Vashti, Esther, and Women’s Power:
Purim and International Women’s Day
By chance or by fate (and the Purim story has much to teach us about fate), International Women’s Day has been set for March 8, which this year comes just a few days after Purim. This coincidence invites us to consider the connection between the two days and to celebrate the Hebrew month of Adar as a month of Jewish Feminism.
The Book of Esther tells the story of two queens who coped with their kings’ demands: in one case by means of a forceful no, and in the other by cunning agreement, placation, and supplication. One queen was expelled while the other secured her objective and saved her people. The story of these two strong women could be read as an illustration of two different perceptions of the concept of “woman,” thereby allowing us to reflect on what International Women’s Day actually means.
“But Queen Vashti refused to come…”
The character of Vashti could be seen as an allegory for the condition of women around the world. Her brief but heroic appearance in the Book of Esther, her resounding “no,” and the price she paid for it all urge us to stop and think about the unequal structure of the society in which we live. In our reality, a queen is not equal to a king, because women are not equal to men: they earn less, they are less represented in positions of power and influence, and they are more exposed to objectification and violence by men (those interested in a Reform perspective on this last issue may be interested in a charming collection in Hebrew produced to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women).
Vashti’s voice is the voice of women who want to be independent and equal to men in every sense. This is an extremely important voice, and we bear a social obligation to listen to it – not only on International Women’s Day, but every day.
“So that every man dominate in his house”
Gender inequality is reflected not only in statistics but also in the cultural preference for masculine values and qualities (i.e. ones that have historically been associated with men) over feminine values and qualities. For example, we value rationality above emotion, and we provide much higher rewards for those who engage in essentially rational work, such as science and technology, than for emotional fields such as education and care. Due to this bias, our government promotes efforts to encourage girls to study science, but there are no programs that encourage boys to be teachers, preschool workers, or social workers, despite the enormous gender gaps in these fields and the urgent need for male professionals.
The gaps are not confined to the world of work. Work as a whole is valued more highly than the home and the family. When most of us think of self-realization, we focus on professional achievement, rather than on being the best parents we can be. The structure of our job market reflects this bias.
Indeed, it could be argued that this is the main obstacle facing efforts to reach gender equality, Most of the formal barriers that prevent women reaching key positions in society, politics, academia, and employment have been removed. Yet despite this, men continue to dominate these masculine fields. We have opened the door, but the room is still full of men, and women are forced to struggle to get in and displace the men. The higher up the echelon we move, the more difficult this struggle becomes.
“And Esther put on her royal robes”
The character of Esther is a complex one, and the only one in the Book of Esther that undergoes a profound change. At the beginning of the Book, Esther is the classic submissive woman, rising to fame thanks to her beauty and remaining subservient to the men who control her life – Mordechai and Ahasuerus.
But when she begins to understand her role in the drama unfolding around here, the power she holds, and the responsibility this power brings, Esther undergoes a dramatic change. The transformation is symbolized in the words “and Esther put on her royal robes.” Now she shifts from a passive role to an active one, ordering Mordechai to assemble all the Jews and embark on a fast. Among her own people, Esther assumes the role of a strong monarch similar to that Vashti attempted to follow.
Unlike Vashti, however, when Esther comes before the king she does so from her position as a woman subject to his power. She uses feminine techniques to secure her objective, acting gently, indirectly, and perhaps even a little flirtatiously. Above all, she creates a situation in which she can expose her weakness and that of her people to the king, allowing him to solve the problem.
At first glance, a Feminist perspective leads us to shift uncomfortably on our chairs when we read about this type of behavior, which leaves the patriarchal order intact. And the truth is that for all the “inverted order” of Purim, at the end of the Book of Esther the condition of women remained unchanged, and would not improve for centuries to come.
On closer inspection, however, we may find that Esther has a more profound message to offer us. She draws our attention to woman not as a statistical abstract but as a human ideal, highlighting the strength that is inherent in sensitivity, subtlety, mutual dependence, and other feminine qualities. In other words, Esther tells us that International Women’s Day is not just a day for women but also for womanhood: A day when we can celebrate and laud all the qualities our culture, and we ourselves, attribute to women.
This is the point to recall that if we want to create a truly egalitarian society, we must ensure that everyone – men and women – are able and motivated to express feminine qualities in their lives. This applies to choosing a career and also to the expression of emotions, caring, mutual dependence, and weakness.
In the spirit of Purim, we need only imagine a world whether everything is indeed inverted and turned upside down. Where teachers and preschool workers do a job that is no less important than hi tech workers – not only in terms of lip service, but also in terms of salary. Where we value the worker who leaves early to pick up their child from kindergarten just as much as their colleague who stays on to do overtime. Where we vote for politicians who express compassion no less than for those who convey strength.
King Ahasuerus offered Esther half his kingdom. How much are we willing to offer her?
Noam Geva is head of the New-Media Department in the Israel reform Movement
and Co-founder of a 'common-ground association for gender equality'