Commentary: Emulating Vashti
As we read Megillat Esther on Purim, Queen Vashti’s act of disobedience generates much perplexity. It is difficult to resolve whether to view her as a wicked enemy of the Jews or as a paradigm of female assertiveness.
The story begins at King Ahasuerus’s banquet in the palace garden when he directs his eunuchs “to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, for she was a beautiful woman.” Given the spirit of drunken carousal, the rabbis have inferred that the queen was directed to appear garbed in nothing but her royal crown. “But,” we read, Queen Vashti “refused to come at the king’s command”—the first of three allusions to her surprising obduracy—“and the king was greatly incensed….”
Thereupon, the king’s minister Memucan—identified by some commentators as Haman himself—fanned the king’s wrath by counseling that Vashti should never again enter the king’s presence, and that she should be replaced by a more worthy queen.
Vashti’s disobedience, which, unreproached, threatened to generate rebellion not only in the arena of gender politics but in the political realm as well, evokes Eve’s behavior in Eden. In both tableaux, nakedness is the salient motif. In Eden, Eve’s consciousness of her state of undress, marked by concealment behind fig leaves, signals the rebellious act itself. In Shushan, the chief details are inverted. Instead of the action occurring in the garden, it hinges on a refusal to enter one. Instead of Eve’s act of disobedience committed at the behest of the serpent, Vashti valiantly rejects becoming an object of display as commanded by her king.
Nevertheless, Jews have steadfastly viewed Vashti as wicked: According to one midrash, she is reputed to have ordered her entourage of Jewish women servants to attend her unclothed on Shabbat (Megilla 12). The impulse that fuels this detail is transparent: Poetic justice decrees that on the seventh day of partying, Ahasuerus should make the selfsame demand of Vashti.
In Jewish tradition Vashti is identified as the granddaughter (or great-granddaughter) of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who despoiled the Holy Temple and drove the Jews into exile. Not content with this dubious lineage, the Rabbis fancy that Vashti pressed the case against any royal inclination that might have permitted the Jews to reverse their banishment and rebuild the Temple. Indeed, Vashti’s haughtiness is traditionally so much of a piece with Haman’s malevolence that one would not be surprised to discover that the enunciation of her name, which significantly fades from the text just as Haman’s assumes prominence, also sanctioned hissing and general tumult.
How, then, might Vashti be conceived by contemporary Jewish feminists as a role model, when the text grants her only one brief appearance before she vanishes from the narrative? When we direct our attention away from both the Vashti prologue and Esther’s central scenes and focus instead on Mordecai, the adoptive father, we observe that his refusal to obey the king’s order to bow low before Haman is the seminal act of the entire plot. The narrative structure of Megillat Esther seems therefore to point to Vashti as a subversive model for disobedient Mordecai and thus, by extension, for the Jewish people.
To underscore Vashti’s significance, in the final section of the text we are informed no fewer than three times that, as if emulating Vashti’s paradoxical example, the victorious Jews once again disobeyed Ahasuerus’s order by emphatically refusing to “lay hands on the spoil.”
Vashti, embodiment of a “spoil” that adamantly rebuffs being handled or ogled, may truly take her rightful place as a woman of valor and an early feminist heroine. H
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