her suffering from skin diseases - and worse).
So it came as a little bit of a shock to read that this original idea of my youth has actually been a staple of Jewish-feminist thought for quite a few decades....
In this article in Commentary, contributor Abby Wisse Schachter rails at feminists for their elevation of Vashti, particularly because many of them seem keen to degrade Esther's stature in the process. When compared to Vashti's independence in her marriage - goes the narrative - Queen Esther's supplication, her willingness to go along with events and her 'good girl character' make her look powerless.
Personally, I don't see why we can't have it both ways. My early realisation that, sticking to the plain text, Vashti is more sinned against than sinning never actually made me re-evaluate Esther's role and reputation. And I continue to see no reason why we cannot have two strong women in the story, who represent two very different models of independence and of achieving what they want - one defiantly, one subtly. We don't need to come down on one side or another; we can appreciate the megillah for its almost literary inclusion of these opposites.
Rather than pitting Esther vs Vashti, I think it's interesting to ask why the midrash was so keen to vilify Vashti. Schachter says that traditional rabbinical thinking "sought to besmirch this minor character’s reputation in order to make Esther appear even more heroic." Is this really necessary? There are other heroes in the Purim story - male ones.
Is it possible that two women heroines were just too much? Were the rabbis simply trying to justify the apparently unfair treatment Vashti receives? Or - do they, too, not like the model of the defiant wife, which so angered Achashverosh?
I'm open to suggestions.