Vashti is not a failure; Esther is not a bad feminist
Abby Wisse Schachter, associate editor at the New York Post, recently published an article in Commentary Magazine that suggests that feminist thinking has changed the meaning of Purim, and that that is a bad thing. I have not read the piece because the article is only available to subscribers, and therefore I cannot evaluate the merit of Schachter’s individual arguments. Still, I reject the idea that a feminist interpretation of the Purim story “lionizes the wrong woman, promotes a false political message of nonviolence and tolerance, and worst of all embraces failure instead of promoting perhaps the greatest of Jewish heroines,” as Schachter argues in her abstract.
The feminist interpretation of Purim that Schachter finds so distasteful involves the recognition and celebration of Queen Vashti for refusing to “display her beauty” (or dance naked) in public at the request of her drunk husband, King Ahasuerus. As punishment for her disobedience, she loses her post as Queen and some argue that she is killed. Schachter appears to suggest that Vashti’s actions represent failure and should not be celebrated.
Vashti’s replacement, Queen Esther, is the traditional heroine of the Purim story – the only one Schachter thinks we should be celebrating. Esther is compelled by Mordechai to appeal to the King to stop Haman’s evil plot to massacre the Jews. She knows she cannot simply go before the King unbidden; to do so could result in her death. She ultimately decides to do so, but uses her charm and wit to get the King in the right state of mind to hear her plea. Finally, when the time is right, she reveals her Jewish identity to the King and reminds him that killing the Jews would include killing her as well. The King is sympathetic and allows the Jews to defend themselves, which they did rather successfully.
Marissa Brostaff of Tablet writes that in this feminist reading, Esther supposedly plays a lesser role because “she lacks [Vashti’s] admirable chutzpah, relying instead on a more old-fashioned brand of feminine wiles to get what she wants.” Maybe this is true in the Schachter's description, but I hardly think it that all feminists feel this way.
Unlike the majority of Biblical women, Esther and Vashti were autonomous and they made their own choices. Vashti refused to obey and paid the price. Esther chose to play the system to get the job done. Regardless of which method you prefer, both women played active roles in their own lives. Feminism is tricky to define but choice and autonomy make up its ideological core. We must remember that there is no “right”way to be a feminist. As we re-examine these texts, it’s important to recognize that more than one type of woman can be a feminist heroine.
“The Mirror Has Two Faces” is a brilliant piece on the subject by Wendy Amsellem, originally published in the JOFA Journal in 2003. The piece, written from an Orthodox Feminist perspective, argues that while Esther represents a more traditional ideal of womanhood, she had to “confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti in herself” in order to succeed.
I cannot speak directly to Schachter’s article without having read it, but I can say that MY feminist reinterpretation of Purim not only celebrates Vashti and Esther, but validates both of their choices. Vashti is not a failure, and Esther is not a bad feminist. Everyone inevitably winds up in dangerous situations where there is no easy answer. Sometimes we choose to put our safety and security before our ideals. Other times we decide that standing on principle is worth the consequence. It seems to me that there is a little bit of Vashti and a little bit of Esther in all of us, and we call on the strength of both women when making these tough decisions.