Vashti & Esther: Two Models of Feminism
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Vashti & Esther: Two Models of Feminism

One queen is summoned by the king and refuses to come. The next queen competes in a beauty pageant and saves her people. Vashti and Esther are two of the rare female protagonists in Tanakh. The two are extremely different, but both can be seen as feminists in their own ways.

The megillah opens with Queen Vashti and King Achashverosh throwing concurrent parties for the kingdom. Achashverosh summons Vashti to appear at his party so that he can show off her beauty, and she refuses to comply. This is the only time in the megillah that an action is attributed to Vashti alone. Only two verbs are attributed to her throughout the megillah: first, ״עשתה,״ she threw a party, and then ״ותמאן,״ “and she refused” to come before the king. Vashti throwing a party wasn’t independent; it was parallel to the king throwing his own party. Therefore, according to the peshat, Vashti is defined by her single independent action of refusing to come before the king.

Vashti is defined by her single independent action of refusing to come before the king.

I see Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king as a feminist statement, refusing to participate in something that she didn’t believe in. Although Vashti’s actions have been viewed in different lights, positive and negative, by various midrashim, this view aligns mostly with with midrashim that were composed by rabbis living in Eretz Yisrael. She was uncomfortable complying with the king’s wishes and, according to this midrashic school of thought, she thought they were inappropriate. Vashti is one type of feminist, refusing to be a part of something she doesn’t believe in.

Esther infiltrates the system in order to effect change.

After Vashti’s big exit, Esther fills her place in the story. Esther goes the the palace as a part of the king’s beauty pageant, succumbing to a year of beauty treatments, hiding her Jewish identity, and using her allotted time with the king to win his favor. Esther infiltrates the system in order to effect change, knowing that even if she doesn’t believe in the system, winning the beauty pageant will give her power in Achashverosh’s court to accomplish her goal of saving the Jewish people. Esther is a very different kind of feminist from Vashti, working from inside the system rather than challenging it. Esther wins the king’s favor, and then, despite the danger to herself, approaches the king without being summoned in order to plead for the survival of her people.

We need both kinds of feminists in our world.

We need both kinds of feminists in our world. Feminists who leave the system show us that the problems within the system are serious and empower us to speak out. They teach us that there are situations where you can’t find a solution and leaving is the only option. They are brave because sometimes, leaving is harder than staying. But we also need feminists who work within the system, because the leaders in the system will only listen to their own. They sacrifice by remaining in a system where they aren’t happy in order to enable change.

Issues about women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism are only growing as time goes on, but I love orthodoxy and I’m not ready to give up yet.

I am a feminist who works within the system. Issues about women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism are only growing as time goes on, but I love orthodoxy and I’m not ready to give up yet. I believe that working from the inside, I can effect the greatest possible change, so I stay and work from within.

The Purim story comes full circle. At the beginning, Achashverosh calls Vashti, and she risks her life by refusing to come to him. At the end, Esther risks her life by going to Achashverosh without being called. Both women take risks by defying the king and both women are feminists, but they are vastly different kinds of feminists; it takes both types of feminists to accomplish change.

Josephine Schizer is a student at the Ramaz Upper School. She is passionate about women’s tefillah and coordinates a monthly women’s tefillah group at her synagogue, Congregation Ramath Orah. 

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