Commentary Magazine


The Problem with Purim

The liturgy and observances of the Jewish religious calendar have been set in place for many centuries. But in recent decades a trend toward the reinterpretation of many holidays has been gaining ground. Passover’s celebration of freedom has served to turn it into a clearinghouse of trendy concepts, with Seders dedicated to civil rights, the labor movement, ecology, and a host of other topics. Chanukah’s festival of lights has become for some a reminder to conserve energy or save the planet from global warming. But it is the holiday of Purim that has undergone the most thorough makeover by a new generation of liberal and feminist thinkers.

For three decades, an effort has been underway to change not so much the observance of the holiday but the meaning of Purim itself. This celebration of a great reversal of fortune—the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from a massacre—has been transmogrified into a feminist holiday that also calls into question the entire concept of Jewish self-defense, which is at the heart of the story’s conclusion. Unfortunately, this effort to modernize the Purim story lionizes the wrong woman, promotes a false political message of nonviolence and tolerance, and worst of all embraces failure instead of promoting perhaps the greatest of Jewish heroines.

As told in the Book of Esther, the saga of Purim begins when the king of Persia, Ahasuerus, holds a banquet and asks his wife, Queen Vashti, to display her beauty before him. She refuses. On the advice of his counselors, the king banishes Vashti from the kingdom and replaces her with a new queen, Esther. Next, Haman, a highly placed adviser to the king, concocts a plan to kill the Jews of Persia, sets a date, and convinces the king to issue the murderous decree. Mordechai, a Jew and uncle (or cousin) of Queen Esther, informs her of the plot and demands that she plead with the king for the lives of the Jews. Esther agrees but amends Mordechai’s plan. She holds two banquets for the king and Haman, reveals herself as a Jew, and asks that the king save her and her people. Haman is hanged and the plot is reversed; it is the Jews who rise up and kill the Persians, who intended to murder them. In the final chapter, Mordecai replaces Haman as Ahasuerus’s top adviser.

Purim is the Jewish carnival, a day on which the consumption of alcohol is traditionally encouraged and the prohibitions against cross-dressing are removed amid the revelry that celebrates the heroes of the story. It is also the quintessential Diaspora festival, as its narrative emphasizes the plight of a Jewish community whose security depends on the goodwill of non-Jewish sovereigns. The decision of Queen Esther, a hidden Jew who comes out of the closet, turns the tables on her people’s persecutors, setting the stage for a massive score-settling in which those who planned to murder the Jews are instead the ones who are killed in a preemptive war of self-defense. This dramatic turnabout has helped endear the holiday to many generations of Diaspora Jews, and especially to those also living in hiding, such as the Marranos, for whom the Fast of Esther was among the most important vestiges of Jewish practice.

Yet in recent years Purim has come under criticism from some Jewish thinkers in large measure because of the bloodiness of the triumph at its conclusion (the Jews kill 75,000 Persians in a single day). Elliott Horowitz of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University devoted his Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence to the questionable claim that Purim has long been the occasion for outbreaks of Jewish animosity and even violence toward Christians. Horowitz based this bizarre thesis largely on the fact that Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994 occurred on Purim. In his review of the book for Commentary (June 2006), Hillel Halkin pointed out that the incidences of Jewish violence against non-Jews through the centuries are extraordinarily few in number and that the connection between them and Purim is more than tenuous.

Previous generations of persecuted Jews may have viewed the expression of joy at the triumph of the Jews of Persia at the expense of their would-be exterminator and his accomplices as a delicious revenge fantasy. But from the vantage point of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the aspects of Purim that seem to embody a triumphalist spirit of Jewish power are unnerving to those who are more comfortable with a history of the Jewish people that dwells almost exclusively on the story of their suffering.

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But of all the elements of this process by which the Purim story has been deconstructed, none is as curious as the way one relatively minor, if crucial, character has been both reimagined and glorified: Queen Vashti, the enigmatic first wife of Ahasuerus, whose recalcitrant attitude is the convenient plot device that provides the excuse for Esther’s appearance at the royal court in Susa. Out of 10 chapters in this story, Vashti appears only briefly at the beginning. Yet feminists have not merely reinterpreted her actions and character; they have used her as the entry point for a new narrative that would turn Purim from a festival of Jewish victory into a celebration of a singular brand of feminist ideology and the negation of a strong, politically savvy Jewish “princess” who uses feminine wiles rather than passive resistance to achieve her aims.

Jewish children are now encouraged to recognize Queen Vashti for her supposed courage in “standing up” to King Ahasuerus and view her as a positive role model. Feminists see Vashti’s failure—she is removed from her throne for her disobedience—as the height of female power. At the same time, they seem to need to degrade Esther’s formidable achievements in order to raise up Vashti. They choose the non-Jew over the Jew and the failure over the success.

Thirty years ago, in an article entitled “The Restoration of Vashti,” Mary Gendler wrote the initial salvo in the feminist war on Purim:

Ahasuerus can be seen not only as an Ultimate Authority who holds vast power over everyone but more generally as male, patriarchal authority in relation to females. As such Vashti and Esther serve as models of how to deal with such authority. And the message comes through loud and clear: women who are bold, direct, aggressive, and disobedient are not acceptable; the praiseworthy women are those who are unassuming, quietly persistent, and who gain their power through the love they inspire in men. These women live almost vicariously, subordinating their needs and desires to those of others. We have only to look at the stereotyped Jewish Mother to attest to the still-pervasive influence of the Esther-behavior model.

Twenty years later, the spring 1998 issue of Lilith magazine—a periodical that bills itself as “Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist”—included a special section on Purim made up of a series of articles analyzing what was wrong with the holiday. Entitled “Our [Meaning Women’s] Book-of-Esther Problem,” the selections took aim at the interpretation of the story as well as the traditions that had grown up around it, like the custom of cheering and stomping whenever the name of Mordecai is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah (the scroll that contains the Book of Esther) in synagogue. Rabbi Susan Schnur wrote with exasperation, “Why aren’t we insisting that our synagogue communities cheer and stomp their feet at the mention of Vashti’s name? She is a foremother in the best sense of the word—assertive, appropriate, courageous.”

This is a remarkable change from traditional rabbinic thinking about Vashti, which sought to besmirch this minor character’s reputation in order to make Esther appear even more heroic. According to the Midrash, Vashti was the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, the destroyer of Jerusalem. In the view of the rabbis, Vashti was not only a licentious person who behaved inappropriately but also a vicious creature that beat her Jewish handmaidens, stripped them naked, and forced them to work on the Sabbath. Whether or not this villainous portrait is as unjustified as modern feminism’s defense of Vashti, painting her in this light allows us to see her punishment as merited, an example of “measure for measure.” As she had wickedly abused Jewish women, so she was subjected to similar treatment.

By contrast, in Schnur’s telling, the Megillah’s account of Queen Vashti’s losing her station for refusing to appear naked in front of her husband was reworked from an ancient pagan celebration of “autonomous women’s rites that could not be reined in by men.” Thus, according to Schnur, the first two chapters of the Book of Esther “represent one of Purim’s many core ‘reversals’; that is, they represent a male revolt against women.”

Vashti, Schnur writes, is “the one who is not afraid to be assertive, not afraid to displease the males.” But more than just killing off this upstart woman, she writes, “the Megillah kills off not only Vashti, but the whole cycle—death, rotting, rebirth, the whole awakening, empowering experience. It’s a deliberate theft, a humiliation. She doesn’t get to re-emerge as a woman.”

At least Schnur and her comrades didn’t aim low. They were trying to reverse what had served for centuries as the bedrock interpretation of the meaning of Purim, the writings of the sages, waging a battle against the men who had tried to belittle women’s power and erase it from the record of history. “If you have any doubts about the propagandistic effectiveness of Vashti’s utter demonization in rabbinic misogynist texts,” Schnur proposes the following experiment:

This Purim at synagogue, count how many girls dress up as Vashti (zero; just a guess). Ask the little Esthers why they aren’t dressed up as little Vashtis. Write down their answers. Ask what Vashti did to make her so “bad.” (My daughter’s friends generally reply that Vashti said ‘NO’ to the King. We discuss whether it is bad to say ‘NO’ to males. Does that mean you should say ‘YES’ to males? Etc.) Invite all the little Esthers to your next Rosh Hodesh event and help them burn all their old misguided answers in a big black cauldron.

Schnur’s Purim exposé isn’t focused exclusively on Vashti, however. She also has strong words for Queen Esther, whom she compares unfavorably to a pagan deity: “Unlike the goddess Ishtar, who has power in her own right just like a male god, the less ancient Esther . . . can only intercede with the King, but has no power for herself.” So while Vashti was positively defiant, Esther was supposedly powerless. But again, the original text isn’t as bad as the rabbinic interpretation:

Most creepy of all, though, is the rabbis’ lewd peeping tom-ish interest in exactly how Esther is beautiful. In the Midrash, they literally quantify and rank her beauty vis-à-vis other Jewish women, and descriptions of the exact quality of Esther’s sexual appeal take up many pages. The rabbis sound remarkably like those classical fathers of anorexic girls who feel compelled to comment on their daughters, “You’ve gained weight at college,” or “Your roommate’s a knockout.” These contemporary Esthers, as we know, get their sad revenge.

Jewish practice needed to be altered, in the view of Schnur and Lilith, to incorporate pagan celebrations that empowered women: “There once was a theological language and a set of rites that uplifted women and brought us self-esteem and authority. That’s the pentimento we want to scratch away at, that’s the part we are clamoring to uncover and reclaim.”

As Schnur concludes, “Our themes, as contemporary women, are the same: to restore something that has been separated, to reconnect the body and soul, to reunite Vashti and Esther, to integrate and reclaim the feminine that has been lost or abandoned in human history.”

The part of Esther they want to “reclaim” seems unclear, however. They love Vashti because she is defiant, but neither Gendler nor the Lilith fighters see the Jewish queen as powerful. Esther should be embraced in the spirit of wholeness, but her own attributes and choices are not to be emulated. Indeed, they have little to say about Esther’s actions or her ultimate success. And by turning Vashti into a positive icon, they are elevating defiance per se to the highest level. The fact that Esther chooses a difficult path, that she does so with little hope of success and with death nearly certain, and that she does all this for her people rather than herself is not of the least concern to this early generation of Purim feminists.

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More recently the effort to transform the holiday has been waged on multiple fronts: from interpretation to practice to education. The feminist perspective has shifted from simply lionizing Vashti for her rebellion against the patriarchy to a multifaceted approach. Purim is now to be used as a vehicle for teaching tolerance, raising awareness about domestic violence, and encouraging children to act according to their own personal set of values. There is still no room, though, for Esther to be viewed as the central heroine of the story.

Recent interpretations all begin from the premise that Vashti is central, not peripheral, to the Purim story. Ruhama Weiss, who teaches Talmud at Hebrew Union College, argues that the sages blackened Vashti’s name because it was important for them to highlight the different fates of the woman who is willing to integrate into the patriarchal system and obey its rules, and the woman who dares to fight it. According to Weiss, the sages were in conflict regarding the fact that “Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor, while our heroine Esther is willing to work through the bedroom.” In the same vein, writer Amy Hirschberg proposed last year that Vashti be promoted as a heroine for those Jewish women who find themselves in abusive relationships. The effort to enhance Vashti’s presence and anoint her the feminist Purim heroine has even made it into the music scene. “Vashti was our first feminist; she refused to striptease,” says the songwriter Liz Swados, referring to the queen’s refusal to appear before the king. “You’re a pig, you’re insane!” sings Vashti in Broadway-musical fashion on Swados’s CD Bible Women. “No, no I will not do as you say! / No, no, I will not compromise myself in any way.”

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If the Megillah has any modern-day lessons to teach, it seems, they are all about whom Vashti most resembles today. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Rabbi Susan Grossman mused on whether Hillary Clinton could be seen as a modern-day Vashti. She “is the first woman in the Bible who refuses to be objectified as a sex object, instead naming such behavior as inappropriate,” Grossman wrote. “In many ways, Vashti is the paradigmatic woman who won’t take any garbage from the men around her, even if it costs her, which it does.”

Hillary is like Vashti in this way.

Marjorie Garber of Harvard draws the parallel between the Lewinsky affair and the Megillah. “The play casts itself,” writes Garber: Bill Clinton plays King Ahasuerus, while “Hillary is Vashti, the headstrong proto-feminist queen . . . and Monica, needless to say, is Esther, the beautiful Jewess.”

Lest one think the cult of Vashti is limited to the more liberal branches of Judaism, some modern Orthodox interpreters have also tried to augment Vashti’s importance, albeit from a more traditional perspective. As Wendy Amsellem, a faculty member at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, writes in “The Mirror Has Two Faces: An Exploration of Esther and Vashti,” when told by Mordechai that she must ask the king’s help to save her people, Esther finds herself in the middle of a crisis. “She is caught between conflicting obediences to her foster father and husband,” Amsellem argues. “In addition, to come before the king unsummoned is an abnegation of her role as Vashti’s replacement. She was chosen to be queen since she represented the antithesis of Vashti’s persona.” Amsellem does give Esther credit for strategy, but the secret of her success is having learned from the woman she replaced: “In order to triumph, Esther must confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti herself.”

Esther just can’t seem to get a fair shake. According to Professor Michael V. Fox of the University of Wisconsin, she

gets her way through deceptive and [roundabout] means. Woman’s independence is repudiated by the example made of Vashti, a repudiation Esther fails to oppose. . . .  She is pretty, obedient, silver-tongued and somewhat manipulative, using placatory language and ingratiating formulas. . . . Her example teaches that aesthetic grace paves the way for women’s success, whereas man’s power comes from ethical fiber. It is true that she outwits two rather stupid males and victory is due to Haman falling into the trap, but the pivotal moment occurs in a bedroom scene. She acts not as [God’s] agent but as her uncle’s.  

The fact that Esther risks her life would ordinarily be taken to mean that she has enough “ethical fiber” for 10 men—but not in the new understanding.

Along with reinterpreting the characters, feminists are also adapting Purim more to their liking by offering new ways to commemorate and practice the holiday. Across the country last year, for example, so-called Vashti’s Banquets were held. In cities like Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, and New York, women gathered to celebrate the defiant heroine of Purim, listen to Middle Eastern music, and talk about empowering women and stopping domestic violence.

The other new tradition that feminist reformers are peddling is the “Purim flag.” According to the feminist writer Tamara Cohen, waving Esther / Vashti flags (complete with bells attached) will serve to make the holiday “both a celebration of and reflection on Jewish pride and perseverance and an opportunity to honor women’s power in the face of those who fear it.” For Cohen, traditional ritual and symbols, such as reading the Megillah aloud and sounding noisemakers at the mention of Haman’s name, do not evoke either Esther or Vashti. Focusing on the story’s two women makes the holiday more complex, she argues: “We open up the possibility of telling a story that includes the experiences of women and a story that honors the possibility of potential alliances between Jews and non-Jews.”

Thus Purim should change from a story of Jewish triumph in the face of near-sure destruction into a celebration of alliances between Jews and non-Jews. This is a reversal of the highest order.

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In 2008 the Joint Distribution Committee–Europe’s Jewish-education arm, Morim.org, sent out some suggestions on how to teach young children about Purim. In “Vashti and Esther—The Whole Megillah for Young Children,” Maxine Segal Handelman wrote about the “valuable lessons” to be learned from both Esther and Vashti. Vashti “has become our model of the strong woman who won’t take any garbage from those around her,” she explains.

Vashti follows her gut, she does what her heart tells her is right. Young children, both the “rule followers” and the “rule dismissers,” could stand encouragement to truly discern the right path, the path that will make the world a better place, and muster the courage to follow what their heart tells them. Teachers of young children can help their children to be like Vashti in this way.

Further, we are told that educators should “empower children to act” like Vashti and find a way to put a decision into action. They might choose to help keep safe a classmate allergic to peanuts by collectively deciding “that no one may bring peanut butter and jelly for lunch.” These children should then be given the time and material support to “put their decision into action” by making signs or writing up a newsletter with the new rule. “Sometimes there are consequences for acting. Vashti stood up for herself but lost her throne,” Handelman writes. “Children who are encouraged to choose the path that will make the world a better place, like Vashti, will make the best decisions.”

Esther is included in the discussion, but the lessons children should draw from her “experience” are even worse. Handelman urges Jewish educators to downplay Esther’s bravery because, though she does make the world a better place, it is only better for Jews. It is more important to tell kids that Esther used her skills to influence others to join her: “This is what young children have to learn from Esther. Not how to be brave, but how to understand people better, and how to use that understanding to get along better.” Thus, in the new, improved Purim, we must throw out any suggestion that Jews face anti-Semitism or that the story is the great triumph of smart, strategic, powerful, and committed Jews. The importance of standing up for what you believe in, however, is acceptable—just as long as that belief is based on a generic and anodyne set of values.

That is why honoring Esther at all, even alongside Vashti, is a problem for many who are attempting to redefine Purim, like Tamara Cohen. “As feminists committed to honoring Esther’s leadership,” Cohen writes,

we cannot ignore the fact that it is Esther who asks the king for an additional day on which the Jews can kill their enemies. . . . We must challenge ourselves to find a way to celebrate Esther’s power without necessarily endorsing the violence she authorizes.

But what if the “violence she authorizes” is integral to her success? As Yoram Hazony argues in his book The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, Esther’s request for an extra 24 hours of Jewish self-defense in the capital of Susa was good strategy. Esther had not yet heard what had happened in the rest of the empire. In Hazony’s view, Esther sought the additional time to determine whether the Jews had won. And why is it that some Jewish feminists are so focused on Esther’s supposed violence and not on her self-sacrifice? As she declares to Mordechai regarding her pleading with the king to save the Jews, “If I perish, I perish.” Neither the risk Esther takes nor her immensely successful efforts make a serious impression on modern-day feminist interpreters.

Or perhaps the risk and the success make too serious an impression.

Purim is both a particularist Jewish holiday and, to the extent that such a thing is possible for an account that appears in the Hebrew Bible, a secular one. The Megillah is one of only two books in the Bible that does not feature God—neither as a presence nor even by mention of His name. (The other is the Song of Songs.) The Jews are threatened with genocide, and they themselves, through the actions of Esther, overcome the threat and kill those who would kill them.

Clearly, it is the very notion of Jewish self-defense, not to mention Jewish vengeance against an anti-Semitic populace, that is so discomfiting to those present-day Jews who like their faith nice and universal and are made especially uncomfortable by unconstrained nationalist sentiment. To the extent that Esther is a specifically Jewish heroine who embraces specifically Jewish nationalism, specifically Jewish self-defense, and specifically Jewish revenge, she is to be held at arm’s length. Meanwhile, the “lovely to look at” non-Jewish woman of whom the Book of Esther says only that she “refused to come” to her husband’s banquet, must be brought from the periphery to the center—less, it would appear, because of her own qualities, which are nonexistent in the text, and more because she is not Esther.

To fit the new role in which she has been cast, Vashti herself must be redesigned, her passivity portrayed as something active, as an act of resistance against maledom. And to continue this perverse revision of the book that bears her name, the active female defender of the Jews who defeats the more powerful male adviser to her husband by using one of the few means of influence a woman in ancient times might have been able to wield is then bizarrely belittled as passive, a mere tool in the hands of her older male relative.

The manner in which the characters of Purim have been distorted beyond recognition speaks volumes about the way Jews of a certain type think about matters of gender and peoplehood. Feminism hasn’t progressed very far when, more than a generation after it began its ascendancy, the best the movement can do on Purim is lionize the victim and disparage the heroine. 

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