Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

A Feminist's Look at Esther

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

A Feminist's Look at Esther

Article excerpt

FEMINISTS COMMITTED TO JEWISH TRADItion have been taking a new look at Scripture and midrashic writings in search of female role models which might inspire the modern Jewish woman. The problem is twofold: not only are there too few female personalities who have played important roles in our tradition, but those few whose role was considered appropriate enough to be accorded a permanent place in Jewish tradition do not necessarily act in ways which inspire the modern woman. The female figures are nearly always secondary to the male "stars," often having acquired power by being the wife/sister/daughter of the central male figure, and not in their own right. Of course, past generations cannot be blamed for molding role models which expressed the reality and expectations of their own world. However, understanding this does not make the female role models we have inherited any more adequate for women today. Esther does provide such a model if we look carefully at the text and analyze the pertinent midrashim.

From a systematic study of the verses in the Megillah which refer to Esther, it is clear that she combines two very different personalities in one woman during the course of the story. Esther of the beginning of the Megillah (Esther 1) plays the typical feminine role. Yet, at a certain point in the story, as we shall see, she "snaps" out of the dream world she has been in, and assumes a role which is good enough for any feminist (Esther 2). Esther 1 is passive, obedient, dependent and silent. Esther 2 is active, assertive, tactful, independent, and holds political power in the real world.

We are first introduced to Esther only by way of Mordekhai. Verses 5 and 6 in chapter 2 (2:5, 6) tell of Mordekhai's lineage, which marks his place in a well-known family and sets the historical background for the coming story. Two verses later we are told of his cousin, Esther, whom he takes in to care for, after she is orphaned. Esther 1 is introduced as being of striking appearance and charm, and the reader is reminded of this several times in the chapter.

In verse 2:7 we read the following description: "The maiden was shapely and beautiful." The description in this verse seems out of place and clearly interrupts the sequence of the sentence in which it is placed. The verse in its entirety reads as follows: "He was foster father to Hadassah -- that is, Esther -- his uncle's daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful and when her father and mother died, Mordekhai adopted her as his own daughter." The interruption by the author, who notes her beauty while in the midst of describing her familial situation, may be understood as an alternative explanation for Mordekhai's taking her into his home.

It is possible that there were two traditions of Esther's relationship to Mordekhai, which were merged together. One version may have claimed that she was his foster child, probably reading as follows: "He was foster father to Hadassah -- that is, Esther -- his uncle's daughter, for she had neither father nor mother, and, when her father and mother died, Mordekhai adopted her as his own daughter."

The other version may have seen her as being Mordekhai's wife, probably reading something like this: "Hadassah -- that is, Esther -- his uncle's daughter, was shapely and beautiful, and Mordekhai took her as a wife." The Hebrew verb, "lekakha," translated literally as "he took," is used many times in the Bible in connection with marriage, and the translation "adopted" does not hold within it both the possibilities suggested by the Hebrew verb "took." The Hebrew "bat," meaning "daughter," will read "bayit" if merely one letter ("yod") is added to it, changing the meaning from "daughter" to "house," which in rabbinic language also means "wife" (B. Megillah 13a).

It was not a problem for the author to combine both traditions, since marriage between a well-off male and his niece or younger needy cousin was encouraged. …

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