Whores and harems: Sexual Politics and the Book of Esther‏

Like most Jewish feminists, I remember that time of coming of age when I stopped begging to dress up as queen Esther for Purim and started to cheer for Vashti and her independence. I thought that was a simple and sufficiently feminist reaction to the Book of Esther. Recently I watched the recent satirical(‪The Jews Are Coming – Esther and Mordecai, Channel 1)  

 from Israel, which basically asks, “Isn’t Esther a whore? “. It notes how Esther exchanges sexual favours for political ones. The idea of Esther as a prostitute is more nuanced than is portrayed in short sketch. She is the king’s wife when she asks for favours and is in a society that is totally dominated by men so there is not much free choice. But the sketch was so funny because there is real truth in it and I found it hard to dismiss outright. This twinge of discomfort prompted me to  take another critical look at the original text of the Megillah. When I did I found cheering for Vashti is no longer enough for me. Join me in a tour of the Megillah text through a feminist lens.

 

Vashti and the possibly nude dancing

My first encounter with the text of the Megillah was in fifth grade. Our formidable Israeli teacher started off our study by saying, “You think you know what the story of Purim is all about! All you know is the baby version. This year we are going read directly from the Book of Esther.” It was in this class that we got to find out what eunuchs and harems really were and why it was suitable for one to guard the other. Things got exciting in the first chapter, when we learned the midrash that when the king asked Vashti to appear “with her royal crown on to show the people and the princes her beauty because she she was beautiful to look at”, he meant with ONLY the royal crown on her head. In other words, she was asked to appear nude in front of  dignitaries and a crowd. When our teacher described this there were audible gasps from the class.

 

Vashti vs. the Patriarchy

My class was equally shocked when we discovered why her refusal was such a problem for the king. He and his advisors were afraid that the news would travel that the queen had disobeyed the king’s order and women would now women see their husbands in a new light and also refuse to obey their every command. Princesses might now disobey their princes. Those princes, who ruled the states that made up the empire would be mad. So to stave off this possible horrible turn of events, the princes ask the king to banish Vashti and replace her with someone “better” and also to issue a royal decree that all wives must obey all husbands. Just to make sure that everyone understood this, they had the decree translated into all the local languages and published everywhere in the empire. Reading this today it seems like a bunch of SNL writers got together and tried to write a sketch that was the most over-the-top, cheesiest version of the caveman-style patriarchy possible.

I know we make noise every time Haman’s name is mentioned, but when I read these verses on wives obeying their husbands absolutely, I always wonder why no one in the congregation wants to blot them out with noise. We boo Haman and his plan for genocide 54 times. Can’t we boo misogyny even once?

 

Esther and the Harem

My daughter’s books on Purim talk about how Esther was modest and didn’t try to use her beauty to get Ahasuerus’s attention. The kids’ books also portray their relationship as a companionable married couple.  These are great messages but also a real misrepresentation of the story. Esther spends a year in the virgin harem house getting ready for her one night with the king after which she is sent to the non-virgin harem house which she can only leave (ever) when called for by name. This does not change when the king likes her better than all the women and makes her queen. Nor does he get rid of either of the harem houses at this point. Somehow that part is not in the kids’ books.

When Mordecai tells Esther that she must ask the king to save her people she reminds him that anyone who goes to talk to the king with out being specifically invited is killed unless he signals otherwise. She mentions she not seen the king in a month. Then when she enters the king’s room and he sees her in her “royal attire”, she is pleasing in his eyes, so he lets her enter and not be killed. This does not sound like a relationship that is built on anything but superficial appearance and sex appeal. Certainly in companionate, love-based marriage we do not risk death by entering our spouse’s room, we do not have to earn an audience by making sure our appearance is pleasing and we generally  converse more than on a monthly basis. If anything she reminds me of a “honeypot” female spy who works for a government getting state secrets by seducing officials of the other side. They are not glamorous James Bond style spies. They serve their countries,  but not in a way that we would aspire to.

 

Why the King wants to Kill Haman

After Esther reveals she is Jewish and asks the king to save her and reverse Haman’s decree, the king takes a moment and leaves the “feast of wine” to head out to the palace garden. At this moment, no decision has been made at all to save the Jews and no decision has been made at all to punish Haman or what kind of punishment that might be. Haman stays to plead for mercy from Esther.  The king returns from the garden to find that Haman has “fallen on the bed that Esther was on”. Shocked he says,  “Is he also going to ravish the queen while I am in the house?”. It is then that the king decides Haman should die. When my class heard this, there were no gasps from aghast tweens, just a shocked silence. Did the teacher mean what we thought she meant? Did Ahasuerus decide to kill Haman at least in part because he thought Haman made the moves on his woman? With a modern adult eye, what is more shocking the easily wounded male ego that drives decisions of state or the treatment of Esther as a sexual object who is the property of a man?

 

The Truth about Purim

While Esther was still very much a hero for risking death to save her people, it is a kind of narrow, constrained heroism I don’t dream of for my daughters. If they are old enough to hear the “real story and not the baby version”, then kids are old enough to be taught about what women’s place was in the world of the Megillah, and what it is today and how while a lot of things have changed, not enough have. Just like there are still people who hate irrationally and destroy nations to advance their political power and egomania like Haman, there are still plenty of people who think that “every man should rule his house”. (There may be some overlap in those two groups). Our kids need to hear these troubling parts too, and to hear our unequivocal reaction.

Let’s hope our daughters get to thrive in positive ways, neither by opting out or leaving an oppressive culture like Vashti nor by doing what they can through sexual appeal within an oppressive culture that devalues them, like Esther. Let’s hope if they influence rulers it is because they are themselves politicians not because they are sexual partners of them. Let’s hope if they want to protest the patriarchy, they have more options than ending up banished. Let’s hope they read the Megillah and find its misogyny hilariously distant from anything they experience in real life.

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6 Responses to Whores and harems: Sexual Politics and the Book of Esther‏

  1. S. Benson says:

    On the one hand, the modern well-educated person tries to be culturally sensitive and to understand cultural relativism. When we evaluate the mores of a society of ~2,500 years ago, we should understand the “rules that they played by” and not simply apply our values.
    On the other hand, we also want to take the text of the Torah and apply it to our lives. When we read the texts, we want to learn timeless truths.

    These two dynamics do not always fit together seamlessly.

    I do not know much about harem life in 400 BCE Persia. I do not know how happy, fulfilled, or self-actualized the women were. I’ll only say that I doubt the women simply sat around doing nothing for month-after-month. I’ll assume that keeping harems filled with large numbers of bored, unhappy women doesn’t sound like a sustainable system.
    However, I am fairly sure that a woman of Esther’s status probably could not mobilize a demonstration, crowd-source information, or create a Political Action Committee to lobby for regulatory relief.
    Do we, with our modern sense, judge her to be a whore because of her behavior? Or do we acknowledge it was a different time and place: that she played by the rules of her society and with the hand dealt her?

    • My point is not that she did the best with the hand she was dealt- she did an amazing job . My point is that the hand she was dealt was awful. Also this is not a historical story- but in Persia at the time it was set there were in fact harems of women who never left unaccompanied by their eunuch guards.

  2. Mark Matchen says:

    She wasn’t a whore because that’s a character trait, not a résumé item. She used the only tool at her disposal given the time and circumstances. It’s not a question of assessing her status 2,400 years ago. It a matter of assessing the Jewish response to the story in every time period since then, including our own. How do Jews read the Megilla today?

    I think Aurora helps us read it. It’s a story of oppression of Jews, and it’s also a story of oppression of women. Both the Jews and Esther overcome their oppression, to some degree, and at some cost. Esther does a noble thing via an ignoble act. The Jews survive and in the process slaughter thousands. As in the best stories, nothing – especially morality – is absolute, but there are truths told and lessons to be learned.

  3. yonah says:

    We boo Haman and his plan for genocide 54 times. Can’t we boo misogyny even once?

    It’s not quite booing, but in our congregation, we read the proclamation that wives must obey husbands in the Eikhah trop. It is astounding that Ahashverosh escapes so much critique. His moral edge over Haman is barely-there.

    Thanks for the excellent post.

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