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March 6, 2015 1:09 pm

Esther is the Poster Woman for Women’s Rights

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. The real heroine of Purim was Esther, who really had to make something of herself. Photo: RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

In my student days, when I used to campaign for women’s rights, I thought that the Purim story was about the suffering of women. That drunk male numbskulls who got boozed up on excessive amounts of alcohol forced their smelly, priapic, testosterone-fueled bodies on unwilling, disadvantaged women.

King Achashverosh was a typical male chauvinist pig. A lazy slob, a sybaritic cross between an oriental potentate and a parasite, he probably never did a day’s work in his life. He is surrounded by incompetent, sycophantic advisors who come in sets of seven. When he finds himself short of financial liquidity he looks around desperately for an easy source of income. He is impressed by Haman’s scheme to kill and confiscate. He tries to buy loyalty by putting on huge lavish feasts, orgies of extravagance at which he expects his wife, Vashti, to come and perform.

One version is that Vashti had the guts to stand up to him. She risked her life—perhaps even lost it—because she refused to be treated as a second class citizen, as an object, as a beauty queen to be shown off with her body examined like a race horse or a stripper. “Good for her,” I thought, “and shame on the men who think that Vashti’s action threatens their pathetic manhood.” They insist on a proclamation that the men must be in charge of their households and the women must obey them. Achashverosh has no mind of his own. Pussy that he is, he gives in to his pathetic advisors. Reluctantly he gets rid of Vashti (probably literally). Then he misses her, poor sap. Until his young clubbing buddies advise him to gather up all the virgins in the empire and hold a beauty competition. I liked Vashti. She had guts. She is the heroine, and she pays with her life!

Esther, on the other hand, was a poor orphan who had been bullied into becoming a passive wimp and was raised by a rigid, strict, humorless cousin. He, in a Machiavellian way, uses her body to get close to the king to advance his own political career. He’s pimping her, knowing she will have to spend a night with the king with no guarantee that he will call her back. I know, he had no choice. But since when do polemics care about the facts?

Then her fate will be to join the hundreds of other concubines, used, discarded, and wasting away their lives in the seraglio. Mordechai is pulling the strings. He orders her not to divulge her origins. Antisemitism is everywhere. Haman was no exception. The 75,000 neo-fascists who were killed in the end amounted to a significant force. Fortunately she wins the competition and is crowned Miss Persian Empire. Even so, the addicted king keeps the virgins coming in. And as Mordechai says, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t be replaced.

It is five years later. Mordechai tells Esther of Haman’s decree and orders her to go to the king. But she can’t if she’s not been called, and she hasn’t seen the king for thirty days. Not much of a marriage if she only gets to see her husband that rarely. But then, he does have thousands of new virgins to try out. Poor Esther has to fast for three days and then risk her life. She has a plan. She invites the king to a banquet. Oh yes, he loves banquets. There she can’t come right out and tell the king what an evil man Haman is, so she uses subterfuge and seduction to titillate his curiosity to the point of bursting. But she also cleverly makes the king jealous. Is Haman a competitor for her affections? He was already wondering if Haman’s suggestion of dressing up in the king’s clothes and riding his horse wasn’t a challenge to his authority. Then when the timing is right, she comes out with it. Haman wants to kill her! The king is furious. Haman goes. Esther saves her people and gets Mordechai a promotion. She has done all this by using devious feminine wiles, whereas gutsy up-front Vashti got shown the door.

Time has passed. In our modern era women get as drunk as men and proposition basketball stars and post nude selfies and flock to see “50 Shades of Gray.” Perhaps Vashti was no idealist after all. She was insulted because only belly dancers, concubines, and girls of doubtful morals attended such drunken excesses where the drink was laced with date rape drugs. Queens had their own sedate gatherings. Or did they? Perhaps they invited male strippers and models, or some sadomasochistic football jocks. The last thing they wanted were fat, drunk, smelly politicians, bureaucrats, or eunuchs for heaven’s sake. She was nothing more than a Kim Kardashian who would do anything for money.

Now I began to see that the real heroine was Esther, who really had to make something of herself. It was not as if she had a choice. The virgins were rounded up because the King commanded. Try turning Putin down, and see where your body ends up! She realized that the way to win the king was not to use gimmicks, gizmos, or aphrodisiacs. She would simply use the God-given gifts she had. She stood for authenticity, for honesty, no games. She put her own life on the line for her people not just for herself.

She might have started off taking orders from Mordechai, but she soon learned to take the initiative. She reported that Mordechai had discovered a plot to kill the king and that halted Haman’s meteoric rise. It was her idea to fast and to order the community to support her. It was her idea to play the king, to intrigue him, to even refuse his insistence she tell him what she really wanted. She played it all so cleverly that she won the king’s confidence and became the one who gets him to do what she wants. She had an eye on power. She distributed favors to Mordechai and then instructed the Jewish people to turn the events into a national holiday and a new feature of the Jewish tradition. That’s some achievement for a Jewish women, one that no one can match now, two-and-a-half thousand years later. She’s the poster woman for women’s rights, not Vashti.

Yes, of course, there’s another story here of antisemitism, of prejudice and irrational hatred, of what happens when leaders are weak or drunk and abdicate their responsibility to their advisers. It’s about having stupid laws, too, ones that cannot be withdrawn or overturned. And it’s about the right to self-defense. We sensitive moderns might be queasy about killing the enemy, but no one asked them to attack us. The anti-Jews could have stayed at home instead of parading down the streets of Shushan with placards proclaiming “Death to the Jews”. Sometimes you need to provoke your secret enemies and flush out the hidden foe. You need spirit and foresight to win the battle.

Above all there’s a spiritual message that, as Mordechai said, it is up to us to do our best, but if all else fails “help will come from somewhere else.” As it does. Mordechai is no ordinary exile. He has vision, and possibly prophecy, and an understanding of the problems of the empire, the dangers the Jews face. God is indeed hidden in the Book of Esther. He gets no mention. But He is there all the time, in the background and by implication.

In every generation the most unlikely heroes emerge to save us from others and from ourselves. It is not necessarily the great rabbis who make the right decisions. Sometimes it is a good political connection, a loving relationship, a business alliance, or just a person being there at the right moment that turns the course of history. That’s the miracle of Purim. Anyone can be a hero.

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  • Sarah R

    I entirely agree with you. Your point is very germane to current sexual politics: it’s frightening that so many college-age girls seem to have no knowledge of the kind of ‘feminine wiles’ needed to protect oneself among Ahasuerus-type drunken louts. Carefully controlling and directing male desire won’t work against today’s Hamams, the genocidal rapists of ISIS, or in Nigeria, DR Congo, Sudan, etc, but it’s very effective against the kind of threats Western woman face. Thank you for this (and sorry I’m seeing it so late).

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Thank you! Better late than never!!!!!

  • The question is! Does religion which derives from man “is stranger than men’s mind?” when been born between Egypt, Persia, Greek and Rome who were dominated by the Nordic barbarians which the last big Viking rise took place June 8, 793 AD ending as salt fish man. No wonder that men’s mind was compressed to a “Split mind” where kings went crazy, even Shakespeare was crazy before he became a known Author. I’m for women leaders that probably can became a lesbian by accident in party party tricks. Pls. make sure that the title of the article is in accordance to the article.

    Happy Purim Torah

  • Jon R.


    A long and tendentious piece meant to rationalize the author’s deep-seated need for the Jewish, rather than the non-Jewish, woman to the the “women’s rights heroine.”

    The Book of Esther is a repellent Jewish revenge fantasy, with only a tenuous historical connection. And while there is some limited historicity, there is no historically documented Jewish involvement. What probably happened was that a Jewish writer in the 2nd century BC took a pastiche of Persian historical tidbits, possibly filtered through Greek sources, and then inserted Jewish characters. Like Daniel, it might possibly have been covertly directed at the Seleucid dynasty, but clearly Ahasuerus is drawn from Persian history and was possibly a composite of Xerxes I and others.

    But the Esther novel is Judaism at its most unappetizing–which is most unappetizing indeed. The celebration of the murder of 75,000 Persians says a lot about the religion that incorporates this fable.

    The absurd question of who is the real female heroine in the book pales into insignificance in the context of the tale’s overall anti-goy viciousness.

    One wonders why, if there was so much “anti-semitism” in the 2nd Temple period, Jews needed to make up fictional stories to illustrate it instead of, you know, simply taking real events and describing them.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      A revenge story? Really? You sound like those who blame Israel for attacking Gaza after Gaza sends thousands of rockets into civilian areas.
      No one asked the Persian anti Semites it attack the Jews and they only killed those who trued it kill them.
      Whats wrong with you? Were you reading Elliot Horowitz’s Reckless Rites? Look at the text.

      • Jon R.

        Tell me why you think there is a historical basis for the Esther story.

        Yes, Xerxes was apparently murdered by the commander of his guard, Artabanus. His son Artaxerxes I then killed Artabanus and all his sons. That element may have found its way into Esther. Of course, in Esther, Mordecai, injected by the unknown Jewish author, intervenes to save the king. But there is nothing aside from this tall tale that suggests Jewish involvement in this Persian historical episode.

        Later in the Achaemenid period, Artaxerxes III and most of his sons may have been murdered by his vizier/PM, Bagoas, who put two puppets in succession on the throne. He killed the first, Artaxerxes IV, but the second, Darius III, whom he tried to poison, turned the tables and ended up forcing Bagoas to drink his own poison. So here we have the evil vizier figure who could have become Haman. We also have something like the scene where Haman is hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

        I would hypothesize that the purpose of the bit about Vashti, aside from the creation of a rationale for a Jewish woman to become queen, is meant as a Jewish critique of non-Jewish domestic mores. The notion that a king would parade his wife naked before others is ludicrous, but the intent is to contrast the disarray and dissension it portrays with Jewish moral standards, a common feature of Jewish scripture.

        The bottom line is that there is no historical Jewish connection to any known Persian court politics. Like the Egyptian sojurn, Esther is a vehicle designed to dramatize the imagined wrongs being done to Jews by all and sundry and then revel in the bloody revenge fantasy at the end. How convenient that Haman just happens to be “the Agagite,” descended from that scary old enemy, the Amalekites. Yeah, I’m sure an Amalekite ended up as PM of the Persian empire.

        The pattern is clear: Jews create these tales of unremitting harassment and then end up imagining there is some historicity to them and that they are proof of how much they have suffered! Totally insane!

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Gosh you are a nasty piece of work with a venomous tongue and a sick mind.

      I don’t care about historicity at all. This is a document whether factual or not, in my opinion it doesn’t matter, that has been part of our tradition for thousands of years and conveys certain messages about societies, governments, human behavior and prejudice and hatred.

      The moral lessons and the spiritual ones are the essence.
      And they include the simple fact that if people hate you and try to destroy you, you should stand up and defend yourselves.

      • Jon R.

        “I don’t care about historicity at all.”

        In other words, you are unable or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Sorry but when something you label as “your tradition” is merely a fantasy that you use to buttress your own sense of moral self-importance and to make claims of historical suffering at the hands of–well, practically everybody, then you deserve to be called out for it. If you have a problem with that, too bad!

        Do you really see nothing problematic with making claims of suffering and oppression based on a made-up story? Now that’s really a sickness of the mind!

        Bibi stands before the US Congress, claiming a historical continuity of anti-Jewish action in Iran by referring to this utter fiction, but you, naturally, have no problem with that. The lesson here is that those who pose the greatest practical and moral threat are those who operate in the real world on the basis of self-indulgent fictions they tell themselves. And you are exhibit A.

        Of course, the messenger who conveys the truth about your moral delusions to you is a “nasty piece of work.” That’s just comical.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      None so blind as he who will not see.

      You started by questioning the historicity. Something I agreed with and said I thought it made no difference.The issue is how one deals with ones enemies.

      Then you go on to talk about Netanyahu.Also something I agree with you about but nothing to do with whether Purim is historical fact or not.

      Are you suggesting that in days gone by there was no Jew hatred? Its all a fable?
      Thats why I conclude you are either malignant or deluded.

  • rulierose

    I’m sorry, but–“poster woman”? this is a great example of political correctness gone wild. I presume you didn’t want to say “poster child” because it infantilizes women or some such. so instead, you’ve made up a phrase that is meaningless and awkward at the same time.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      I did not entitle my piece that way. The editors at Algemeiner did.
      Mine was “Purim Torah.”