Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Internet trolls trying to feel better by abusing others -Jewish teaching is for them too. The world is created and can be destroyed with words.

In the uncharted territory of social media we find a variety of inhabitants. Bloggers, tweeters, virtual lifers … and of course trolls. The troll’s sole purpose on the net is to abuse and argue with others, and to cause emotional upset wherever they can.  Many celebrities have their own personal trolls, and wherever women’s issues are mentioned, or politics or race or religion or human rights or refugees – there too trolls convene. The perceived anonymity of the online world means verbal bullying and cruelty seem to them to be acceptable, even justifiable.

Judaism is deeply aware of the power of words, teaching that the world is created by speech.

There is a Chassidic story about a man who gossips about his rabbi, who, realising the wickedness of this behaviour goes to the rabbi to apologise, offering to make amends for the rumours he has spread. The rabbi instructs him to take a feather bolster, cut it open and scatter the contents to the winds, and so he does. When he returned, the rabbi said “now, go and gather up all the feathers”. The man protested that this was impossible, and the rabbi told him, “like the feathers you cast to the winds, the words you spoke can never be recalled, and the damage done can never be undone”.

Like this man, the internet trolls surely cannot imagine the damage that they do, and even deleting the posts will not remove the pain they inflicted.

God said to the tongue “you are kept guarded inside the body, and not only that but I surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips)”

Speaking negatively of others is easily done, and may give us a momentary sense of self esteem. But the cost to our souls is real and the cost to others – both the individual who is demeaned or trolled in social media posts and to civic society and civil discourse – that is real too.

In mythology light destroys trolls, and in Judaism there is an awareness that the light shines on us wherever we are, even in the anonymous depths of the internet. The Rabbis tell us if we remember three things we won’t come into the power of sin: That there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and that everything is recorded in a book.

A talk given at Stand Up to Racism, Unite against Fascism

Michael Rosen wrote a poem called Fascism: I sometimes fear…

“I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 

It will restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

 It doesn’t walk in saying, 

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

I am the child of a man displaced in childhood by the holocaust, the grandchild of a man who died from the results of his treatment in Dachau, a member of a family dislocated from its various places of origin, washed up as refugees a number of times in recent history. My known and documented roots go back in over 600 years to Byeloruss, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France and Spain, and each time the family story of leaving is one of trying to escape irrational ethnic and religious hatred with only a handful of possessions to start again.

One thing I have learned is that history does repeat itself, and that much as we may protest ‘never again’, the reality is that genocides continue, that racism continues, that hatred for the other continues. I am not a believer in the idea that the more we explain why we shouldn’t be doing it, the more people will stop doing it. It doesn’t happen in campaigns to promote healthy behaviour; it doesn’t help in campaigns against damaging behaviours.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Essentially this 5th Century Document collecting much earlier traditions is telling us that baseless hatred of the other is worse than the three most appalling behaviours it can imagine, all put together – and it destroys everything of value if we allow it to take root.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, commented on this teaching : “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh v.3)

It is one of his most famous teachings and is often quoted – if we only treat the world with love that has no base in reason but is simply freely offered, then we will rebuild it and challenge the irrational hatred by our love for the other.

But there is something rather deeper in his work that is not as often explained. He asks why it is that people have an unreasonable and irrational hatred of the other, and goes on to explain that is not, as we commonly assert, because of the behaviour of the other, but the reason and source of our hatred is firmly rooted in our own selves. All of our own selves.

He teaches that while we may give ourselves reasons for why we do not trust others, or hate them, (their clothing, their cooking, their keeping themselves to themselves, their strange belief system, whatever….) actually these are simply created to comfort ourselves and to distract ourselves from a hard truth.

The source of our hatred comes, he teaches, from our own fundamental life force, which is both the important force for our growth and development, and which we need in order to flourish and to thrive – but which is also an important element in our desire to survive, and hence it opposes everything that it experiences as different and therefore potentially threatening to our own ability to succeed in life. In other words, our baseless hatred of the other is inherent in our humanity, a perversion of a necessary trait for our survival.

At first sight this is dispiriting, but it is not impossible to deal with once we decide to recognise it. For the reality is that the fear or hatred of the other which fuels all the racism we see in the world, shares a root with our life force, which includes the love of life, the desire to thrive, to live in a good and nurturing world. They are two sides of one coin, and it is possible to transmute the hatred by seeing the good in what we default to as negative or dangerous, by seeing the humanity in the other.

Elsa Cayet was the only woman killed at Charlie Hebdo, killed because she was Jewish, albeit not a conventionally practising Jew, and while she was not religiously observant, she followed in the tradition of challenging everything she encountered, and demanded an intellectual analysis and response.

Her final article, published posthumously in the magazine, declared:

“Human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief—that is, from everything we have had to swallow, everything we have had to believe.”

The point she is making is that all too often we simply swallow the words of others, the perspectives that difference equals danger, or at least a different practise has less value than our way, a person not like us has less humanity than us. She goes on to remind the reader that we have to confront our primal fears and certainties, have to think about them, critique them, take responsibility for them, and not allow them to shape us, to sentence us to unthinking assumptions that may well lead us to hatred of the other.

I stand here, the child of a family whose paternal generations just before mine were almost entirely murdered, because of causeless hatred or indifference to suffering because of a refusal to see the ‘other’ as part of the same life force that supports everyone; whose maternal ancestry experienced the same hatred in other parts of the world in earlier times. I stand here a Rabbi who has worked within the Jewish community, active in interfaith work and intercommunity meetings, because, in part, one of my teachers truly believed (along with Rav Kook) that if we encounter the other in ordinary situations we begin to realise that their humanity is identical to ours, that the conclusion of our life force that difference is dangerous, cannot survive the meeting with such difference. I stand here to say that in our own lifetimes and our own towns and cities, the words “never again” are being drowned out once more by fear and hatred of people who are swallowing the beliefs of their deepest survival instincts without any examination of them. And we must speak out. We must insist that we look for the good, for the shared humanity, rather than focus on the different and see only that which scares us. We must demand that the values of Life – of a commitment to freedom, of valuing difference and diversity, of the inclusion of all peoples in our society, of causeless love rather than causeless hatred take precedence in our worlds.

We stand together against all who cause divisiveness amongst our communities, who shout a rhetoric of hatred, who use the fears and anxieties of people against us and our shared interest. And we stand together against those who seek to control the hatred for their own interests. Let us take on board the teaching of Rav Kook and remind ourselves that we can neutralise the damage working together with causeless love.

Talk Given at Stand up to Racism event at House of Commons 29th January 2015