By Erica Brown
When I lived in Boston, I had a neighbor who called her dog Vashti. It was funny to hear her yell at her dog when the dog was misbehaving. When I asked this neighbor how she came up with the dog’s name, she shrugged and laughed: “It’s a perfect name. The dog never listens.”
This has been Vashti’s tagline for centuries. She’s the woman who refuses. In the Book of Esther, Vashti rejected the demand to show up to King Ahasuerus’ party, “wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him” (Esther 1:11-12). One need not go to the midrash’s extreme position that Vashti was asked her to appear with nothing but her crown because the indignity of appearing in front of a drunk husband and his friends is awful enough.
Comedian Dave Barry and his co-authors in their book “A Field Guide to the Jewish People” have a different take on the issue: “Vashti refused, and before she could even file a lawsuit alleging that Ahasuerus had created an unsafe workplace environment, Ahasuerus had her exiled. Vashti was like: ‘Is that supposed to be a punishment?’ and promptly left the Hebrew Bible, never to return.” In other words, Vashti was preserving her self-worth in refusing to submit to Ahasuerus’ public display of her wares.
Long before the days of social media, Vashti’s disobedience was assumed to travel near and far, toppling the patriarchal hierarchy in homes everywhere: “For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!” (1:17-18). It would be funny, if the anxiety weren’t so real.
The midrashic treatment of Vashti, to this point, is harsh and unforgiving. Vashti is identified in the Talmud as “the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, the wicked” (BT Megilla 10b). She’s the woman in the Hebrew Bible who, in rabbinic literature, is easy to hate because she stood up to a male with ultimate authority. She’s the one in rabbinic literature whose face is pocked with legions, her beauty forever marred because she spoke truth to power.
Naturally, Vashti was a woman who interested early suffragettes and was treated as a heroine by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucinda B. Chandler in The Woman’s Bible. To them, Vashti “exercised heroic courage in asserting womanly dignity and the inherent human right never recognized by kingship, to choose whether to please and to obey the king.” Like the midrash, they took some liberties with the original text: “Vashti stands out as a sublime representative of self-centered womanhood. Rising to the heights of self-consciousness and of self-respect, she takes her soul into her own keeping, and though her position both as wife and as queen are jeopardized, she is true to the Divine aspirations of her nature.”
Vashti makes another fascinating appearance in an 18th-century illustrated Haggadah from Alsace. The scholar Ori Z. Soltes observes that this French Vashti looks remarkably like Marie Antoinette: “The fall of one queen is seen as an echo of the fall of the other, albeit under very different circumstances and with very different consequences.”
There is an oblique suggestion, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, that this illustration of a despised and deposed queen was necessary in the service of liberty.
The “divine aspirations” of Vashti’s nature are never mentioned in the Book of Esther. We know nothing about her, only that her refusal set the stage for Esther’s appearance, and Esther’s worry that she needed, in the shadow of Vashti’s banishment, to act within the rules, to color, so to speak, within the lines. When Esther finally found her voice, she did so by also defying the king’s rules. Unlike Vashti, however, Esther gets away with it. Vashti taught Esther, as she teaches us, that there are women who stood up for their dignity and suffered so that women later in the future might understand how to continue the fight. And perhaps, in light of the #MeToo Movement, we might be more generous in our understanding that there was an Esther because there was a Vashti.
Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her latest book is “The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile” (Koren).