Vashti Was No Heroine

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

One of the central themes of Purim revolve around the words in the Megillah, the Book of Esther (8:1): “V’Nahapoch Hu,” meaning “and it was overturned.” A situation that seemed so dire, that appeared to mark the end and the complete annihilation of the Jewish nation, was miraculously transformed into a decisive Jewish military and political victory. The bleakest situation was entirely reversed, turned upside down.

As a consequence, one of the Mitzvot that we fulfill on Purim is to drink to such excess that we confuse “cursed is Haman” with “blessed is Mordechai”; a level of inebriation where we are capable of swapping villain for victor and sinner for saint.

In keeping with this “upside-down” theme, I have noticed that, in recent years, it has become fashionable for some female thinkers to champion Vashti, King Ahasuerus’s erstwhile queen, as the true feminist hero of the Purim story, and to downplay the role and heroism of Queen Esther, Vashti’s replacement and successor, after whom the Book of Esther, one of the most beloved books of the Scriptures, is named.

Why is Vashti celebrated?

Well, the Purim story begins with a huge feast made by King Ahasuerus for all of his subjects. Queen Vashti, too, made a feast for women. “On the seventh day, when the king’s heart was merry with wine,” he ordered Queen Vashti to appear before him in naught but her royal crown. Vashti refused. Enraged, King Ahasuerus took the advice of his advisors, and had Vashti executed for her disobedience. This, in turn, led to a vacancy in the position of queen — a position that would soon be filled by Esther.

With today’s heightened sensitivity to the evils of patriarchy, and our admiration for strong women who are not afraid to “stick it to the man,” it is easy to see why some would find Vashti appealing. She would not allow her husband to objectify her and debase her — even at the cost of her life.

And through this lens, Esther’s heroics seem a bit lackluster. After all, she obeys Mordechai, a man — both in marrying Ahasuerus and in concealing her Jewish identity. She obeys Hagai, another man (albeit a eunuch) with respect to the makeup, skin treatments and accessories she would use to prepare for her night with King Ahasuerus. And she “sells” her beauty to Ahasuerus, another man, allowing herself to be objectified by her new husband.

However, before allying ourselves with the principles and character of Vashti, it would be worthwhile for us to consider what we know of her.

(Incidentally, what we know about Vashti comes largely from Midrash, as there is scant information in the biblical text regarding who she really was. Importantly, Ahasuerus’s offensive and shameful request, that Vashti appear at the party nude, comes from the same Midrash. Without the elaboration of the Midrash, Ahasuerus simply asked her to appear, and she refused to obey him. There is no sexual objectification or anything inherently patriarchal about it. With the Midrash, however, we are given an insight into who Vashti was, and why she refused to appear.)

For example, did you know that:

  • Vashti had a practice for drafting Jewish girls and making them work for her in the nude on Shabbat? [1]
  • Ahasuerus and Vashti had conspired to use the feast as an opportunity to entice the Jews into sexual immorality?[2]
  • Vashti deliberately made her feast for women “in the royal house of King Ahasuerus” — and not in the Women’s House — because she fully intended there to be sexual mingling?[3]
  • It was in fact the custom in the ancient Persian kingdom that during a banquet, the men would have their wives dance nude before the company?[4]
  • As Vashti was preparing to comply with Ahasuerus’s request, she noticed that an ugly rash had broken out on her body, and there a large and unsightly polyp had developed on her back?[5]
  • Vashti was summoned — and executed — on Shabbat (“on the seventh day”), as a Divine signal that she was being punished in part because she had forced others to work nude on Shabbat?[6]

Also, keep in mind, that Vashti was not merely disobeying her husband. In those days (even in those days!) it would not have been terribly unusual for wife to disobey her husband. But Vashti was disobeying her king, her monarch, who had absolute power over the lives of his subjects. Would it really be considered heroic (particularly back then) to defy the direct command of a king in the name of feminine dignity?

Finally, consider Vashti’s lasting legacy. As a result of her defiance, an edict of the king went out throughout his entire kingdom, that “all women shall give honor to their husbands, both great and small,” and that “every man would dominate in his household.”[7] Thus, Vashti’s selfish actions resulted in a significant setback for women’s rights, causing women to be legally subjugated to their husbands across the entire civilized world. Is this something to be celebrated?

As sex therapist Dr. Susan Block puts it here, Vashti was the “Mother of All Party-Poopers.” Esther, on the other hand, understood the culture and environment that she lived it. She knew that she lived in an era in which the feminine mind was greatly under-appreciated, and men had an inflated sense of superiority — but that those same men were nonetheless entirely vulnerable to her physical beauty.

She was a reluctant heroine. She did not wish to be queen, nor to use her beauty to manipulate male politics. However, when the opportunity presented itself, she recognized that her beauty — one of her many G-d-given gifts — would be particularly effective in this instance, and that she could use it to save her people for certain destruction.

Anyone who downplays Esther’s ability to navigate the intrigue of Ahasuerus’s royal palace — not to mention keeping her identity hidden — for the five years between when she first became queen and the culmination of the Purim story, or Esther’s careful orchestration of Haman’s downfall has not given her extraordinary wisdom enough credit.[8]

Esther was a complete person, a whole woman. She did not disavow her beauty as a tool of patriarchy; her beauty was hers, although she certainly made little effort to enhance it. Nor did she take a doomed theatrical stand for her own vanity, resulting in significant setbacks for women everywhere. Esther had wisdom, intuition, beauty and grace, and she used them all, at great personal sacrifice, to bring about the salvation of her people.

Much of the story of Purim is written between the lines of the ancient biblical text. But our key values have remained the same over the millennia; and they reveal that today, as then, Vashti remains the cruel and vain queen whose removal paved the way for Esther, a classic Jewish heroine, to save her nation.

While it is certainly good to revisit ancient texts with a fresh perspective every now and then, not everything needs to be reinvented. Trust our instincts. Trust Esther’s instincts, and her feminine intuition. It is her Book, after all.

Let us not confuse the saint with the sinner — at least not until we are well into our drinks tonight.

Works Cited

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 12b.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 12a. Both the Talmud and the Midrash teach that status of Israel and the Holy Temple were a significant concern of Ahasuerus, and that his feast was both to celebrate his belief that the Temple would not be rebuilt, and to entice the Jews to sin to ensure that this would remain the case.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 12a.

[4] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 49.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 12b.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 12b.

[7] Esther, 1:20,22.

[8] A full discussion of who Esther was, and her role in the Purim story, would – unfortunately – go well beyond the scope of this column. However, I am very much looking forward to two new books that have recently been published: The Gilded Cage, by Sorele Brownstein, and Esther: A Novel, by Rebecca Kanner.