Today marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday Purim (observing Jews will have started celebrating last night at sundown). This joyous festival marks the deliverance of the Jewish people of ancient Persia from a plot to annihilate them, as recorded in the Bible in the Book of Esther.
Esther was the Queen of Persia. Her cousin (or uncle), a Jew, informed her of a plot to massacre the Jews. He asked Esther to implore her husband, the King, to save the Jews. Esther decided instead to reveal her Jewish identity and ask that King save her and her people. The King complied and hanged his chief adviser, who had planned the massacre. Jews then rose up and killed other Persians who had intended to murder them.
As I understand it, the Book of Esther is one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God. It is the straightforward story of how Jews were threatened with genocide but were able to turn the tables and kill those who would kill them.
The Jews prevailed because of the shrewd and courageous actions of Esther, who risked her life to save the lives of her people. No wonder Esther has been lionized by Jews for ages.
As Abby Wisse Schachter reports in the February issue of Commentary, however, Esther’s status may not survive the age of modern feminism. For Jewish feminists, or at least the professionals among them, Esther’s shortcomings are manifold. For one thing, she is too nationalistic. Thus, although some feminists make note of her bravery, they are troubled that she used it only to make the world better a better place for Jews. And the fact that her actions led to the killing of those who were out to kill the Jews is seen as especially problematic.
But the heart of the problem is that Esther, in effect, slept with the enemy – that symbol of male domination, the King. And it is here that the Jewish feminists have pulled off a tour de force of literary criticism that leaves me wondering whether to laugh or cry.
According to Schachter, the feminists have found a new hero in the Book of Esther. She is Queen Vashti, Esther’s predecessor. Vashti appears only briefly, at the beginning of the Book, by way of establishing how Esther came to be the Queen. Vashti was deposed because she refused the King’s summons to appear at a banquet and display her beauty. Although some feminists interpret this as a refusal to appear naked, the Bible does not say this. Moreover, it seems that the most exhaustive collection of ancient Hebrew writings from the era of Esther contains no instances in which the Hebrew word that is used in the Biblical story to connote beauty is associated with nudity or indecency.
Whatever the precise nature of Vashti’s defiance, it has been enough to propel her to iconic status at the expense of Esther. One Jewish feminist writes that “Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor while. . .Esther is willing to work through the bedroom.” A female rabbi salutes Vashti as “the first woman in the Bible who refused to be objectified as a sex object, instead naming such behavior as inappropriate.” But the best instance of Vashti worship comes from a Harvard professor who compares her to Hillary Clinton, with Bill Clinton as the King, and “Monica [Lewinsky], needless to say [as] Esther, the beautiful Jewess.”
It is not necessarily unreasonable to put in a good word for Vashti. But the Jewish feminists have taken things way too far. As Schachter puts it, they have chosen to exalt “the non-Jew over the Jew and the failure over the success.” Most importantly, they have exalted a self-centered act of courage (if courage is what Vashti displayed) over an unambiguous act of courage in defense of an entire people. Even if “the personal is the political,” as feminists insist, not all politics is equal.
The modern treatment of Esther and Vashti is not an isolated event. Rather, it is an instance of what all too often passes for “literary criticism” at America’s institutions of higher learning. The same kind of analysis is performed routinely on all works of literature, whether by feminists, race theorists, “queer” theorists, etc.
If one can take Vashti as far as the feminists have, there are no limits. And, based on my conversations with college students who are subjected to the stunts of modern English and other literature departments, indeed there aren’t.
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