by Michele Amira
Esther is the Beyoncé of the Megillah — the Queen B of the Talmud. If she were around today, Kanye West would appear demanding that she win the whole Megillah.
But Esther isn’t the only superhero in the Talmud. Although the previous queen, Vashti, has been cast away — both by King Achashverosh and by Jewish history — she is finally getting the credit she deserves as a feminist role model.
Religious women in the U.S. have viewed Vashti as a female role model since the 1980s, and Israeli religious women followed suit, Hannah Kahat, founder of Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum, wrote in a Haaretz article. Kahat said the selection was an “expression of rebellion” against religious establishment.
“As such, it suited early Orthodox feminists to adopt Vashti, as women sought models of women leaders with whom to identify,” Kahat told Haaretz. “In this way, they began to revive and redeem marginal characters who had been excluded from mainstream interpretations because they threatened the male establishment.”
While it is easy to see Vashti as a feminist icon and Esther as a more submissive figure, taking cues from Mordechai and King Achashverosh, in reality she demonstrates a different type of feminist power.
The banishing of Vashti after she refused to dance for Achashverosh and his guests would be seen as rape culture in today’s society. While she was known in Persia for her love of dancing and partying, she was also ordered to dance, and the men in attendance would not accept no for an answer. After refusing to dance, Vashti was stripped of her title, and the king went in search of a new queen.
Esther, Vashti’s replacement, knew of Vashti’s fate when she rebelled against the king, so she marshaled her strength as the new queen of Persia in a calculated manner to save her tribe. She was more subtle and ultimately far more successful than Vashti. She gave in to the king, temporarily compromising her morals to achieve her goals.
“This is an ancient patriarchal society,” Dr. Yaakov Maoz wrote on the Israel Association of Community Centers’ database of feminism in the Talmud. “The advisers warn the king against a trend of contempt for husbands in the kingdom, nipping the Vashti feminist revolution in the bud. Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor, while our heroine Esther is willing to submit to the king.”
From a very young age, like so many other young Jewish girls, I emulated the Persian princess, dressing as Queen Esther as my “go to” Purim costume. Although the secular feminist world has cast a new light on Vashti’s role in the Book of Esther, her portrayal is still very one-dimensional, leaving out all the feminist morals in the Megillah young girls could benefit from. Both Vashti and Esther contributed to women’s history and deserve to be recognized.