Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
She refused to be put on display like cattle — and paid for it with her throne, with her status, and according to the midrash, with her life. Esther, on the other hand, played the game. She was silent for the first four chapters of the book, quiet, docile and pretty as the other dominating male in her life, Mordechai, called the shots and gained political standing. When Esther finally acted, it was by using her feminine charm, her sexuality, to woo the king into pleasing her and killing Haman. To save the Jewish people, she played the seductress. She may have stayed alive and kept her throne – but that’s not necessarily a blessing. She remained in her gilded cage, married to the megalomaniacal wife-killer, for the rest of her life. By being the “insider” in the system, she sacrificed her own freedom. Vashti, the quintessential fighter, may have lost her life, but she may have also kept her dignity.
Women face the insider/outsider dilemma all the time. Should we work hard and sacrifice our integrity (and money) to meet social expectations of female beauty in order to reap the significant social rewards of beauty and sexuality, or should we challenge the system, refuse to turn ourselves into seductresses, and force the world to deal with “real women,” as we are? For example.
In Judaism the insider/outsider dilemma is faced in the most harrowing way by agunot, women who cannot get a Jewish divorce because the system relies on male volition. To stay in the Jewish legal system, agunot give up right to live independently, or to give birth to a Jew, or to be free. They can be free at any moment, but that would entail giving up their status within the Jewish legal system.
This is significant. We may think of agunot as fighters, women who are bucking the system and fighting for their freedom, but the opposite is actually true. Agunot are women who still believe in Jewish law, who are still trying to work within the system of traditions that they call their own, who still rely on religious authority figures – who are all male and for the most part thus far unhelpful – to determine their personal status. In this sense, they are more like Esther than Vashti. Because if they were really fighters, they would walk away. They would not care whether they have a get, whether they are halachically allowed to be with another man, whether their future children will be deemed mamzerim. I think all the rabbis and Jewish leaders who have been balking for decades regarding the agunot issue would be wise to remember that the women who are struggling to free agunot have not really fought the Vashti way. Not yet anyway.
Meanwhile, to commemorate Agunah Day, long-time agunot activists Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff have written a new midrash:
…The foolish King of the Purim story feared that if Vashti’s defiance were known, every husband’s power to be master of his household, his wife, would be weakened. So he issued a decree that every man should be ‘sorer’ [ruler] in his house. We laugh at that. Yet our rabbis have enshrined that edict by allowing every Jewish husband to be ‘sorer’ to have power over his wife. Esther provided leadership. If only the rabbis would act as boldly and implement one of the various halachic solutions and free agunot.
Feminist activist Bonna Devora Haberman also wrote a midrash about Esther and agunot:
…Today, secular and rabbinic leaders throughout the world oppress their people with their can(n)ons. We fast for Esther. To strengthen the struggle of agunot who are chained by Jewish Orthodoxy’s unilateral male divorce prerogative, we fast. May we hunger to fulfill Esther’s vision for our people and our world. And the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book (Esther 9:32) As we unfurl her scroll, may we steel our resolve to release chains that bind us to cruelty and destruction, and to enact Esther’s priority of flourishing life and joy!
Read the midrashim in full here.
Amen! And happy Purim!
'Chained Women' Are No Fighters