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Vashti: Exploited or Exploiter?

Friday, 7 March, 2014 - 1:41 pm

In recent years there has been an attempt on the part of some to reinvent Vashti as a brave heroine who stood up and said no to being exploited by men. Here is the passage from the first chapter of Esther that this is based upon. “Queen Vashti, too, made a feast for the women in the royal palace of King Achashverosh. On the seventh day, when the king's heart was merry with wine, he ordered …the seven chamberlains to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing the royal crown, to show her beauty to the nations and ministers, for she was indeed beautiful. But Queen Vashti refused to appear by the king's order brought by the chamberlains…”

The Talmud (Megillah 12:b) explains that the king’s intent was to have Vashti come wearing only her crown but nothing else. Vashti refused and for this she is now being praised as a woman who refused to allow herself to be exploited by men. Unfortunately for those representing her in this positive light, this is nothing but revisionist history and a weak attempt at that. Let us examine who this Vashti was and what her ideals were vis-à-vis exploitation of women.

Vashti was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, who also inherited his hatred for the Jews. She was vain and arrogant and cared a lot about how men viewed her. She was also immoral and wanted to foist her immoral ideals upon others. From where do we get this picture of Vashti? The very same page of the Talmud relates that Vashti’s feast for the women was held in the palace in full view of the men with the express intent of enticing the men to immorality. The Talmud further states that Vashti’s refusal to appear in her “birthday suit and crown” was not due to her sudden found morality but rather because a hideous rash broke out on her skin. Finally, the Talmud concludes, Vashti’s downfall occurred on the seventh day when she refused to appear sans clothing. This was measure for measure because she used to force her Jewish slave girls to work around her home while naked on the Sabbath (seventh) day. In her arrogance she mistakenly thought that by insulting king’s less than royal upbringing she would humble him into submission. The result was Vashti’s execution, which ultimately led to Esther’s ascendancy as Queen.

So is this a woman worthy of being heralded as the first woman to “say no?” I should think not. This would be like an animal advocacy group praising the Nazis for their “pioneering role” in the area of animal-rights. Human rights… maybe not so much. But they loved their pets. While there may actually be something to that, when it comes to Vashti she was a first rate exploiter who also welcomed the opportunity to be objectified by men until she was struck with that mysterious rash.

Instead we should go back to heralding Esther for her bravery in standing up to the two most powerful men in the universe to save her people. Now that is a woman worthy of praise.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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