| Feminist Aspects of Megillat Esther:
The plot and its failure
Esther's stature among her own people remains consistently elevated, as can be seen from the text. This teaches us, perhaps, about the position of all women in Israelite society in Bible times.
It is specifically Esther, the one who conceals her identity, who is most aware of her prestigious family origins: she is the daughter of Avihail, uncle of Mordecai - and Mordecai's family status is explained in detail right back to Kish, the Yemini [also the name of King Saul's father]. [See also Rashi on II,10.]
Esther's independence of thought is also recognized when she does Mordecai's bidding [and not the King's]. In every circumstance, she refuses to reveal her identity; even after she is crowned queen, she remains faithful to Mordecai's instructions. ChII,20:
After Haman's decree of destruction is pronounced, Mordecai calls on Esther's help to prevent its evil implementation [II, 6-9]. At first, Esther hesitates to accept the role - her status at court is inferior. The King is not accustomed to sharing issues of state with his wife, since he confides them in any case to whoever is "above all the ministers" [III,1], namely, his Prime Minister, Haman. Esther, in fact, is not at all close to the King and he has not called her to him for a whole month [III,11]. The danger to Esther is also more immediate, because anyone who approached the court uninvited was liable to be condemned to death " [II,11].
Mordecai considers Esther a full partner in the effort to save the Jewish people, and he posits various reasons why she should accept this mission, despite its operative risks. [ChIV, 12]
From Mordecai's words, it emerges clearly that everyone - man or woman - has a mission in life which he or she has to accept, and that every member of the People of Israel has a duty to preserve the existence of the people by the means available to him or her. Esther responds to Mordecai's appeal and from that moment forth, the initiative passes to her - and she alone plans and implements all the steps that lead ultimately to the salvation of Israel.
At first, Esther appeals to her people, requiring Mordecai to assemble all the Jews and declare an extended community fast: ChIV, 16:
It would seem that Moredecai accepts Esther's leadership in the new venture and his reaction is described unequivocally: ChIV,17:
Esther is engrossed in her mission of rescue. She realizes that Haman is at the peak of his political power and that the king is dependent on him for his decision making. She knows that the status of women in general and her own personal status in particular with respect to Ahasuerus are shaky - and that there is no cause to expect him to listen to her counsel. On the other hand, she also knows that the King in any case has no interest in issues of social justice and the rule of law, because he is totally focused on the preservation of respect for himself and the satisfaction of his wants and desires.
For this reason, Esther opts for sophisticated formal events in order to create tension between the King and Haman with the ultimate goal of bringing about Haman's downfall - and subsequently, the revocation of his decree.
Esther invites the King and Haman to a banquet, during which she invites them to another banquet the following night. The King, constantly suspicious of conspirators [such as Bigthan and Teresh, II,21], as a man who has built himself a wall of personal security and does not allow people to approach him without prior permission [IV,11]; he is amazed at the association between Esther and Haman, who has been invited to all the banquets she is holding for himself, the King. The normal practice for someone who wanted to seize power: considerable attention to the ruler's wives gave the illusion of continuity of regimes.
Esther subsequently demonstrates considerable courage, and in open conflict with Haman reveals her true identity, accusing Haman of genocide [VII,3-6]. The King is filled with envy and anger towards Haman whom he sees approaching Esther's couch; he becomes enraged and approves Harvona's proposal to hang him [VII,9].
Esther emerges highly successful from her plan, but her role does not end here: the decree has not yet been annulled, although the major obstacle has been removed. After Haman is hanged, Esther once again has to approach the king [probably at some personal risk] in order to seek the annulment of the decree. Her willingness to sacrifice herself in order to save her people is boundless. Ch VIII, 3-6:
So that the King will not feel offended, Esther emphasizes that the decree against the Jews was the evil of Haman, son of Hamdata, the Aggagite, a creation of his thoughts and plans, and she pleads for the annulment of the order of destruction. There is no reference to the fact that the King himself signed all these decrees.
The author highlights Esther's commitment to her people by use of terms found also in Genesis: Genesis XLIV, 34:
"For how can I endure ..." etc.
Esther and Judah before her both declare that what they are doing is for the wellbeing of their people. The fact that she does so as a woman is not specifically mentioned anywhere in the story, which gives us to understand that in fundamental issues the status of women is the same as that of men.
Ahasuerus is persuaded by Esther's persistence, and he passes the royal signet ring with which he signs his decrees to both Mordecai and Esther. Ch VIII, 8:
But Esther's task is not yet completed, although Mordecai has meanwhile returned to the scenario.[Ch VIII, 15]
To his question, "What is your request and it shall be done?" [IX, 12], Esther replies distinctly: Ch IX, 13:
What has happened to make the quiet, obedient girl we saw at the beginning of the Megillah so forceful in her demands?
The impression is distinctly that of someone who has grown in her role.
After she has succeeded in her mission, she feels a responsibility to bring the rescue operation to a successful close. It would appear that Haman's support in the court was well based and a one-day stand against them was insufficient to topple it from its center, Susa [Shushan]. Esther therefore requests an extra day to rout the enemy. It is important to emphasize that the Megillah presents this as solely a defensive war. [VIII, 11], [VIII, 13], [IX,2], [IX,5].
The Jews' enemies in Haman's camp who did not feel the fear of the Jews [VIII, 17], lived mainly in Susa.
Esther's superior status is recognized even after the story's conclusion when it is decided to transform Purim into an event which will be celebrated throughout the generations: ChIX,20-22:
In the second letter sent out to reinforce the customs associated with Purim, the text emphasizes that the senders were Esther and Mordecai jointly, and the style suggests that it was actually Esther who initiated it. ChIX, 32-39:
Esther fulfilled her role as a leader of Israel at a time of crisis with intelligence, persistence and dedication. Her personality is clearly revealed in her plans for saving her people and by the manner in which she proceeds to move her cause. Bibliography:
Rund, I.M., "Women and Judaism, A Select Anotated Bibliography", New York, 1988.