Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective
The Mirror Has Two Faces
This article, written from the perspective of an Orthodox Jewish feminist, explores the ways in which the images of Vashti and Esther can guide us today. Reprinted with permission from the JOFA Journal (Winter 2003).
Although Vashti and Esther never meet, the relationship between them is integral to understanding the events of Megillat Esther. Vashti disappears by the end of the first chapter, but she casts a long shadow over the rest of the book.
As we encounter Vashti in chapter one, we learn the following about her: She is beautiful and headstrong. She throws a good party. She refuses to have her appearances before the king regulated solely by his desires. For this last offense, Vashti pays dearly, losing her crown and incurring perpetual banishment from the king's presence. At the close of chapter one it is clear that a woman in Ahasuerus's court would do well to be dutiful and to come before the king as he commands. The essentiality of female obedience is further confirmed by the final verse of the chapter in which a missive is sent to all of Ahasuerus's subjects reminding them in no uncertain terms that "every man must rule in his household."
By contrast, Esther is presented at first as the perfect foil to Vashti. Whereas Vashti was willful and independent, Esther is passive and submissive. The reflexive use of the Hebrew word "LaKaKH" is constantly applied to her. She is "taken" in by Mordechai as a foster daughter, "taken" to the king's harem, and "taken" before the king. She does not reveal her identity at the palace, "for Mordechai had commanded her not to tell." She requests nothing at the harem, only accepting whatever Hagai, the king's eunuch, chooses to give her. Even after she is crowned queen, we are told that Esther continues to obey the commands of Mordechai as she had done under his care. It is no surprise that Ahasuerus loves Esther. She is the model of docility, an exact antidote to Vashti.
Esther understands very well her role as Ahasuerus's queen. When Mordechai commands her to appear before the king and intercede on behalf of the Jews, Esther responds that everyone knows that those who appear before the king unbidden are condemned to die. She has learned from her predecessor's fate that the queen's job is to come when she is called. Mordechai insists to Esther that it is her responsibility to plead for her nation.
This is a moment of crisis for Esther. She is caught between conflicting obediences to her foster father and husband. In addition, to come before the king unsummoned is an abnegation of her role as Vashti's replacement. She was chosen to be queen since she represented the antithesis of Vashti's persona. Esther's position, her identity and quite possibly her life are all closely tied to her obedience to the king.