The key character of Purim has long been Queen Esther, who leads the Jewish people in the story to victory over the wicked plans of Haman, who wished to kill the Jews.
In fact, Wednesday night, the start of Purim, calls Jews to gather and read the Book of Esther. When I was growing up, little girls often came to synagogue dressed up as the beautiful Esther. But recent biblical scholarship has suggested that the true hero of the story is not Esther — who submitted to male power in her heroics — but her predecessor, Queen Vashti, who resisted.
In the first chapter of the book, Vashti refuses to obey King Achashverosh’s demand to parade before the assembled guests, leading to the removal of Vashti and the search for a new queen. Thus, Vashti has been deservedly praised by feminists, myself included, for refusing to abide by her husband’s demands that she display her physical beauty before his officers, especially when this refusal came at great risk to her life.
While it is fair to admire Vashti’s actions, we also have to be careful to ensure that seeing Vashti as a hero doesn’t have a negative effect on our understanding of Esther, who is in many ways Vashti’s opposite.
Esther’s role in the story is quite complicated. As a child I was taught that after Vashti was banished, Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) held a beauty pageant to find a new queen, and Esther was the most beautiful of them all. This all leads to Esther eventually saving the day, and the Jewish people.
But the text tells a different story. As part of this pageant, Esther was in fact one of the many young maidens who were taken against their will and forced to spend a night with the king. The text also tells us (Chapter One) that a new edict was established to force all women to submit to their husbands. To be a woman in Esther’s time was to live a life of total submission to male authority. It was into this new environment that Esther was brought. She had no choice but to submit.
We have to be very careful about how we talk about who is a hero in the story. Traditionally, Esther has been praised and Vashti rejected as a foil to Esther. A recent feminist response has been to flip the paradigm and to embrace Vashti as a symbol of female empowerment, and in turn to see Esther as a symbol of female submission. But we see now that this characterization is wrong. Esther was a victim of abuse. She was taken from her home and brought into an environment in which to submit to male authority meant she would survive. She knew from Vashti what happened to women who fought back.
This is a timely conversation. In the past year, our society has undergone a rapid transformation in how we think about men and women, and the dynamics of power and abuse. This change is important because it means victims can speak out and know there is a much greater chance they can be heard.
As people tell their stories, we realize how horrifically pervasive sexual abuse has been. Women, and men, have been suffering in practically every corner of society and at every level. It has been happening everywhere, but not enough people were willing to listen, and as a result, people felt like they couldn’t speak up.
As we read our sacred texts we must make the conscious choice to see both Esther AND Vashti as heroes of the story. Vashti is an incredible model for standing up and refusing to participate in something degrading. And Esther, tragically, is a model for what it means to be a victim of an abusive power figure, and to have to live with the abuse every day as she continued to persevere and achieve her own goals, in this case the overthrowing of Haman and saving her people.
Can we still celebrate Purim knowing what the background really was? To celebrate Purim is to celebrate the survival of our people in the face of those who want to destroy us — certainly a cause worth celebrating — and we should all seek to responsibly maximize our joy on this holiday. But as we cheer for Esther and Vashti, we must also remember that our victory in the Purim story was handed to us by a heroic woman who was being silenced and abused, right before our eyes.
Ruth Balinsky Friedman is a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic (legal) authorities. She is a “maharat” or spiritual leader at Ohev Sholom, a synagogue in Washington D.C.