Illuminated Esther scroll. Ferrara, Italy, ca. 1615..
(photo credit: Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama)
Feminist women who have studied the Scroll of Esther have emphasized the way in which Esther's character is shaped by the perspectives of the men in the story. Like Vashti, Esther is depicted as a sexual object ruled by her male masters. She is passive, meaning that she is acted upon rather than taking action herself. Mordechai "takes her as his daughter," and "she is taken" by the king's messengers, and she acts in accordance with Mordechai's instructions: "Esther did not reveal her nationality… because Mordechai had so commanded her." She was a young woman who was "beautiful in appearance and fine in aspect," but her natural beauty, which was the reason she was chosen by Haggai "the keeper of the women" to be brought before the king, was not sufficient. First she had to primp and perfume herself for a full year, "for so were the days of their anointing accomplished: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odors, and with other ointments of the women." This is how the women prepare themselves to meet the men's standards of beauty. Silence, too, is desirable in women, and thus Esther "did not request anything" when she "was taken" to King Ahasuerus.
We learn from Vashti's bitter experience that masculine society prefers the type of woman that Esther represents: Passive, obedient, innocent, modest, shy. But even passive Esther manages to undergo a substantive transformation, to take initiative on her own: "Then Esther called for Hatach, one of the king's chamberlains, whom he had appointed to attend upon her, and charged him to go to Mordechai, to know what this was, and why it was." She even commands Mordechai to gather all the Jews, and he acts "in accordance with all that Esther commanded him."
The Talmudic sages were not interested in Esther's personal transformation, but were more concerned with Mordechai's conduct. After all, he put his niece squarely into the hands of a gentile king. The sages assert in tractate Megilla that Mordechai married Esther first, and thus King Ahaseurus, "who wished to taste the taste of a virgin, actually tasted the taste of a married woman."
Heavens! Esther, who according to the midrash was one of the four most beautiful women in the world, was a married woman, the wife of Mordechai, but she nonetheless had sexual relations with another man, not to mention a man who was uncircumcised! According to the Talmud, "she would get up from Mordechai's lap and sit in Ahaseurus's lap," like an adulteress.
Later sources like the Zohar, which struggled with the notion of Esther consorting with two men, told of a miracle that happened to this righteous woman. Her servant dressed up like her and slept with Ahaseurus, and the king did not know the difference.
The sages elaborate on Esther's extreme modesty: "She was so modest when in Mordechai's home that for seventy-five years she did not look at any man other than Mordechai" (Targum Esther 2). And she was so stringent in her fulfillment of the commandments that "she did not taste anything except her own food, and ate nothing from the king's table" (Yalkut Shimoni Esther).
Yet such a modest woman had two husbands?
The Talmud and midrash have various takes on the erotic connection between Mordechai and Esther. For instance, "Mordechai took her unto him as his daughter. Do not read daughter (bat), but rather home (bayit)" (Megilla 13). "Home" in rabbinic literature is also a term for wife. And we are also told that "Mordechai visited each of the nursemaids but could not find a nursemaid for Esther, so he would nurse her himself" (Breishit Rabba 30). Shula Keshet has pointed out that these rather outrageous midrashim can be understood as referring to the condition of exile. Exile is, after all, a continuous adulterous affair in which the woman engages in sexual relations both with her legitimate husband and with another man. The Jewish woman, who is weak and subservient, is handed over to a foreign king and imprisoned in his harem as all the while the Jewish man continues living freely and observing Jewish norms and values.
The biter fate that was forced upon women in the past continues to haunt them to the present day.
Professor Aliza Shenhar is the provost of the Max Stern College of Emek Yrzreel .