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The Ultimate Supermodel: Esther or Vashti?

How should women act in what is still a man's world? Which of these two women should inspire us?
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
©Miguel Aguirre/
©Miguel Aguirre/
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

Each generation reads its texts differently. Each generation tends to assess the behavior of its central textual characters in different ways according to the way in which the readers of that generation see the world around them and react to its idea and its values.

Vashti is a case in point. Readers have assessed her differently at different times in history, but there is no denying that the overall opinion of Vashti has tended to be negative. There are many traditions that criticize her quite harshly and see her behavior and her personality in negative terms.

Esther on the other hand, has gone down generally as one of the great heroines of Jewish history and has received an almost overwhelmingly positive assessment.

However, in the last generation, under the influence of feminist thinking, the scales have been tipped, to a large extent, in a different direction. Vashti has been held up by many as an example of proud dignified womanhood, who was prepared to pay the price for refusing to be humiliated by a hostile make world that wished to turn her into an ornament, ignoring her essential humanity.

Esther has tended to suffer in comparison. Where Vashti refused, Esther complied. Where Vashti walked out of the system, Esther rushed in. Where Vashti stood up for her identity as a woman, Esther hid her own identity and passively complied with the system. Feminist thought, on the whole, has tended to dethrone Queen Esther and re-crown Queen Vashti.

Pragmatism v. ideology

There are those who respond to the charges, taking up the cause of Esther and refusing to be sidetracked. They see the feminist critique of Esther as inspired by a modern political agenda that is both anachronistic in the case in point and ultimately irrelevant to the real task of the story, which was to save the Jews.

They point to the victory of pragmatism (Esther) over ideology (Vashti). They point to Esther’s success (not only does she save the Jews but she ends up with more real power than Vashti would ever have had) and, by comparison, to Vashti’s failure.

They might claim that Vashti’s goal of defending and promoting her ego and her social status may not be different in principle than Ahashverosh, while Esther is not concerned with self-aggrandizement but with helping her people. .

The issue is important to us today. How should women act in what is still, in many ways, a man’s world? Which of these two women, if either, represent the way that should inspire us, the way that we should seek to emulate? Which of the two beautiful women, Esther or Vashti, is our preferred “supermodel”?

‘It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world’

Think of the world of the Megillah (Esther 1-2). Would you characterize that as a “man’s world”? Is this world fundamentally similar to ours? Read this commentary by Tamar Biala, a contemporary Israeli religious feminist:

As in the Megillah, so in our world, patriarchal norms still rule. Our world bears a striking resemblance to the feast in Ahashverosh’s court. In our world, too, women are invited to parties and talk shows to show off their beauty. If they refuse to co-operate, they are put aside for others [who are more compliant]. Vashti’s sexuality is controlled by the men around her. In our world, the “royal court” is often found within the home…and the control of women is an issue that touches all of us. Men control women but not only women. They also control, cruelly and painfully, men who are weaker than them. Men are conditioned to use and to need a society based on hierarchy. The fantasy of being at the top of the totem pole or next to it, is the fantasy of being immune to humiliation by others and to the fear that they will discover who I [the man] really am, vulnerable and frightened…like all people, in need of contact with others and in need of help from others. On the altar of hierarchy, then, are sacrificed not only women and weaker men but the soft parts of the soul, those that cry out for contact…

While at first sight, the central story [of the Megillah] appears to be the story of the Jewish people and the change in its fortune, in the light of the centrality of the women characters in the Megillah, it may really be about their survival as women in a patriarchal world. Megillat Esther very cleverly describes how it is possible to break this hierarchy characterized by discrimination among sexes, economic classes and ethnic groups.. The character who represents the most successful challenge to the system is Esther, who chooses to fight it in a totally different way to that of Vashti…[Vashti chooses public protest that aggravates male fears and forces a do-or-die confrontation. In effect she leads not only to her own downfall but to a more repressive regime that orders all wives to obey their husband’s whims in the whole empire. Esther’s graceful kindness to servants like Hegai and to competing women contestants and to the ever vulnerable and childish Ahashverosh offers a non-confrontationalist model. Esther knows how to take advice from others, while Vashti rebels. Vashti makes her life and-death stand on her right to her own party, while Esther speaks up to save her people as well as to serve the king’s interests]. Esther teaches us…not to escape [the challenge] and not to try and save yourself in your own fortified palace, but…to take responsibility and to ask others to do the same…And even if you are at the top of the totem pole, to dare to show your more vulnerable side, and to request help from others.

Tamar Biala

North American scholar Michael Fox takes a different view:

[As opposed to Vashti, Esther] gets her way through deceptive and [roundabout] means…Esther is totally unaware of [God] and not inspired by religious faith…Woman’s independence is repudiated by the example made of Vashti, a repudiation Esther fails to oppose…The author fails even to credit Esther with any particular zeal in her desire to save her people…She is pretty, obedient, silver tongued and somewhat manipulative, using placatory language and ingratiating formulas. She waits patiently and obediently until the king gives permission for an audience and only then speaks. Though the king invites her to make her request, she procrastinates. Her example teaches that aesthetic grace paves the way for woman’s success, whereas man’s power comes from ethical fiber. It is true that she outwits two rather stupid males and victory is due to Haman falling into the trap, but the pivotal moment occurs in a bedroom scene. She acts not as [God’s] agent but as her uncle’s.

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