Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective

The Mirror Has Two Faces

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In this moment of fate, Esther looks into her mirror and discovers that she does not look quite so different from Vashti after all. She takes matters into her own hands and stands up to both sources of authority. Esther assumes control of Mordechai's plan, changing and amending as she sees fit. Like Vashti, she will appear before the king only when she decides that the time is right--in this case after three days of fasting. Instead of following Mordechai's suggestion and simply making her petition, she will throw a series of parties as Vashti did. In order to succeed, Esther realizes that she must take on aspects of the repudiated former queen.

Of course, we do not actually know why Vashti refused to appear before the King. It could have been out of modesty as the midrash in Esther Rabbah suggests. Or as Talmud Bavli Megillah describes, she may simply have been unhappy with her appearance that day (a sudden case of leprosy according to Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina or the surprise sprouting of a tail according to a beraita). Perhaps she was being capricious. Perhaps she was a proto-feminist fighting for a sense of independent integrity. In any event, Vashti's disobedience brings her career to an abrupt end and her fate is quite deliberately meant to serve as an object lesson to women everywhere.

As Esther marshals her strength to save her nation, she must revisit the experiences of her shunned predecessor and learn from them. Esther is more calculated, more subtle, (more divinely inspired) and ultimately far more successful than Vashti. Yet, in order to triumph, Esther must confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti in herself.

As Orthodox feminists, we are constantly confronted with taboo images of dangerous women from whom we are told to distance ourselves. A is too radical, B has gone too far, C has made too many enemies. We struggle to draw our borders, to be open and yet traditional, free and yet constrained within halacha. Purim is a holiday in which we explore and challenge our boundaries. We dress up as other people. Some of us drink to the point where differences become blurred. In the spirit of this holiday and following the legacy of our ancestor Esther, I encourage us to reexamine whom we emulate and from whom we shy away. We may discover as Esther did that we are not so different from those whom we fear and that the most important lessons can be learned from the unlikeliest of teachers.

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Wendy Amsellem

Wendy Amsellem completed the Drisha Scholar's Circle and is currently pursuing a PhD in rabbinic literature at NYU.