Vashti: Feminist or Foe?

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Tzvi Sinensky

The Canadian Jewish feminist Michele Landsberg, reflecting on her elementary-age Jewish Day School years in the late 1940s, recalls her ambivalence about the character of Vashti: “I thought, Hey, what’s wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect. She said: I’m not going to dance for you and your pals. There I was, nine or ten years old, and I thought, I like Vashti but I’m supposed to hate her.”[1]

Landsberg’s conflict neatly captures the tension between two seemingly irreconcilable schools of thought as to Vashti’s character. On one hand, despite little apparent support in the text of the Megillah, the familiar midrashic view of Vashti is the villainous one widely taught in Yeshiva Day Schools. According to this interpretation, which most famously endows Vashti with a tail, the queen is portrayed as Nebuchadnezzar’s granddaughter, and the one who convinced Ahashveirosh, referenced in the book of Ezra (4:6), to block the Second Temple rebuilding project. In recompense for having brutally forced her Jewish servants to work naked on the Shabbat, she is bidden to appear unclothed on the seventh day of the party. Hardly a pawn of the hedonic king, Vashti too seeks promiscuity – she had been holding a parallel party in the king’s chambers – and would have happily appeared naked (aside from her crown), which is precisely how Hazal imagine that she is bidden to appear. She refuses his request not out of modesty or principle but vanity, only because she grows a tail or contracts leprosy. As a result of her wickedness, Vashti is not merely deposed, but executed. Put simply, the rabbinic tradition depicts Vashti as a vile scoundrel.[2]

Yet the past two hundred years have witnessed the rise of a radically divergent vision of Vashti, first championed by some celebrated 19th century feminists. In her epochal Women’s Bible, for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered the following paean to Ahashveirosh’s first queen:

We have some grand types of women presented for our admiration in the Bible… Esther, who ruled as well as reigned, and Vashti, who scorned the Apostle’s command, “Wives, obey your husbands.” She refused the king’s orders to grace with her presence his revelling court. Tennyson pays this tribute to her virtue and dignity:

“Oh, Vashti! noble Vashti!

Summoned forth, she kept her state,

And left the drunken king to brawl

In Shushan underneath his palms.”

Similarly, for feminist activist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the decrees against Vashti, and the subsequent royal epistle instructing that “each man rule in his home,” are the men’s desperate attempts to seize control of the patriarchal grip that Vashti had loosened. Somewhat later writers such as Helen Hunt Jackson saw Vashti as motivated to retain her royal status: “He might well loathe me ever, if I go / Before these drunken pinces as a show. / I am his queen; I come of king’s descent, I will not let him bring our crown so low.”

Nor was it only first-wave feminists who championed Vashti’s cause: late twentieth- and early twenty-first century feminist biblical scholars have come to much the same conclusion. For example, in Vashti’s Victory, and Other Biblical Women Resisting Injustice, Laverne McCain Gill presents Vashti as the paragon of anti-patriarchal resistance, in whose footsteps other biblical women walked. Or, as Alice Laffey puts it succinctly, “Vashti never speaks yet her actions speak loud and clear: NO! She will not become the sexual object of drunken men!”[3] Finally, the feminist interpretation has taken on additional urgency in the #metoo era, which is leading women and men alike to embrace the feminist vision of Vashti.

At first blush, the rabbinic and feminist readings seem utterly irreconcilable. Vashti is either a vainglorious beauty queen or a feminist icon. In responding to Ahashveirosh’s command, she either desires debauchery or seeks to avoid it at all costs. Her refusal to attend the king’s party is born of vanity or dignity.

The conflict between these two interpretations, coupled with the popularity of the midrashic view set against the feminist interpretation’s recent inroads in the Jewish community,[4] has spurred reactionary responses from religious conservatives and liberals alike.

In a broadside entitled “Actually, Feminists, Vashti Was The Harvey Weinstein Of Persia,” Joshua Krisch assails what he terms “Vashti feminism,” contending that “Vashti was no champion of women’s rights. She would summon Jewish women, force them to undress, and demand they work for her on Shabbat. In other words, Queen Vashti used her unchecked power to sexually harass her female employees. Sound familiar? If Vashti is a feminist icon, so are Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer.” Kirsch’s polemical rejoinder epitomizes the view that the feminist interpretation threatens the traditional one, leading him to reject the former in defense of the latter.

At the other end of the denominational spectrum, liberal Jewish thinkers have critiqued the Sages for seeking to uphold the patriarchy. Arthur Waskow puts it this way:

The Talmud’s midrash about Vashti, like Courtier Memucan’s attack on her in the text of the Megillah itself, arises from panic at the idea of an independent woman. The MEN of the Talmud… saw women as uncanny deviations from model (i.e. male) human beings (see Neusner on women as Other in the Talmud), and defined their place as subordinate and protected — to be treated nicely by their masters. Vashti clearly challenged that role. So the men of the Talmud created a midrashic gestalt that further denigrated Vashti. And today, feminist women and men create midrash that celebrates her.

Despite their obvious differences, both ends of the spectrum share the premise that the rabbinic and feminist interpretations are utterly contradictory, and that the high stakes demand that we reject one interpretation in favor of the other. But accepting this binary blinds us from seeing a key point. The face reading of the Megillah, as Stanton and Hunt indicate, seems to compare Vashti favorably with Ahashveirosh. He is impetuous where she is determined. He decides grave matters while inebriated, she when sober. So, rather than assume from the outset that the rabbinic and modern feminist views are entirely at odds with one another, we may still posit, while acknowledging that there are extremely significant differences between them, that the feminist reading draws our attention to a key element in Hazal’s accounting.[5]

This point emerges from Esther Rabbah 3:14. First, the Midrash iterates many of the classic rabbinic statements casting Vashti as a villain. Then it presents the following dialogue:

Queen Vashti refused: She sent to him and said to him words that touched his heart. She said to him: “If they see me as beautiful, they will set their eyes toward involving themselves with me, and will kill you. And if they see me as ugly, you will be defamed through me. She hinted to him but he did not receive the hint; she stung him but he was not stung. She sent to him and said to him, “You were my father’s house’s stable attendant, and you were accustomed to bring before you naked harlots. Yet now that you have entered the monarchy you have not returned from your corruption. She hinted to him but he did not receive the hint; she stung him but he was not stung. She sent to him and said, “Even those judged by my father were not judged naked.”

This passage, which seems mildly complimentary toward Vashti, is worth unpacking. First, Vashti establishes her superiority by staking a moral claim: her father was more humane than Ahashveirosh will ever be. Second, the text clearly establishes the queen as her husband’s intellectual superior. From the outset, it suggests that she uses her emotional intelligence to subtly mock his lowly lineage. But the barbs go over the king’s head, finally requiring her to speak bluntly to the fool. Taken in its larger rabbinic context, including other passages in Esther Rabbah itself, these commendations are downright strange. How can this passage be reconciled with the Rabbis’ nefarious view of Vashti?

Apparently, the Midrash draws the following distinction: Vashti may be evil, but, unlike her husband, she is no knave. Possessing wisdom and street smarts, she understands how to manipulate the king. Ultimately, she must die for her sins. Yet even if she is driven by sheer self-interest, Vashti’s intelligence serves as a foil to the foolishness of her husband. Vashti may be morally bankrupt, but that in no way detracts from her superior intellect, which Hazal go out of their way to underscore. Of course, this is a far cry from the full-fledged feminist interpretation, which sees Vashti as not just sophisticated but also as bravely refusing to bow to the patriarchy. For Hazal, this reading is beside the point. Still, this passage does suggest that the Rabbis recognized aspects of Vashti’s character that a one-dimensional reading might otherwise overlook.

Perhaps even more surprising than the rabbinic portrayal of Vashti is the extent to which their depiction of Zeresh, Haman’s wife, echoes that of Vashti. As in the case of Vashti, Hazal view Zeresh as wicked. Esther Rabbah (10:9) records in the name of Rav that “one is required to say cursed is Haman, cursed are his sons, cursed is Zeresh his wife. As it states, and the name of the wicked shall rot.” This is echoed by the hymn “Shoshanat Yaakov,” in which we declare that “Cursed is Zeresh, wife of the one who inflicted fear.” Targum Yerushalmi (to Esther 10:5) bluntly calls Zeresh Haman’s “wicked wife,” identifying her as the daughter of Tatnai the governor, who questions the Jews’ right to rebuild the Temple (see Ezra 5:3). Just as Zeresh’s father stalls the rebuilding efforts, Vashti is similarly credited by the rabbis with having discouraged Ahashveirosh from permitting the resumption of the Temple’s reconstruction.

Despite the rabbis’ vilification of Zeresh, the Megillah itself attributes to Zeresh a significant degree of insight. The text records that Zeresh and Haman’s friends recommend that he build a gallows on which to hang Mordekhai (Esther 5:14). Later, Haman’s “advisors and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin’” (Esther 6:13). In both cases, Zeresh and the friends’ or advisors’ counsel is decisive.

Building on the text but taking a dramatic step further, the Midrash maintains that Zeresh’s insight exceeds that of all Haman’s advisors:

Among them, there was none who knew how to give counsel like Zeresh his wife. For he had 365 counselors, like the numbers of days in a solar year. His wife said to him, “This person regarding whom you ask: If he is from Jewish stock, you will not overcome him, unless you set upon him with a stratagem that no one has attempted against his people… Rather, hang him on a gallows, for we never found any member of his nation that was saved from that. Immediately, “the matter was good in the eyes of Haman, and he made the tree.” (Esther Rabbah 9:2)

A striking resemblance emerges in the midrashic accounting of Vashti and Zeresh’s stories: both are wicked individuals descended from hateful ancestors, yet they easily surpass their husbands’ intelligence. Both are accursed, for they used their intelligence to ignoble ends. Yet this does not stop the Rabbis from seeing the sheer intelligence possessed by both and comparing them favorably with their husbands, and, explicitly for Zeresh and implicitly for Vashti, all of his male advisors. What is more, the parallel to Zeresh suggests that the women’s intelligence is not merely set in contrast to their husband’s imbecility – Haman, all indications suggest, was anything but unintelligent – but is significant in its own respect.

In light of these midrashim, the feminist and rabbinic readings are not quite as diametrically opposed as we might have initially assumed. The Rabbis certainly portray Vashti and Zeresh as rabid anti-Semites, and they do not see Vashti as motivated by a noble desire to preserve her dignity and achieve social justice. Yet the feminist reading sensitizes us to the fact that rather than see Vashti and Zeresh as one-sided villains, in fact the Rabbis view them as multidimensional personalities whose intelligence eclipses that of all the men around them.

In the end, our appreciation for the midrashic reading is enhanced when we transcend the polemics and thoughtfully consider competing interpretations. In doing so, we are not only exposed to alternative readings of the Megillah. We are also led to observe that the Rabbis implicitly appreciated and even amplified elements of what would later be termed “Vashti feminism,” even as they saw the queen as the Jews’ unflinching foe.

[1] Cited by Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 60.

[2] For an excellent summary of the rabbinic portrayal of Vashti, see Malka Z. Simkovich, Zev Farber, and David Steinberg, “Ahasuerus and Vashti: The Story Megillat Esther Does Not Tell You.”

[3] Alice Laffey, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 216.

[4] As I refine this essay, a colleague’s Facebook Live shiur entitled “The Megillah’s metoo moment” came across my newsfeed.

[5] For a rich discussion of R. Meir Leibush’s proto-feminist rabbinic commentary on the Megillah, see Don Seeman’s 2017 Lehrhaus article.

Tzvi Sinensky is Director of Judaic Studies and Upper School Principal at Main Line Classical Academy, and Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives at Yeshiva University. He earned his PhD in Jewish Philosophy on the subject of rabbinic conceptions of manhood at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. A popular lecturer and author, Tzvi completed three book-length series published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, is editor of a forthcoming posthumous edition of Rabbi Lamm's halakhic writings, and is writing a book on the overarching themes in Rabbi Lamm's oeuvre. He has served as Lehrhaus editor for over four years, and lives in Lower Merion, PA, with his wife and three children.