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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