What are we to make of Queen Vashti, who lost her crown and position because she refused to parade naked in front of King Ahasuerus and his courtiers? While the Midrash represents her as vain and wicked, some modern commentators say her resistance to male domination makes her a better feminist model than her demure successor and heroine of the Purim holiday, Queen Esther.
Biblical interpretation may tell us more about the interpreter — or the interpreter’s era — than about the intent behind the text. So, at the risk of betraying a personal inclination I’d like to suggest an idea I believe serves our time better than the commentaries, both old and new, that have one thing in common: They always present Vashti and Esther as contrasts.
Perhaps we should view them as women with more uniting than dividing them.
Both women broke rules, Vashti in refusing a royal order to appear, Esther by appearing in the king’s inner sanctum without the required summons. We have limited insight into Vashti’s motivation, since she exits the Purim story at the end of the book’s first chapter. But if she refused to appear only in defense of her own dignity, that alone justifies our admiration. Moreover, the royal decree issued after her defiance — that every man in Persia is master of his home, lest the fallen queen’s example empower other women — suggests that Vashti’s action, consciously or not, might have served a larger purpose.
As the book’s title character, Esther is more clearly defined. Her cause was the salvation of the Jewish people. She was humble but methodical, fasting for three days and preparing herself mentally before approaching the king and inviting him to the feast where she would denounce the genocidal plan by the kings henchman Haman.
Esther’s audacity was more subtle and strategic than Vashti’s, but she had the advantage of going second. I find it hard to escape the conclusion that however driven she was by her own wisdom or her relative Mordecai’s persuasion, Esther also learned from her predecessor’s example. She engineered her own rebellion, well aware of what had not worked.
We cheer today when a woman breaks a glass ceiling, but in many cases those who succeed are pushing against a surface that someone else already cracked. We learn from and build on prior efforts, not all of which bore fruit. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, “I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.”
Many of us were spellbound when the actress Alex Borstein won an Emmy last year for her role in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and dedicated the award to her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust. “My grandmother turned to a guard,” Borstein related. “She was in line to be shot into a pit and she said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ And he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you but somebody will.’ And she stepped out of line. And for that, I am here, and for that, my children are here. So, step out of line, ladies, step out of line!”
Henrietta Szold didn’t so much step out of lines as erase them. After creating America’s first night school for immigrants, becoming the first woman editor of the Jewish Publication Society and the first woman to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she launched Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which built the medical foundation of the future Jewish state and also revolutionized the status of American Jewish women.
She, too, had a role model: Hadassah was Queen Esther’s Hebrew name. The organization was founded a week before Purim in 1912.
Henrietta inspired many women — all Hadassah follows in her steps — but she also represents those who dreamed or dared or actually stepped out of line without success. Even without knowing their names, we should honor them.
And in our polarized times, we can offer a more hopeful Purim message by viewing Vashti and Esther not as polar opposites but as bold women, two heroines with distinct personalities leading us in the same direction: Forward.
Rhoda Smolow is president of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.