Purim: Women’s Rights and the Story of Esther


In 2023, Purim falls within days of International Women’s Day. While Purim always provides an opportunity to reflect on how the story of Esther relates to women’s rights, this year its proximity to International Women’s Day reinforces the focus on women’s rights that is present in both holidays.

In the book of Esther, two women find themselves in unsafe situations because of their gender. Vashti pays a heavy price for her dignity when she is thrown out of the palace for refusing to dance at the king’s party. Esther, who has been chosen as Vashti’s successor in a beauty contest, fears for her life if she approaches the king without an explicit request to meet him. It appears that women are expendable, mere objects of entertainment or admiration, and can be disposed of at will. When Esther pushes back against the constraints of her situation and rejects her gender role, she is able to overcome stereotypes and ultimately save the Jewish people.

Queen Vashti has not only sinned against His Majesty, but also against all the officials and all the people in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. The queen’s behavior will cause all the wives to hate their husbands, for they show that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she did not come…. If it pleases Your Majesty, let a royal decree be issued by you, and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media… that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus… Then by Your Majesty The decision made will reverberate throughout your territory, no matter how vast; And all wives will treat their husbands with equal respect, whether high or lowly (Esther 1:16-20).

The counselors’ concerns about what would happen if women did not have proper respect for their husbands seem ridiculous to us now, but in reality, our world is not much different from Shushan’s world. Discrimination and violence against women are global problems. Women bear a disproportionate share of the burden of poverty and the impacts of war. Like Vashti and Esther, women in developing countries, and in some ways in our country too, have limited control over their bodies or livelihoods.

The Talmud says that Memuchan, who urged King Ahasuerus to exile Vashti, is actually Haman, who urged the king to destroy the Jews (BT Megillah 12b). Arthur Waskow argues that this  midrash  teaches us powerful lessons about the nature of oppression. He asks,

Do we  learn from the Megillah that those who will not treat Jews as human beings will not treat women as human beings either? Haman and Mehuman [sic] are the same oppressors because they commit the same oppressors? …And that just as the oppression of women and the Jewish people are interconnected, so too is their triumph? Will the victory and freedom of the Jewish people, the victory of womankind come only with freedom? (Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, Summit Books, New York, 1982, p. 126)

​As we celebrate our victory over oppression, may we also remember those, including millions of women, who are yet to be liberated.

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