Purim is one of the more obscure Jewish holidays. It commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a genocidal plot, as recorded in the Book of Esther (known in Hebrew as the Megillah). The Megillah begins with a party thrown by the Persian King Ahasuerus, the public disobedience of his wife Vashti and her subsequent banishment. Then it continues with the story of the king’s next wife, Queen Esther, and what she did to save the Jewish people.
Purim was always a time of celebration and joyousness for me as a child. Even when I was younger and not a full-fledged feminist, I appreciated that Purim had a strong female protagonist, Esther. Once I discovered feminism, I, among many other Jewish feminists, adored the fact that such a righteous woman was the main character. However, it bothered me that the Megillah opens with Vashti, the first antagonist of the Purim story. I’m far from the only one disturbed by this understanding as I’m hardly the only one who is disturbed by this understanding of Vashti; a number of Jewish feminists have re-examined Vashti and her role in the Purim story.
The Megillah discusses Vashti very neutrally. After describing Ahasuerus’ party at length, the text simply says that Vashti made a feast for the women of Persia, too. When Ahasuerus was drunk, he called for her to come, “with the royal crown, to show off [her beauty] to the people and to the officials” (Esther 1:11). She refused, though we’re not told anything about her motive. Furious, he consulted his advisors, who suggested punishing her in order to discourage women from rebelling against their husbands. Ahasuerus banished her.
Vashti is attacked by commentators on the Megillah. The Talmud explains that she was the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king who conquered most of the known world and exiled the Jews from Israel for 70 years. (The Purim story takes places during that exile.) Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, was king while the Persians destroyed Babylon. When the Persians ransacked the castle, they found Belshazzar’s toddler daughter, Vashti. Cyrus, the king of Persia at the time, decided to marry her to his son Ahasuerus. He thought the Persian monarchy would benefit from her prestigious pedigree.
Another commentary says that the party Vashti made was completely equal to Ahasuerus’ feast, with the same kinds of food and decorations. The Talmud says that it was adjacent to the men’s party, close enough for the male partygoers to hear the women’s voices. As a result, the drunken men began discussing the beauty of their country’s women. Ahasuerus wanted to prove that his wife was the most attractive of them all so he commanded Vashti to come to his party and dance, wearing only a crown. The Talmud explains that she refused to come, not because she had an objection to dancing in the nude, but because she had developed a skin ailment.
These commentaries were mostly written by men circa 400 C.E., a time period not known for its feminist inclinations. It is therefore understandable that the content of their commentaries isn’t terribly pro-woman. However, as Jewish feminists Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut have stated, “It is not enough to hold by previous commentators, learned as they are, but to bring our era’s sensibilities, which includes feminist knowledge, to bear on the text.” The quote is from a 2008 article posted on http://womenofthewall.org.il/archives/2070.
My interpretation of the text is that Vashti is a woman we must emulate. I find it unfair that her lineage has been held against her. The Bible is filled with positive characters that come from bad families; Abraham’s father Terah was considered evil, but commentators never put Abraham down because of his ancestry. Why revile Vashti?
Vashti understood feminism thousands of years before it was given a name. Realizing the sexism of the fact that Ahasuerus made a party for men only, she decided to level the playing field and make an equal party for the women.
Vashti was an extremely proud, headstrong woman; there was no way that she would debase herself by dancing for Ahasuerus’ drunken friends. She didn’t refuse because she suddenly developed a skin ailment, but because she was a self-respecting woman. The Talmud is right in the sense that Vashti did not want to jump when Ahasuerus snapped his fingers. Why would she knuckle under his commands? Ahasuerus couldn’t deal with the thought of a wife stronger than he so he banished Vashti and passed a law enforcing women’s subservience.
There are still many Vashtis today, women who are punished because they say no, women who are stuck in abusive relationships. It is imperative that we learn from the Megillah and work to change the culture we live in today.
Support friends who are survivors of rape and domestic violence. Counter rape myths when you hear them. Patronize charities and organizations that help women escape domestic abuse, such as Shalom Bayit, the Shalom Task Force and Stop the Violence. Ensure that women have the courage to say no like Vashti did, but make certain that they will not suffer her end.
Your name reveals the essence of your soul, according to Jewish teaching. In Persian, the name Vashti means goodness. A commentary explains that Vashti comes from the Hebrew word “shtei” meaning two. While Esther is considered the only hero of the Purim story perhaps Vashti can now be counted as the second.