Long Live the Queen

Vashti refused to come...
— Esther 1:12

True story: we once had a neighbor who had a dog named Vashti. One day, I stopped him on the street and asked him why he gave the dog that name. "It's simple. The dog refused to listen."

Vashti gets a lot of heat. She seems to be vilified everywhere. Even bad dogs carry her name. In Talmudic aggada, she is accused of making a party with immoral intent, told to come to her husband's party wearing only a crown, and refuses on the grounds that she's covered in leprous pimples or had grown a tail [BT Megilla 12a-b]. Her refusal had little to do with modesty but a lack of humility. As royalty herself, she refused to listen to her husband's demand and tried to put him in his place as someone beneath her in class and station: "You used to be the stable boy in my father's house, and you used to bring naked harlots before you. Now that you have ascended the throne, you still have not changed your habits." The same Talmudic pages accuse her of taking Jewish women to serve her, asking them to parade before her without clothing and then work for her on Shabbat. Because of this, tradition says that she was executed on Shabbat. 

The midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni contends that she denied Ahashverosh permission to rebuild the Temple. This seems far-fetched to derive from the little bit of text we have about Vashti in the Book of Esther but in midrashic tradition, Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed Solomon's Temple and the daughter of King Belshazzar from the book of Daniel who drank out of Temple goblets at parties. The idea was to weave these characters together to demonstrate a pattern of anti-Jewish behavior in the family DNA.

Much later, in the 16th century when a spate of commentaries on Esther surfaced, Jews of the diaspora used the text to question their relationship with royalty in the century following the Inquisition. We're not at all surprised to find readings that equate Ferdinand with Ahashverosh and Isabella with Vashti. For Jews who were converted, burned at the stake or exiled, there was a certain comfort in believing that fate could change and that irrational decrees by the king may one day be overturned in their favor.

This all seems quite unfair to poor Vashti, who ultimately takes a hit for Persia and is banished from the book if not actually executed. She simply disappears from its verses and is replaced with one verse sharing the king's sober remorse. If we do a close reading of the verses, Vashti seems modest, humble and appropriately defensive of her propriety. If anything, the king's anger seems misplaced, an anger that subsided when the impact of alcohol left him and he could see his own behavior more clearly.

"Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Ahashverosh. On the seventh day, when King Ahashversoh was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him--Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas-- to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger."

Vashti was asked to be an object on display and refused. It was beneath her, princess or not. The reason, according to some later scholars, that Vashti takes such a hammering is that Jews had to blame someone for the indignities and injustices they experienced at the hand of royalty. Because Jews of the medieval period often enjoyed a special relationship to the king as servi camerae who paid taxes and enjoyed protection, the relationship between the monarch and the Jews could not be tarnished, even when it contradicted reality. In such instances, it was a lot safer to blame the queen.

I offer another reading based on Esther as comedy rather than tragedy. Throughout history, men know what to do with beautiful women. They do not know what to do with powerful women. The fact that the King must consult his advisors about a private marital spat that then gets "tweeted" out to the whole kingdom to re-establish the security of the husband in every household shows just how comedic this scene is. The midrash had to make her ugly in order for us not to like her. Insecure men suffer at the hands of very secure women. But perhaps one day, in a gender-blind society, influence and kindness will trump both power and beauty.

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom!