Despite controversy around the Jewish holiday of Purim, there are lessons to be learned from the women at its center—Vashti and Esther.
Growing up, Judaism had many different symbols. Yet, one symbol that many Jewish traditions lacked was feminism. As an evolving religion, feminist values spread into my synagogue and were scattered about my Hebrew school. My Jewish aunts, great aunts, grandmother, and general community members are some of the strongest women I know. My female classmates and I were encouraged to get bat mitzvahed just like our male counterparts. My female classmates wore tallit and kippot. Our synagogue incorporated the founding mothers of Judaism alongside the founding fathers in daily prayers. The rabbi even told us, “We don’t read that part of the Torah, because it defines marriage in a way we don’t agree with.”
I was lucky to live in an accepting, loving, and forward-thinking Jewish community. However, as much as I appreciate Jewish beliefs and traditions, many of the original texts blatantly leave out women.
Purim celebrations at my synagogue were one of the few times that a women was the central protagonist—the hero—in a Jewish holiday. I was that kid who wore her favorite princess dress every year for Purim to dress up as Esther. Last week, while celebrating Purim, I rethought my opinions on the holiday. Because of its unique heroine, the story of Purim was always my favorite out of all the stories surrounding the Jewish holidays. We were taught that Purim celebrates the story of Esther. Esther is the most beautiful woman in all of the land. After King Ahasuerus kicks out his wife Vashti, Esther becomes queen through a beauty contest, and eventually goes on to save the Jews from peril.
Vashti is too proud. That is what we were told. So I assumed that Vashti is arrogant—hence she is dethroned. I saw Vashti as the anti-hero, whom the hero, Esther, then comes and replaces.
Recently, a friend opened my eyes to a different version of the story of Purim. The relationship between Vashti and Esther is much more complicated than I thought. Through a modern lens, one can argue that Vashti is the character who upholds feminist values. Vashti being “too proud” was simply Vashti refusing to display herself naked in front of the King and his friends so that they could appreciate her beauty. Vashti is strong and upholds her independence. She loses her position as queen in order to uphold her ideals.
Esther, secretly Jewish, becomes queen as she represents the antithesis of Vashti’s personality. Esther is obedient, kind, and quiet. Esther is a good queen for King Ahasuerus. As the story progresses, the Jewish people are threatened by Hamen, a high member of Ahasuerus’s government. Here, Esther breaks the rules. She is not allowed to approach the King without him specifically calling for her. Esther, upon suggestion of her cousin Mordecai, approaches the King without invitation and successfully pleads on behalf of the Jews.
Interpretation of this part of the story is especially inconsistent. Esther does what Vashti previously refused—using her beauty and sexuality to pleasure the king—in order to save the Jews. Some feel that Esther is the hero, and therefore upholds feminist ideals. The young, bright female Jew saves the day. Esther is celebrated for her bravery and her brains. Esther defeats evil and stands up for those in need of help. Others feel that Esther is submissive, giving into to what Vashti refused.
Despite controversy surrounding the story of Purim, I argue that there are lessons to be learned from both Vashti and Esther, specifically through the two’s similarities. Originally pitted as opposites, Esther and Vashti both push boundaries to uphold their morals. From Vashti, we can learn to stand up for ourselves; from Esther, we can learn to stand up for other people. Both are important traits. Both Esther and Vashti show that it is important to stand up for what matters for you, even if that means defying an overarching male power. Vashti defies Ahasuerus by refusing to show up as a form of protest, whereas Esther shows up when she is not wanted.
Both Esther and Vashti’s interpretations of feminism are apparent in our world today. People across the world are constantly standing up both for themselves and for others. Sometimes that involves protesting, going on strikes, or simply refusing to do something. Other times that requires being present, not letting others push you out, and making your opinion heard.
After this past Purim, I have concluded that if the time ever comes for any of my potential future children to dress up for a Purim carnival, my daughters (or sons) will be equally encouraged to dress up as both Esther and Vashti.