This article attempts to examine a current topic against the background of our ancient sources, and to assess the contribution of Megillat Esther with regard to women's status in society.
Methodologically, the text study should be a group enterprise - lively, stimulating, creative and non-dictatorial in terms of interpretation. The challenge is two-fold: the relevance of the issue and the encounter with the sources.
The dramatic events of the Megillah and their preservation in national consciousness over the years are directly linked to the personality of the woman who was highly respected by her people - Esther, daughter of Aviha'il.
There are two frames of reference to women in Megillat Esther: the first is the court of the Empire of Persia and Mede; the second is that of the People of Israel.
How different is the status of the woman in the Persian Empire - relegated to an object of entertainment in her husband's hands and the whims of a male dominated society where there is no facility for her to develop her personality - from that respect attributed to Esther who operates with an considerable degree of independence in issues affecting her people. Careful study of the text brings this to the fore in the strongest terms. It is important to note that the actual naming of the Megillah after Esther herself is also replete with significance.
King Ahasuerus holds banquets
for the members of his court and subsequently for his people, too; 180 days with his peers, and another seven days with the members of his court. The text describes it at considerable length [Ch 1, 1-8]. Queen Vashti also holds a feast [women only!], and from the outset she reveals a surprising degree of independence: Ch 1, 9: "And Vashti the Queen also made a feast for the women in the royal house..."
On the 187th day of the banquet, the King, having imbibed well, [Ch 1,10] requests Vashti be brought before him, in order to present her in all her beauty to his guests: Ch 1,11:
"to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on."Vashti's personality comes to light; she refuses to appear before the drunken King: Ch 1, 12:
"But the Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment".Not for nothing is Vashti known as the "first feminist": despite the dangers inherent in her decision, Vashti declines to come before the King and demonstrate her beauty.
One should note that in contrast to the previous verse, where she is referred to as " Vashti, the Queen", here she is called "Queen Vashti", to show us that she has a mind of her own. The King is exceedingly angry and as a ruler who, throughout his life, has been dependent on his counselors' advice - as described in the Megillah - he calls together those closest to him in order to clarify matters [Ch 1, 15]. Vashti's action requires an appropriate response. The counselor-ministers speak of the grave consequences of the queen's action and the negative impact of her refusal, on the whole fabric of relationships between spouses in the great empire of Persia and Mede: Ch 1, 16-18:
"... Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queeen will be made known to all the women so as to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it shall be reported that the king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And the princesses .... shall be telling of it today to all the king's princes. Thus shall there be contempt and wrath in plenty."
Vashti's action endangers the status of men in the empire - or, as we would say today: women would find in Vashti a role model for female liberation. Men are indisputably highly defensive of their status and superiority; they therefore decide to react with the utmost severity, to warn other women in the empire not to emulate her example. Ch 1I, 19:
"If it please the king, let a royal commandment be issued by him, and let it be inscribed in the laws of Persia and Mede, so that it may not be altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the king shall give her royal estate to another who is better than she."
It appears that only dismissal of Vashti from her position can prevent the evil outcome of destroying male superiority in the Persian Empire. One must weigh the imperative of the empire against the imperative of the King [ChI,12] which was disobeyed by the imperative of the Queen [Ch 1,17] - and the consideration of the empire carries the day. Significantly, Vashti has already been deprived of her title and is referred to by name only. The purpose of the punishment is clear: to reinforce men's diminished status. In an irrevocable act of legislation [Ch 1, 19], it is determined to whom respect should be accorded in the Empire of Persia and Mede. Ch 1I,20:
"And when the decree of and by the king shall be heard throughout his kingdom, which is great, all the wives will give honor to their husbands from the elevated to the lowly."
The motive behind the legislation appears to have been already forgotten. Vashti's actions are no longer mentioned in the verse - only the purpose of the new law: the domination of man in his home, which implicitly includes culture, religious and social education as well as control over the family structure. The fervor with which anti-feminist legislation was passed and its motives demonstrate clearly that how threatened men's status seemed in their eyes.