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Is Hillary the Next Vashti?

posted by Virtual Talmud

No one is who they appear to be in the Book of Esther, which we read on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Vashti seems an all-powerful queen, yet she overestimates her power and is removed from office, probably not pleasantly, though the text is silent on that point. Esther, on the other hand, seems to be the paradigm of women’s powerlessness, forcefully taken from her family to become the king’s sex kitten. Yet it is she who deftly welds her influence with the king to save her people and overthrow the top minister, inserting her own uncle in his place.

Vashti and Esther both have something to teach us about the historic use of women’s power and influence.

Vashti is treated badly in rabbinic commentary, which seeks to blame her downfall as comeuppance for the sins of her father, or for her own sins of selfishness and haughtiness. According to Midrash, she leverages her descent from the mighty King Nebuchadnezzer (who destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem) to wield power in the court.

When Vashti is called to come to the king clad only in her crown (and, readers are to assume, nothing else), she refuses. The king is convinced by his advisors that all other women will learn to refuse their husbands as she did if he allows her to get away with it so he has her removed. Her time on stage is completed in less than a chapter.

Since the 1970s, feminists have taken Vashti to heart as the first proto-feminist: She is the first woman in the Bible who refuses to be objectified as a sex object, instead naming such behavior as inappropriate. As the feminist movement (and the continuing movement to protect women from domestic violence) taught us, the first step towards changing intolerable conditions is to become self aware enough to be able to name those intolerable conditions, aloud to oneself and others. (It is precisely the danger of such change that drives the king’s advisors to seek her downfall.)

What a contrast to Esther, who is quite meek in comparison. When brought to the palace, she passively goes along with whatever the head eunuch plans for her. When she finally approaches the king, she wines and dines him before beseeching him, using every traditional feminine wile in the book, and rather effectively at that.

In many ways, Vashti is the paradigmatic woman who won’t take any garbage from the men around her, even if it costs her, which it does. In comparison, I always thought of Esther as the ideal of the savvy female business exec who learns how to make it in the top tier of a man’s world and bring her people along with her. It is the Esthers who learned that it is not enough to make it to the top if one cannot stay there and work effectively within the system, even if the system itself is wrought with difficulties and limitations. These have been the two models for how women have negotiated their lack of real power throughout history.

In today’s political climate, we might see Sen. Hillary Clinton as Vashti and Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Esther, each presenting a very different image of female leadership. I worry the analogy between Senator Clinton and Vashti may be apt because it remains to be seen whether our nation is ready to see a strong and bold woman wield real power. On the other hand, I have great hope that, like a modern Esther, Speaker Pelosi can negotiate the authority and influence of her office to bring positive and much needed change to our nation.

Sen. Clinton seems to be trying to soften her image, however. Perhaps she will be able to do what few women throughout history have: achieve that rare balance between the historic paradigms of Vashti and Esther. If so, then the entire nation will deserve some of the credit, for supporting a culture climate in which such an historic change is possible.

– Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman



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cheryl

posted February 20, 2007 at 11:46 pm


Is your analysis about Pelosi from a feminist point of view? Some people are not very pleased with the changes in legislature she is so adamantly trying to make. As far as Hiliary being compared to Queen Vashti– that’s like saying you feel she is a descendant of some wicked king and once in a position of rule she won’t be able to handle authority– this is the point of view of many men. What say you!



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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted February 21, 2007 at 3:26 am


Hmm…??? Interesting. I really enjoyed Rabbi Grossman’s thoughts. …more to come after I digest and taste this post some more!



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balance

posted February 21, 2007 at 4:19 pm


What I see when I read this blog, and look at Esther in the king’s audience, it makes me wonder how subjugated women are to remain. This is an interesting post in for the 21st century. Perhaps Vashti loses some of “her power” but in my opinion, this depiction of Esther shows she has not the power and that she loses some of herself as well. Sadly, in patriarchy, there are few places where women can nurture and develop their natural talents and “power” without continually being limited in some way by the male power structure. There is no win-win, only compromise-compromise, unlike the male access to power and selfhood, within a patriarchy that is.



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Hali

posted February 21, 2007 at 7:42 pm


In defense of Esther – sometimes you make the decision that ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Esther was saving lives. That’s pretty heroic. (And maybe Vashti is better off sacrificing her crown than her human dignity.) In the story of Esther, the main problems that the women have are caused by the men, who in this story are generally a bunch of shmegeggis, or worse. Girls rule! :)



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Iris

posted February 22, 2007 at 5:00 am


Vashti enslaved Jewish girls and made them work on Shabbas.Yes she refused to dance nude she was selfish and calculating.



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Sara Stein

posted February 22, 2007 at 7:13 am


You are using the two most despicable women in Congress today as comparisons? Neither of them have the inner strength, religious faith and wisdom of an Esther!!! However, aside from my earleir commnets on their character (or lack thereof)I can see both of them as a “Vashti” Vashti (for comparison) certainly had it over both these two harpies!!! The very fact that you are using these two as examples of modern womanhood begs the questions, why have you chosen these two as opposed to others who have far more dignity, intelligence and intestinal fortitude such as an Ann Coulter (conservative commentator) Debbie Schlussel (conservative commentator) or a Jane Harmon (a tough cookie)? Yet you choose these two hedonistic, self serving, ambitious females who care only for what they can get for themselves and the hell with the rest of the country? For Shame!!! Mrs. Sara Stein



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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted February 22, 2007 at 3:27 pm


Sara, Purim is 10 days away. Thus, it makes sense that Rabbi Grossman would choose to use the two women from the Megillah. Personally, I prefer Deborah and Miriam. I also do like to think and hope that there are women who have the characteristics of these two women. I believer there are. Ruth Messinger is a modern day woman that comes to my mind! She’s remarkable! Shalom!



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Celia

posted February 23, 2007 at 6:45 pm


The thing I love about Jewish theology (I’m not Jewish) is the way every word of the scripture can be emphasized and turned this way and that (was Vashti to wear ONLY the crown? no wonder she refused!) and looked at from every possible angle and applied to modern times (which is just starting on this bog). I was fascinated by that when I was young, and tended to adopt it into my own reading of scripture, which has earned me a reputation for having nteresting thoughts” about scripture in my church. When I find time, I’ll revisit. :-)



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Dave

posted February 27, 2007 at 5:16 pm


Clinton or Pelosi naked? Avert thine eyes!



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Grethel Jane Rickman

posted February 27, 2007 at 10:41 pm


Dave, Oi Vay! Most certainly, avert thine eyes! And very quickly, I add to this thought!!! LOL! Celia, Thank you for sharing! Have you visted MyJewishLearning.com? Shalom!



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