Gender roles

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!

He/She Politics

A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
— Deut. 22:5

This past week’s New York Times education supplement carried an article on gender politics in university, specifically on what is being called the third gender, an ambiguous place that is not male or female. The author presents the identity conundrum: “For years, writers and academics have argued that gender identity is not a male/female binary but a continuum along which any individual may fall, depending on a variety of factors, including anatomy, chromosomes, hormones and feelings. But the dichotomy is so deeply embedded in our culture that even the most radical activists had been focused mainly on expanding the definitions of the two pre-existing categories.”

For those who belittle this conversation and think it is irrelevant, visit Facebook and have a look at the gender terms you can choose to describe yourself. As of today, there are 58 of them. Most of us are used to going to the doctor’s office and checking off male or female in the category of gender. But those forms are fast changing and adapting to a different reality. On updated forms “sex” today refers to the biological formation of chromosomes, hormones, reproductive capacity, gonads and external anatomy. “Gender” refers to the way one feels about one’s personal sense of masculinity or femininity. Gender activists will make the case that there are many choices on that spectrum. What many of us only considered a one-box choice suddenly became a line that we marked somewhere that seemed to apply to our small and specific sense of self in the wider universe.

This is not a new conversation. The Talmud discusses several legal cases involving those with both sexual organs and those with unclear biological gender features. These terms, however, are not about gender feelings but about scientific categorization for the sake of determining particular Jewish responsibilities within the law. The biblical verse above gets to the more subjective issues of gender – this new sliding scale of self-identity – because it talks about external coverings and behaviors apart from biological destiny.

Medieval commentators range in their understanding of what is prohibited when it comes to cross-dressing. Most believe that the problem is not in wearing clothing of the opposite sex but in doing so in order to disguise oneself for the purpose of sexual co-mingling or promiscuity. A man dresses like a woman in order to gain entrance into a women’s locker room. The problem is the lie and the behaviors that follow from this lie. It’s not the clothes. Others argue that the verse points to something more subtle, a behavior associated with pagan rites and magic or some kind of sexual deviance. Some translate “kli gever” not as male clothing but as male objects and suggest that this prohibits a woman from carrying a gun, for example. We’ve moved far afield, from clothing to the combat zone. This would also apply in the reverse. Behaviors and implements associated with women – like make-up – are forbidden to men.

We are on a pretty slippery slope here because as we know, over time, men stopped wearing earrings (then started again) and long tunics and women started wearing business suits. Fashions change. Perhaps this is why many medieval writers saw this verse in terms of an illicit behavior rather than a superficial matter of covering.

One could say that the verse itself acknowledges that gender identity can easily become blurred and, therefore, must be affirmed by engaging in practices and dress that cement one’s identity. The verse is strong. God abhors these behaviors. How do we explain this judgmental and harsh language?

Basic identity questions can force us into states of such great confusion that they become destabilizing. We don’t know who we are, and we don’t see ourselves fitting in with the accepted categories we’ve been offered. We don’t find it easy to check off a box. One of the reasons for the multiplicity of gender terms now is a result of people failing to find any one category as sufficiently descriptive of who they are and what they feel about themselves.

I think God was on to something in terms as asking us to make that choice and affirm it in dress and behavior. When you are unsure of who you are it can be excruciatingly painful to form relationships with others, with God and arguably - most importantly -  with self. Maybe it’s too generous a reading, but I think what God detests is our failure to name ourselves. It can lead to self-hate and hate of others.

This may be too modern a reading for some or not modern enough for others. Either way, it’s time to take the conversation on religion and gender identity seriously. It’s an extremely hard conversation. That doesn’t mean we can avoid it.

Shabbat Shalom