Vashti as Feminist Hero

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


Midrashim found in the Talmud about Queen Vashti set out to denigrate her and explain her behaviors as cruel, base and vain. Such descriptions of Vashti are not found in Megillat Esther itself.
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 (all men, except for three or four named women thru the entire 500 years of shaping what became the Talmud, and even they were never treated as rabbis) 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.
My own reading of the Megillah is that it is made up of two intertwined jokes -- very powerful, and in one case bloody, but jokes nevertheless. The second one is the one we all have learned -- what Haman wants to do to the Jews is what happens to him, and he brings it on his own head. That's the bloody joke. The FIRST one (it starts earlier in the story) is that Ahasuerus's decision that no woman is going to tell him what to do puts into motion the train of affairs that ends by his doing EXACTLY what Esther tells him to do. Structurally, this is the same joke as the first one.
There is even one Rabbinic midrash (from a solitary forward-looking man) that the Memucan who advises the king to do Vashti in is --- woddayaknow??!! -- really HAMAN!! And indeed the text hints strongly -- see the similarity between the "people scattered throughout the country who obey their own laws" as the Jews and applying this to Memucan's fear of women in the same way -- that anti-Semitism and anti-feminism are deeply intertwined.
(Many modern scholars think that historically there never was the Queen Vashti, or the Queen Esther, or the Mordechai, who are described in the story, and that in essence Megillat Esther was the first Purimshpiel, written as a satire to adorn & explain an early-spring holiday that already existed -- its giveaway [among other things like the diction] being the Megillah's reminder that all this can be found in the National Archives of Persia, which it can't. See the introduction to the Megillah in the JPS "Five Megillot." But this is a separate question. Even assuming that the Megillah is historically accurate, the Talmud's descriptions of Queen Vashti are still midrash.)

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.

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