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Women in Shushan: Playing by the Rules and Winning

Only way women can find space for themselves they can expand to point of independent power is precisely through agency of men.
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Wikimedia Commons/Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
Wikimedia Commons/Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
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

What was the situation of women in the world of Ahashverosh? How much control did they have over their own lives? How could they respond to the situation in which they find themselves?

These are some of the crucial questions that a reading of the Megillah throws up to us.

The world of Ahashverosh presents us with a typical, almost stereotyped version of a patriarchal male society where the orders are given – and the social order created and controlled – exclusively by men.

Women sit inside the male web and are presented as objects for male perusal. In the classic scene that opens the Megillah, it is clear that the task of the women is essentially to appear as both an ornament and a possession – a symbol of the wealth and fortune of the king. In such a situation it is clear that all the essential decisions are controlled by men.

Refusing to acquiesce

The only real freedom that women appear to have is the right to refuse the status that is imposed on them by their men by refusing to acquiesce in the “property market” that is shown to be the dominant mode of interaction between men and women at the royal court. This is of course the major significance of Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king.

Vashti is punished because she refuses to play by the rules at a certain point, the rules that specify that the woman is essentially a play-object meant for the use of the man who wishes to display his wealth and possessions.

Up to now she presumably has played by these rules and has lived up to the king’s expectations in this regard, because otherwise it is difficult to understand the king’s sudden wrath and equally hard to understand how she would have survived as queen up to now.

This conduct of Vashti’s is significantly seen as threatening the male domestic status. “They [the noble women of Persia] will despise their husbands…there will be no end of disrespect and discord” (Ch. 1:17,18).

On the other hand, in refusing to play the game according to the rules as demanded, Vashti might gain her dignity, but she loses her power and her throne. She is doomed to eternal exile from the royal court and presence and her throne is to be given to someone “better than she” (Ch. 1:19).

This will preserve the social fabric of the kingdom in terms of the desired interaction between husbands and wives – “all the wives will give honor to their husbands, both high and low” (1:20). The message is clear. The “better” candidate – the lucky winner – will be a person who understands much better than Vashti, the rules of the game, and will be determined to play according to those rules.

Play by the rules

Social revolutionaries will not get very far in the royal lottery. The qualities desired will certainly include beauty and personal attractiveness, but they will include passivity and compliance as essential ingredients too. It is important to note that the royal marriage is explicitly seen as a model for interactive behavior throughout the kingdom – throughout Ahashverosh’s kingdom of 127 states.

Within this context it is clear that for those women and girls who are unwilling to take the route of Vashti and lose everything for the sake of an abstract principle of justice and dignity, there is only one way to advance and to create a decent life for themselves.

That is to play within the framework of rules constructed by the men and presumably to try and create a little autonomous space for themselves within that male preserve. The question is how?

Is it possible for women to find their own place in a world which has denied them any possibility of independent power which does not come to them through the agency of men?

The answer seems to be contained in the question. The only way that women can find a space for themselves in this world, a space that they can try and expand to the point where they will achieve some independent power that they can use for their own purposes, is precisely through the agency of men.

One of the ironies that underlies the story of the Megillah is the suggestion that ultimately women can gain power, but they can do so only by following a policy of ingratiating themselves within the male society through an exploitation of their femininity, or at least that picture of femininity that the men in the society value.

Esther gains power, but she does it by playing according to the strict rules of the game. Any power that she gains is a direct result of the fact that it is granted to her by the male power, Ahashverosh. Even the one time that she goes against the rules and approaches the king at her own initiative is done out of an express understanding that it is the king’s prerogative to deny her approach and to demand her death.

Thus we see that, ironically, in a male-oriented society such as that of Shushan, women can gain some measure of autonomy and power by acquiescing to the demands of the men, and by creating themselves in the image of the male desire that fuels the men in their relationships with the women that they (think they) control.

Women of strength

A caveat: While we have contrasted Vashti and Esther, emphasizing their opposed responses to the demands of harem life, others have read them as parallel women of strength. Consider the view below before continuing:

Professor Lori Lefkovitz of the Kolot Women’s Center at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College writes:

The traditional opposition of Esther and Vashti ignores the interpretation that the characters are more similar than different and enforces the tendency in Jewish textual interpretation to atomize women and divide them from one another. Vashti and Esther are both figures who are understood to have political power and influence. Both break the rules. Both say “no” for the sake of what they believe is a higher purpose. One important reason for Vashti in the story is to show the reader and Esther what can happen if you don’t follow the rule to appear before the king when called and only when called (that is, not to appear when not
called). Esther follows Vashti’s example, fortunately, with greater success (so pretty, in spite of how down she feels, that the king “touches the royal scepter”!) I would suggest somehow that resistance to unjust authority—albeit played out in terms of displaying the body–is a feature of female heroism in the book overall, a feature shared by both female characters. Moreover, even if the later tradition does not approve of Vashti, there is no indication that the text itself has anything but admiration for her.

We must remember that while the king’s “beauty contest” might well be one of a kind, this marriage is seen as the model that other households are expected to follow in terms of the essence of the married relationship. Thus an analysis of some of the aspects of the royal demands on potential candidates for the position of queen can be expected to shed light on the position of women in general in the society of Ahashverosh’s empire.

Undergoing the long preparation for royal acceptance is likely to produce what might be called a “harem mentality” among women whose hope for security and position in society is predicated almost completely on their being seen as desirable by their would-be husbands.

How far have we really come from the streets of Shushan and the days of the Megillah?

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