Topical Torah Essays and Weekly Parsha

Queen Esther Versus The Politically Correct: The Problem With Purim’s Feminist Critics

Jun 19th, 2010 | By | Category: 2009-10, Archives, Jewish Holidays, Puirm, Purim Articles

The current issue of Commentary magazine features Abby Wisse Schachter’s “The Problem with Purim,” a defense of the traditional Purim story against its feminist critics.

“Purim has been transmogrified into a feminist holiday,” writes Schachter in her survey of the decades-long effort at feminizing Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther. The “problem,” as they see it, is that Esther is too submissive to the men around her, and gets her way through her womanly wiles, beauty and subterfuge.

Instead of Esther, they would cast King Achashverush’s queen, Vashti, in the role of heroine. Vashti appeals to these idealogues because, in the words of one feminist thinker, she is “the one who is not afraid to be assertive, not afraid to displease the males.” That the king had her executed for her disobedience, offers the irresistible cachet of martyrdom for her gender. Esther, by contrast, “can only intercede with the King, but has no power herself.” *

Such views have gained traction well beyond any militant fringe group. Schachter reports that in 2008 the Joint Distribution Committee–Europe’s Jewish-education arm, Morim.org, sent out some suggestions on how to teach young children about Purim. Vashti, it said, “has become our model of the strong woman who won’t take any garbage from those around her.”

The dementedness of it all is that by enshrining Vashti as a symbol of feminine assertiveness, they have chosen to depict one of the enemies of the Jewish people as a heroine. Vashti was a wicked person, who humiliated her Jewish maids by making them serve her without clothes on, and to work on the Sabbath (Rashi to Esther 1:12). Furthermore, her defiance of the king’s summons to appear in public to show off her beauty was due, tradition teaches, to an embarrassing leprous-like outbreak, or to an appendage which appeared on her posterior at that inopportune moment (Rashi, ibid). (Whether the tail was literal or figurative is a matter of some discussion, beyond the scope of this essay.) The point here is that Vashti, to say the least, is a poor choice for hero worship.

And if these Midrashic traditions are not trustworthy, being part of the supposed masculinist rabbinical whitewash which promotes the more compliant image of Esther over the strong-hence-threatening one of Vashti, then why bother with the Purim story at all? After all, the Scroll of Esther, the Midrashim and classical commentaries surrounding it, are all part of the same tradition.

The answer is, that for these critics Jewish tradition takes second place to feminist principles. Some of them indeed seek a radical alteration of Jewish practice, “to incorporate pagan celebrations that empowered women.” Judaism represented the great historical break with the pagan world. It is to that world of idolatry, human sacrifice, oppression of women, and a catalog of other horrors, that these feminists look for inspiration. It should be seen for what it is—a profoundly un-Jewish ideology. The problem is not with Purim, but in the words of the Megillah, nehafuch hu, just the opposite, the problem is with its feminist critics.

But let us not fall into the trap of making Vashti, a rather minor character, into a major one. Something must be said here for Esther. The feminists unaccountably misrepresent her. Although it is true, that she was maneuvered into her royal position by others, she displayed qualities which fully qualify her for the heroic role with which Jewish tradition has honored her.

Esther was far from being a meek, male-dominated female. For one thing, she is on the Talmud’s official list of prophets and prophetesses. Only those who reached the very heights of spirituality—a hall of fame that includes Moses, Joshua, Samuel and Isaiah—made that list. When the Book of Esther says that she put on “royalty,” it is a reference to the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, which enveloped her.

You don’t have to be an expert in Midrash or Talmud to see through the attempt to depict Esther as some kind of pre-feminist wimp. It’s right there in the verses of Chapter 4 of Megillat Esther. For example, when Mordechai was making a spectacle of himself in public in sackcloth and ashes, Esther demanded to know the meaning of it, and sent him proper clothing to put on. When he instructed her to request an audience with King Achashverush, she at first resisted the idea. Then, when she agreed to go along with it, at risk to her life, she stipulated that the Jewish people back her up with fasting and repentence. They responded to her call with a vast spiritual effort (lasting over three days). Not “womanly wiles,” but a dramatic national turnabout, and the Divine assistance it engendered, saved the Jews of ancient Persia from genocide at the hands of Haman and his followers. In contrast to Vashti’s doomed “assertiveness,” Esther was a powerhouse of effective action for her people.

The incorporation of the Scroll of Esther into the sacred canon of Tanach (along with the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings), was due to Esther’s initiative. As the Sages of the Talmud themselves record, they argued that an annual celebration of the Jewish triumph over the non-Jews could antagonize them and lead to renewed persecutions. She countered that the story had already entered the chronicles of Persia, making any added risk negligible. There were also technical arguments against her, but she disproved them, as well. Thus, the festival of Purim as we know it is chiefly the work of Esther herself, a testament to the strength of her personality, her wisdom and personal courage. (Talmud Bavli Tractate Megillah 7a).

Ms. Schachter’s concluding paragraph puts things in perspective: “The manner in which the characters of Purim have been distorted beyond recognition speaks volumes about the way Jews of a certain type think about matters of gender and peoplehood. Feminism hasn’t progressed very far when, more than a generation after it began its ascendancy, the best the movement can do on Purim is lionize the victim [Vashti] and disparage the heroine.”

On Purim there is a song traditionally sung after the reading of the Book of Esther, which includes the words, “Cursed are the wicked, blessed are the righteous.” To those who can still tell the difference between the two, we wish you a joyous Purim!

*Of course, neither did Vashti—her refusal to come at the king’s summons cost her her life—but never mind.

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

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