What kind of feminist was Esther? The premise of the question is absurd for Esther’s time surely, but how do we celebrate her as a hero today with our current sensibilities? In what seem like topsy-turvy times, the Megillah seems like a good place to start.
The mishna in Masechet Megillah tells us that “One who reads the Megillah out of order does not fulfill her obligation [to hear the Megillah]” (Mishna Megillah 2:1). Why would you even think of reading a story randomly, especially one that has such drama and suspense?
Suspense – ha! The Megillah is just a silly book and we all know the story. Why does it matter if we read it out of order? Isn’t turning things upside down part of the nature of Purim?
Bartenura says “The events occurred in chronological order, so it must be read in chronological order.” We should remember the events as they happened in Shushan. The Megillah is the historical record and we owe fidelity to the actual record.
The Baal Shem Tov has a more subtle take on this ruling (Keter Shem Tov, 100). He said that reading it out of order does not mean mixing up the chapters. Rather, by relegating the Megillah to ancient history (or fairytale) we are reading the Megillah out of order. We only fulfill our mitzvah if we reread the story as current to our situation today. This year the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation does not seem difficult for me to apply, as the questions of women’s leadership in the Orthodox world are swirling around me.
How do we stay true to the text, see it through our contemporary lens yet not impose or force the story into some other “order”? Esther starts out seemingly conforming to Rabbinic ideals of the modest and compliant woman. The Talmud says that Esther “was neither too tall nor too short, but of medium size, (and straight) like a myrtle… R. Eleazar said: This informs us that every man took her for a member of his own people” (Megillah 16b). She was so invisible that everyone projected his or her impression upon her.
Is Esther’s accession an intentional plan, a ploy to get access to power or just her luck, being pretty and being in the right place at the right time? We don’t know. Neither the text nor the Rabbinic interpretations tell us. I would suggest that the silence leaves us free to follow the Baal Shem Tov’s directive and reread the story in light of events today. For me as an Orthodox woman who has always dreamed of getting semicha, Esther is a good model if read as a woman who worked within the system and was ready at the moment when women’s leadership was needed. I certainly don’t want to follow the Vashti model and be excommunicated, or worse!
Esther’s “feminism” might not have been intentional at first, but she grows into her own strength and her leadership during her time in the palace. When she does decide to act, she is transformed. The Megillah tells us that on the third day, וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת, “and Esther put on her royal apparel” (Esther 5:2).
In the Hebrew the literal reading is that she wore royalty. She clothes herself in leadership. What did that look like? She dresses with care. Does she worry about which clothes – as she had been trained in her time in the palace? Or did she look in the mirror and said “You go girl!”? Were there pink ears sticking out from under her crown?
Achashverosh put the crown upon her head but only Esther could choose to present herself as a queen. And people noticed. The king lets her in, Haman fawns. The first time she approaches the king, Esther gingerly “touched the tip of the scepter.” The second time when she is confident, “the king extended the golden scepter to Esther, and Esther arose and stood before the king” (Esther 8:4). Shneur Zalman of Liady says, “The first time Esther touches the top of the scepter. The second, Achashverosh hands her the scepter” (Torat Or Esther 93). She does not hesitate, she takes the leadership and uses it to progress her goal of ensuring jewish continuity.
Jewish continuity is crucial to Esther and the Purim story. In a discussion of the canonization of Megillat Esther, the rabbis of the Gemara report that Esther wrote to them demanding that her story be included in the Tanach. She says, “Establish me for future generations” (Megillah 7a). They hem and haw and worry that she “will thereby arouse the wrath of the nations upon us.” Esther responds that she is “already written in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia, and so the Megillah will not publicize anything that is not already known worldwide.” In other words, I am here, you warned me but nevertheless I will persist. What Esther said is true for us today. Can Jewish women make the same choices that Esther made? Can we “put on royal clothes”? Yes we can. We need to lead our people with a golden sceptre in hand. Would Esther wear a pussy hat? If a pussy hat means taking control of your future and standing up to people who do not see a future for the Jewish people, my vote is yes. Let us, as the Baal Shem Tov said, read Megillat Esther and understand it as a story for today .
Claudia Marbach is a third year student at Yeshivat Maharat. She is the founder of One Night Shtender, a pop-up Beit Midrash for women in Boston.
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