A People’s History Of Purim

A week from tomorrow begins the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates the success of the Jews living under the ancient Persian Empire in reversing a plot to annihilate them.

The tale is told in the Book of Esther, also known as the Megillah. Summing up briefly:

During a feast, a drunken King Ahasuerus [likely Xerxes] commands his wife, Vashti, “to show the people and the princes her beauty” (by dancing naked for them, this is generally interpreted to mean). She refuses. Ahaseurus, wrathful, and concerned as to the precedent this will set, gets rid of her, and there Vashti’s part in the story ends. The king, seeking a new wife, then has an assortment of fair young virgins gathered before him, and selects one named Esther. Esther is in fact a Jew, whose real name is Hadassah; she calls herself Esther so as to conceal her true origin.

Esther’s cousin (and foster father) Mordecai learns that the king’s vizier, Haman (who has a grudge against Moredecai and has learned that he is Jewish) has persuaded the king to issue a decree calling for the extermination of all the Jews. Mordecai tells Esther, and urges her to intercede with the king.

Esther, at a banquet, reveals to Ahasuerus that she is Jewish, and that Haman’s plan will result in her death. The king orders Haman hanged, and while he cannot reverse his decree, he issues another written by Mordecai and Esther, allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They hit back hard, and on the 13th day of Adar they kill 75,000 Persians, including Haman’s ten sons.

The tale is traditionally celebrated with feasting and drinking of wine, to honor Esther’s bravery and the triumph of the Jews over those who would slaughter them. But recent years there has been controversy, from a feminist and pacifist perspective, over whether such celebration is appropriate. In particular, feminists have re-interpreted the story so as to focus on Vashti, who refused to subordinate herself to the king, as its true heroine, and to diminish the role of Esther herself, who, despite her bravery, sought only to influence events through her husband. This is of course a complete inversion of the traditional interpretation of the story; indeed, it makes its heroine a woman who wasn’t even Jewish.

Yesterday I came across an interesting article that examines this revisionist view of the Megillah. Here’s how the author, Abby Wisse Schachter, sees it:

Clearly, it is the very notion of Jewish self-defense, not to mention Jewish vengeance against an anti-Semitic populace, that is so discomfiting to those present-day Jews who like their faith nice and universal and are made especially uncomfortable by unconstrained nationalist sentiment. To the extent that Esther is a specifically Jewish heroine who embraces specifically Jewish nationalism, specifically Jewish self-defense, and specifically Jewish revenge, she is to be held at arm’s length. Meanwhile, the “lovely to look at” non-Jewish woman of whom the Book of Esther says only that she “refused to come” to her husband’s banquet, must be brought from the periphery to the center—less, it would appear, because of her own qualities, which are nonexistent in the text, and more because she is not Esther.

To fit the new role in which she has been cast, Vashti herself must be redesigned, her passivity portrayed as something active, as an act of resistance against maledom. And to continue this perverse revision of the book that bears her name, the active female defender of the Jews who defeats the more powerful male adviser to her husband by using one of the few means of influence a woman in ancient times might have been able to wield is then bizarrely belittled as passive, a mere tool in the hands of her older male relative.

You can read her essay here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Kevin Kim says

    May God have mercy on the Zinnful.

    Posted February 21, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  2. JK says


    Posted February 27, 2010 at 4:02 am | Permalink