A New Take on an Old Story

When I was a young child, many of the girls in my school used to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim. No one would have ever considered to dress up like Vashti, the queen whose refusal to parade naked in front of her husband and his drunken friends enabled Esther to assume her position as a queen. But it seems that in more recent years, Queen Esther has fallen out of favor, while Vashti has been championed as a hero who took a stand against patriarchy.

While the current, less favorable attitude toward Queen Esther seems to be a result of a modern feminist reading of the text, the trend of reading our life circumstances into the biblical stories has been around for a very long time. The story of the Megillah is more than 2,300 years old. Its original audiences were familiar with the backdrop against which it was written and understood the nuances that were lost to future readers. 

Let’s take, for example, the scholar Abraham Saba, who was exiled from Spain during the Jewish expulsion of 1492 and witnessed his two sons being forced to convert in 1497 in Portugal while other Jews chose martyrdom. 

“Now when Mordecai heard the king’s herald announcing that whoever had a daughter or a sister should bring her to the king to have intercourse with an uncircumcised heathen, why did he not risk his life to take her to some deserted place to hide until the danger would pass, or even to take her to another kingdom? And if he could do neither of these things, have we not seen with our own eyes during the expulsion from Portugal, when sons and daughters were taken by force and converted, that Jews strangled and slaughtered themselves and their wives...so why did Mordecai not do one of those things that the simplest Jews in Portugal did?...Why was he not more careful? Where was his righteousness, his piety, and his valor...he surrendered to the enemy all that was dear to him”. 

While Saba held that Esther and her uncle, Mordecai, should have chosen death rather than compromise their religious conviction, other Medieval scholars pointed at Esther as an example of how a wise Jew should behave in exile in order to defend and promote the status of the Jewish community. Isaac Arama (1420-1494, Spain), for example, praises Esther for choosing all the factors a negotiator in her position would need to get what she needed.

(1) Timing—bringing the plight of the Jews to the king’s attention only after three encounters;
(2) Location—she brought the King and Haman into her own home, where no one could speak out against her; (3) Means—the wine banquets so loved by Ahasueros, which would make him feel well-disposed toward her request;
(4) Rhetoric—the order and phrasing of her request; and
(5) Flattery—tailoring her request to the person of whom she is requesting the favor.1

Vashti’s model of direct opposition to the king is more appealing to today’s readers, but we must remember that, in the end, she failed to bring about change to anyone but herself. Esther succeeded in her mission to save her people by being aware of the weak cards that she was dealt (being a woman, an orphan, a foreigner and a Jew), and by knowing how to play them carefully and extremely wisely. 

Happy Purim.

 

1 Fishman, Responses to Biblical Heroines, 2002