|Queen Esther (actress Tiffany Dupont) prepares to approach the king, a scene from the 2006 film “One Night with the King.” She saved the Jews, but did she miss a golden opportunity to strike a blow for women as well? Courtesy 20th Century Fox|
M’gillat Esther illustrates, in a highly artful manner, how a totalitarian system deals with disobedience. The agitants leading to the exercise of absolute power are two individuals, Vashti and Mordechai. As a result of their individual provocations, all women and all Jews in the Persian empire of King Achashverosh are victimized. The Book of Esther thus is both sexist and racist.
Within the framework of the book, however, the “Jewish problem” finds a resolution with a (more or less) happy ending. The subjugation of the women, on the other hand, is not resolved. Rather, it continues to exist beyond the end of the book into our own day. This should have implications for how we celebrate Purim today.
Since in its main plot, covering three quarters of the entire text, the Book of Esther narrates the story of the anti-Jewish pogrom ordained and sanctioned by the state, it is generally understood as a book with a Jewish theme. This is only partially so, however. By the time the book “turns Jewish” in chapter 3, the Persian empire is already a state in which executive power is defined by way of subjugating an entire class of society. As a response to Queen Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king, all women in the entire empire are commanded to obey their husbands – per royal decree.
It is interesting that absolute power is established as a response to the disobedience of one individual. The fact that it is the First Lady marks a first-rate scandal. The challenge towards authority is so serious that it misleads the ruling class to abuse its power. Vashti is dethroned and, as a preventive stroke, all within her class (meaning women) are subjugated. The ruling class is male.
What is established in chapter 1 with reference to the woman is repeated in chapter 3 with reference to the Jews. Mordechai’s refusal to bow before royal authority is met with a verdict to be hanged on the gallows, and at the same time an empire-wide preventive pogrom against all the Jews is pronounced. Punishment of the individual transgressor and preventive means to avoid spreading of the challenge has become a pattern: the ruling class is male and Persian.
Esther is the only figure who represents both discriminations. She is twice over marginal and “other”; disobedience is thus predetermined! Is she going to deny her compliance as a Jew, which would be against Mordechai, or as a woman, which would be against the king? It quickly becomes clear in chapter 4 that she is in a dilemma. If she obeys the Jew Mordechai and entreats for the Jews, she risks her life by disobeying the king; if she complies with the royal rules, the Jews are certain to die.
The man Mordechai puts enormous pressure on her, commanding her to exercise loyalty towards her coreligionists, otherwise she will surely disappear due to her non-compliance with his demands – and thus Mordechai induces her remarkable emancipation as a Jew. Unless she is loyal to the identity group that currently suffers the greater danger, she has no chance of survival. “I will go to the king, although it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). These are Esther’s words to convey that she has learned her lesson. As an emancipated Jew, she appears before the king and the entreaty for ethnic identity groups develops successfully.
However, that achieved, with literally all the power in her hands at the beginning of chapter 8, she commits a tragic mistake. She hands this power over to Mordechai, so that they together finish the job of saving the Jews. In the last verse of the book, it is made very clear that the power remains entirely in male hands, namely in Mordechai’s.
Esther, the liberator of the Jews, has missed the chance to liberate the women at the same time. Queen Esther has learned only one lesson: What she learned as a Jew about discrimination is not applicable to her situation as a woman in a male-dominated world. What infringement on her dignity as a woman might make her take a similarly oppositional stand?
As a Jew, she fights for the right to self-definition. As a woman, she gets stuck in a system in which others decide about right and wrong. Queen Esther remains bound to the decrees of men, in the script and language of her own husband, the king, due to her blindness about her situation as a woman. Esther’s insights about how to fight subjugation come to a dead end. Her emancipation is one-sided and thus incomplete.
While Mordechai pushed Esther to emancipation as a Jew, by ironically exercising male power over her, nobody pushes her to apply her newly gained knowledge to her other discriminative situation. Vashti needs to be rehabilitated.
As Jews, we have good reasons to celebrate Purim.
As women, we have no reasons to celebrate since our subjugation still stands. And as female Jews – is there not an unresolvable dilemma?
Surprisingly no, there is not, for there is the Fast of Esther in the hours before Purim. It offers itself to reinterpretation. As Jewish women of today, we need to give it new meaning as a fast of current mourning for the lasting discrimination and subjugation of women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The time has come that we learn the lesson Esther so tragically missed.
This paper was originally published in 1995 in Sh’ma. It is an edited version of a fuller paper that appears in “The Feminist Companion to the Bible, vol. ‘Esther.'” Bea Wyler, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the first post-war woman rabbi in Oldenburg, Braunschweig, and Delmenhorst, Germany.