Queen Esther: How to be a Strong Jewish Woman in a Man’s World
by Dovid Kornreich
Many years ago, after it finally dawned on me that there are some quite disturbing adult themes hidden between the lines of the first couple of chapters of the Scroll of Esther, I began to be a little less (make that a LOT less) enthusiastic about my daughter dressing up as Queen Esther on Purim. After all, do we really want our daughters aspiring to be someone who was abducted and raped by an evil, rapacious despot– even if she does become queen of the realm and saves the Jewish people in the process? And things don’t look good especially from a religious perspective; a nice Jewish girl is forced to marry this Persian schlub, and she even has a child with him. It’s not exactly a story which ends happily ever after.
From this perspective, dressing up like Queen Esther would seem to be celebrating a tragic case of systemic female subjugation and intermarriage. Why would Jewish custom seem to condone it and even glorify it?
But hopefully, we get wiser with age, and things that once seemed ill-fitting and inappropriate can be appreciated anew when we come across a fresh new perspective. Such was my experience when studying the Yosef Lekach commentary to the second chapter of the Scroll of Esther.
A pity that some of our more liberal co-religionists seem to travel in the opposite direction. The more they encounter traditional Jewish texts, the more they want to distance themselves from its message. Tragically, instead of turning to Biblical narratives and its classic commentaries to serve as a moral compass with which to navigate the stormy sea of moral relativism and follow-your-feelings spirituality, they have done the opposite. They’ve embraced the zeitgeist, and have either re-written or written out the traditional narratives that don’t jive with it.
Case in point is the recent article in the “Acts of Faith” section of the Washington Post written by Ruth Balinsky Freidman. Instead of digging beneath the surface to find something positive and redeeming about Esther, the author can only bring out the overused tropes of #MeToo.
In her view, Vashti is the real heroine of the story for being combative and standing up to her husband’s demeaning orders at the cost of her life, while Esther is cast as a hapless victim of abuse who is to be pitied, not emulated.
While there is certainly something important to be learned about the high-stakes gender warfare that is taking place in ancient Persia, clichés promoting third wave radical feminism isn’t one of them. I believe a more careful reading of the text will shed a surprising light on Vashti’s failure and the hidden strength of Esther’s character.
Although Esther only comes on the scene in the second chapter, the backstory provided by the first chapter is critical in understanding how Esther will emerge as our heroine of the story. As is well known, Esther’s predecessor, Vashti, was executed because she refused to accede to the humiliating demands of her husband, Achashveirosh. She is simply unwilling to play along and objectify herself by exposing herself in public for his pleasure and ego satisfaction. Vashti’s strident feminist resistance was certainly brave, but ultimately counter-productive. In fact, her public execution was purposefully utilized by the Emperor’s advisors as a way of serving notice to all the women of the empire: Men must now be treated by their wives as the masters of the house—or else.
Vashti’s pushback actually pushed the cause of women’s liberation to go backward.
This is how the first chapter of the story concludes.
In the second chapter, we find that a new set of advisers to the emperor are devising a new strategy to pick a queen, a strategy that is designed to avoid the mistakes of the past. In order to ensure that every prospective candidate for the position will be utterly meek and submissive—and resemble nothing like Vashti–the advisors recommend a selection process with the following guidelines:
- She must be selected only for her good looks (implying no value be given to social status)
- She must be taken from her family home (forcibly if necessary) to live in the capitol city and be put into the exclusive charge of the harem’s guardian. No further contact with family will be feasible
- She will be provided with cosmetics by the harem’s guardian
- She must undergo a full 12 months of beauty treatments to prepare herself for her “interview”.
- She must be made fully aware that she is being chosen as only stand-in for the ill-fated Vashti. She is not becoming a monarch/queen in her own right who will wear a crown.
(Source: Esther 2:2-4;12 with Yosef Lekach commentary found here)
Why all are these elements necessary? It’s simple, once you understand the end goal.
The main element of the strategy is to reinforce the message that the candidate is only valued for her physical appearance and for nothing else. Not for her ideas, not for her insight, and not for her character. None of the things which she can change and improve upon and make them genuinely hers by dint of her own efforts. Emphasis was given to the one thing you can’t really change fundamentally–your facial appearance. It is completely external to who a person really is.
This was goal: get the candidate to feel valued for something that is not in her own control but in the hands of those around her to bestow their approval– if she is deemed worthy of it by them. That is the key to removing self-esteem and self-confidence—induce a person to rely completely on the judgment and approval of others regarding something one can do nothing about.
Secondly, make sure she does not come from a family of high rank or social status. Because any source of personal pride will be an obstacle to inducing complete psychological dependence on the emperor. Everything she has and everything she wants comes from the good will of the king and his men. Make sure all her needs are taken care of exclusively by the emperor’s officers and not from the outside. Cut off all contact with family and friends who might support a separate sense of self.
Lastly, every candidate must spend a full year being preoccupied with one thing—how she can look and smell her best to win the approval of the emperor. There is no other point to her existence for an entire 12 months other than to become the ultimate object of desire.
This carefully crafted process will naturally force each candidate to break with her past identity, redefine herself –not as a queen in her own right, but as a mere object for royal pleasure who is completely dependent on, and beholden to, the male approval.
But the G-d of Israel has a few surprises in store for the king’s advisors.
Despite all their elaborate psychological profiling and conditioning to create the perfectly submissive queen, the supernatural charm bestowed upon Esther allows her to simply upend each and every one of their strategies:
- Esther comes from a family of high social status/royal stock
- Esther remains in daily contact with Mordechai throughout her stay in the harem
- Esther defies orders to reveal her identity on Mordechai’s instructions
- Esther suffices with a minimum of cosmetics and “preparation time”.
- Esther is given a personal detail of maidservants who obey her commands
- Esther is shown preferential treatment by the harem guardian
- She is actually made to be a monarch in her own right and is coronated by Achashveirosh
(Source: Esther 2:9-11;17 With Yosef Lekach commentary found here and here)
It’s the first example of “venahafoch hu” in the Megillah: Esther retains her past identity and her family ties. She gives orders to her own subordinates and she takes orders from her own religious authority—not the government’s. She doesn’t allow herself to be valued for her physical appearance. She doesn’t require the approval of others to give herself a sense of esteem and worthiness. Not exactly the hapless victim of the systemic subordination of women, is she?
In short, Esther is the quintessential strong Jewish woman in a man’s world: Standing up to the enormous social pressures to give up her independent identity and go along with the herd mentality of male approval-seeking. Fearlessly adhering to her religious duties to obey her rabbi’s instructions in the face of government coercion. And finally, resisting the temptation to obsess about her looks, and never valuing herself primarily in terms of how men rate her level of attractiveness.
So on second thought, Queen Esther seems to be the best Jewish role model for my daughter that I can possibly think of…
(I just hope she’ll go easy on the make-up.)
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996 and has been teaching Talmud and Jewish thought in in Jerusalem for many years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically science & feminism, and currently maintains a blog at the Times of Israel.
Queen Esther martyrs herself to spend the rest of her so-called-life married to a drunken boor who doesn’t share her values or religion and only wants her for her body. (The truth is, thinking about Esther’s life saddens me. I don’t think “martyrs herself” is an exaggeration.) “She doesn’t allow herself to be valued for her physical appearance”? Of course she did! Achashveirosh didn’t have the women spend a year refining their minds, and they didn’t spend the night in the king’s chamber answering interview questions to prove their counseling ability. The only way a woman had power in the Persian and Median Empire was to be a manipulative femme fatale. AND, the Megillah is quite clear that Mordechai prodded her every step of the way. She doesn’t reveal her royal lineage, which would have gotten her off the hook — at Mordechai’s behest. (Recall, this was to replace Vashti, who felt her own royal blood gave her a right to say “no”.) Esther goes to the king to invite him to the first party — at Mordechai’s pushing. “Perhaps it was for a time like this that you were brought to the throne.” As yourself write, she “she takes orders from her own religious authority”. So her power is in choosing to listen to her adoptive father over her drunk boor of a husband. That’s a model for feminine autonomy and strength?
The truth is, of all the lessons one can draw from the book of Esther or from her life as Chazal capture it, I don’t think the one you’re drawing really works.
What we see in Esther is a general growth toward strength and autonomy. The number of decisions she makes after the two parties, that lead to fighting on the next day in Shushan, the enactment of Purim as a holiday, etc…
You misunderstood. She didn’t allow herself to be valued by HERSELF in terms of her physical appearance. How others looked at her and valued her was not her concern and that was her strength.
This drunk boor of a husband happens to be the emperor of Persia and has tremendous power. Resisting that power successfully is certainly a model of strength.
Absolutely right. Couldn’t agree more.
Thank you for your insights.
Though she goes to Achashverosh after three days of fasting and needs to be physically supported by her maidservants.
Wasn’t Vashti called in from her own raucous party? In her own way, she was as gross as her husband.
You mean to say that Open Orthodox Rabbis got it wrong ! One of their biblical heroines is Esther who was the one in the Purim Story! Where would Open Orthodox be without her !!!!
I guess you didn’t read the article I was referring to in the post. Esther is certainly not one of their heroines– in the sense that her actions should be emulated.
The article is found here:
Sorry I forgot to link it in the main post
i am not thrilled with u.s. open orthodoxy. but us moderns learn valuable lessons from the megillah. daat mikre teaches us about the shivat tzion that is not discussed in the talmud. yoram hazony teaches us of the political wisdom Esther displayed. no one living today who retrojects our notions of modernity into a persian court text is credible, chareidi or open orthodox. every generation brings new strengths that can extract new insights. it is critical that we leave our biases at the door while trying to mine the insights of an ancient text.
According to the gemora she also devised the scheme of inviting Achashvairosh and Homan to the party. It lists an astonishing number of diverse reasons for her doing so. Amongst them, she did so both to protect herself by misdirecting Homan as well as to use both physical and spiritual means to cause his death. She was a genius, an extremely dangerous and ruthless opponent. She accepted Mordechai’s psak but then turned it into warfare on multiple dimensions. Next to her Vashti was a joke, a spoiled stubborn drama queen. Imagine, Homon probably barely noticed her, she was just this meek little thing, the King’s new toy, but all the while she’s plotting how to kill him. I’m very happy for my girl’s to dress up as Esther! Down with Homon!
By the OO and the rest off the non orthodox and radical feminists, it is Vashti who is the heroine.
Just shows absolutely backwards they all are.
vashti is not the heroine, though the rabbis drash on be’keser malchut, may paint her as most aggrieved. I applaud you for adding another accurate assessment of open orthodoxy to this site’s growing list.
Not THE heroine, but a heroine, and I agree I’m neither OO, non-O, or a feminist, but I thank you for calling me backward.
The new feminist reading on Esther/Vashti is in the spirit of “v’nahapoch hu”, as noted in the Washington Post article (” A recent feminist response has been to flip the paradigm…”), though its author justifies Esther’s submission as “a victim of abuse”. If she would have praised Vashti as a “protofeminist” for standing up to Achashveirosh who was also a “proto-Nazi” according to Chazal(see R. Dov Fischer’s response in Arutz Sheva), and not mentioned her in the same breath as Esther, it would be more accurate.
R Rimon in his wonderful sefer on Purim contrasts the fact that Yosef HaTzadik was privileged to be buried in RY but Moshe Rabbeinu was not based on the fact that Yosef never shirked from identifying himself as a Jew and Moshe Rabbeinu when he rescues Yisro’s daughters is described by them to Yisro as an Egyptian man. ( if you look in Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, you will see that Moshe Rabbeinu lived like a fugitive from the Egyptian authorities after he killed an Egyptian ( i.e. ala the lead character in The Searchers or like the scenes in the bar in Casablanca or Star Wars ] until his encounter in the desert with Yisro’s daughters , his rescue of them and the encounter with HaShem at the burning bush. Esther also hid her Jewish identity until the critical moment when urged by Mordechai she reveals herself as a Jewish woman to Achashverrush. Despite her critical role she lived as a married Persian princess to Achashverush and her actions and call for unity led to a reafffirmation of loyalty to the Torah. The Nesivos asks why so many mitzvos of Purim are Bein Adam LChavero,. THe CS suggests based on the Targum Sheni to Esther that Mordechhai voluntarily left EY and moved to Persia to aid and assist Esther through the entire chronology of Megilas Esther.
Vashti and Achashverosh were cut from the same cloth. She only rebelled against Achashverosh’s demand to parade in the flesh because she had a bad case of pimples that day – not out of a sense of modesty, repulsion, or anything else of virtue.
She was a tyrant who mistreated all who came into her domain. Perish the thought that she be painted as a hapless victim or a strong and liberated woman. May he evil name be blotted out.