October 19, 2019

Purim’s other woman: Vashti, the queen who kept her clothes on

When it comes to the story of Purim, Queen Esther has received lots of attention. All the little girls want to play her in the Purim spiel. She’s brave, beautiful, loving and heroic: the quintessential female biblical role model.

But what about the other brave, role model Queen of Persia? What about Vashti?

Vashti is a proto-feminist who has been unfairly maligned by “mainstream media” and Jews everywhere.

Myself included. When I was 9, I wrote a song about Vashti, set to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two.” The lyrics were:

Vashti, Vashti, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy, and it’s all because of you.
I told you to entertain us,
But you said, “Kiss my tuchis.”
Now get in here, or else you should fear
For the life span that’s left to you.

Growing up in the 1990s, I have been a passionate, self-avowed feminist from an almost comically young age, and even at 9 considered myself quite adept at detecting gender bias and sexism. I was well-versed in the ongoing fight for gender equality and the subtle side-effects of gender discrimination. So sensitive was my internal radar for sexism and gendered political issues that I sometimes picked up on nonexistent clues (for example, I was convinced that Shaggy’s 2000 pop song “It Wasn’t Me” was a sorry excuse for a rape allegation defense). I was also big on supporting the underdog. Around the time that I wrote my Purim song, I did my first school research project. Topic suggestions included things like “Abraham Lincoln” and “dinosaurs.” I opted to research four under-represented female suffragettes, women whose contributions I felt had been under-emphasized in our history textbooks.

“Vashti Deposed,”1890, oil on canvas, by Ernest Normand.

And yet I never stopped to consider Vashti’s side of the story. It didn’t occur to me that Vashti had been a feminist worthy of admiration. Although I thought that King Ahasuerus was unprincipled and boorish and that Vashti’s punishment — deposal and quite likely death — was unfair and unwarranted, I don’t remember ever feeling all that bad for her. It was my understanding that Vashti had been arrogant, vain, even wicked, and really, she probably shouldn’t have made such a fuss about something as minor as a request to attend a party. Didn’t she know about the importance of picking your battles?

I had no idea that Ahasuerus had been drunk for 180 days and that his summons included the demand that Vashti parade around naked in front of his drunken, male guests.

Until recently, my understanding of Vashti was fairly closely aligned with the depiction in Debbie Friedman’s “A Purim Musical.” In “Vashti’s Song,” Vashti explains, “I never like to go to parties when I’m the only woman there. When I said no to Ahasuerus, I really didn’t know he’d care. … He wanted to show them my lovely face. I didn’t feel like dressing up in satin frills and lace. Perhaps it was a pretty silly thing for me to do — no woman wants to be a single act!”

But, as it turns out, Vashti did know that Ahasuerus would care, and the summons had nothing to do with frills, lace or Vashti’s face.

Although I can chant a great V’ahavta, I can’t even speak Hebrew like a fifth-grader. My Purim education came from stories adapted for English-speaking Hebrew schoolchildren, songs and skits. I knew they took some artistic license with the Purim story, but I assumed that the essential elements of the narrative and characters I knew were drawn from the megillah.

When I actually read the Book of Esther, I was surprised to discover that Vashti, as the Book of Esther presents her, was a far cry from the Vashti I knew.

In the Book of Esther, Vashti is a brave woman who risked her life for her beliefs. She was a woman who did pick her battles — and this was not a small matter of a single party. By refusing the king’s summons, Vashti was taking a stand for women’s rights. King Ahasuerus and his advisers — especially Haman — understood this and that was why they advised the king to depose Vashti immediately. If he did not, it would send a message to all of Persia’s men and women that it is acceptable for a woman to disobey her husband’s orders. Male sovereignty would be jeopardized. And so Vashti was deposed (and likely killed), and King Ahasuerus commenced a search for a new wife. And the rest, as they say, was history. Or legend.

The unflattering descriptions of Vashti’s character originate not in the actual Book of Esther but from later commentary. Talmudic scholars came up with a host of theories and explanations about Vashti and her fate, theories that ranged from unfounded to absurd:

Rashi theorizes that Vashti said no because she was suffering from a sudden-onset case of leprosy. M’nos Halevi agrees, claiming that “leprosy was punishment for her conceited manner.” Other scholars suggest that Vashti was suffering from a different affliction: the sudden growth of a tail.

Both the leprosy and the tail theories are grounded in the inventive idea that Vashti refused the summons not out of principle and dignity, but rather because she was ashamed of her body and her appearance and didn’t want to reveal a deformation. The megillah offers no evidence to support this; on the contrary, in it, Vashti is described as beautiful.

Why were rabbinic scholars so eager to prove that Vashti was wicked, conceited, deserving of her fate?

Perhaps because it simplifies the story of Purim and its attendant moral concerns. For Esther to rise, Vashti must first fall, and if Vashti’s fall was deserved and justified, the story is a lot cleaner. We don’t get distracted by empathy for the first queen, and we can move easily forward with the narrative and onto its central concern: the Jews. Furthermore, talmudic scholars were themselves a part of and complicit with a male-dominated social order, so they were unlikely to approve of Vashti’s attempt to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Negative portraits of Vashti persist to this day, but there is a gradually expanding movement to repair and redeem Vashti’s public image.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe were among Vashti’s earliest defenders. Stowe described Vashti’s refusal of the king’s summons as “the first stand for women’s rights,” and Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation … by her disobedience.”

But if Vashti is a feminist role model, does that mean Esther, who — dare I put it this way? — slept her way to the top and was obedient and subservient to the king, is not? Especially since Esther’s strategy for saving the Jewish people involved not just praying and fasting but also getting the king drunk and deliberately arousing his jealousy.

The short — and feminist — answer is that Esther didn’t have a choice. Today, thanks to centuries of women (and men) who have fought for women’s rights, women occupy positions of power across all different fields. Today, sleeping your way to the top is far more likely to land you in the middle (at best) than working your way there.

The town of Shushan is big enough for two female heroes. And it’s high time that Vashti receives the appreciation and respect that she deserves, as a woman who said no. It’s time to celebrate Vashti for having the courage to stand up to a drunken and demanding king, just as we celebrate Esther for persuading that same drunken king to free the Jews.

And who are the modern-day Vashtis?

Lena Dunham might be one of them.

Dunham is the 26-year-old creator and star of the HBO hit “Girls.” Her character, Hannah Horvath, spends a lot of time naked on screen; in fact, in this season’s Episode 5, I’m pretty sure Hannah spends more time out of clothes than in them. So the comparison with Vashti, who was deposed for refusing to appear nude, might seem counterintuitive.

But Vashti wasn’t a prude. She owned her sexuality. So, too, does Dunham, and her nudity on “Girls” is on her own terms; she’s not inhibited by the fact that she doesn’t have the typical body of a nude female lead. Hannah — and Dunham — are provocative, bold and uncompromising. So was Vashti. And so, I suspect, are many of the young women who are fans of the show. You go, “Girls.”

Next step? “Vashti: The Movie.”