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#MeToo: what Vashti and Esther can teach us about standing up to abuse

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TALI FEINBERG

Bringing the text to life, Amsellem told how at first, King Achashverosh objectifies Vashti, calling her “the vessel I use”, then asking her to parade herself naked in front of drunken men.

Yet Vashti refuses, and later pleads with him to allow her to wear some form of covering or to remove her crown. She asks that a maid be sent in her place, and says even convicts aren’t forced to be naked. She reminds him that while he used to be a shepherd boy, as a king, he can’t behave like this. “She is trying to hold onto a small shred of self-respect,” says Amsellem.

“Even though the Talmud describes her as evil and similar to Haman, the Midrash later depicts her as a reasonable person holding onto her dignity when she has no power. It’s seen as a form of rebellion, and it eventually gets her killed.” Therefore Vashti’s refusal to appear naked is one of the first, classic moments of the #MeToo resistance movement.

Meanwhile, the King chooses Esther as his new queen. At first, she is portrayed as the opposite to Vashti – obedient, flexible, and “perfect”. She reflects back what people want her to be. Essentially, she has no real sense of self. Yet, all this changes when Mordechai pleads with her to ask the king to save the Jewish people from Haman’s edict.

Esther can’t do this without being summoned to the king, but in an act of bravery, she eventually goes to see him. The king welcomes her, and offers her anything she wants, but instead of begging him to save her people, she asks him and Haman to attend a party. Why?

The Midrash gives 11 reasons why Esther might have done this, from laying a trap for Haman and “keeping your enemy close”, to arousing the jealousy of the king and casting doubt on Haman, to staying “undercover” so as not to reveal her true intentions.

“Ultimately, this wasn’t Esther ‘losing her nerve’. It was a very deliberate choice. Esther realised that she couldn’t just plead with the king to save the Jews, she had to destroy the root cause, which was a major abuse of power, and attack the underlying structure that allowed it to happen. She had to shift and shake things up, and dislodge Haman from his position of power,” said Amsellem. The party helped her to show the king that he could no longer trust Haman, and arouse his suspicions about what was going on behind the scenes. Soon after, the king dismissed Haman and lifted the edict to kill the Jews.

In addition, Esther aligns herself with Vashti, saying that in the beginning, Haman wanted to kill Vashti and now he wants to kill her, both for their disobedience. When the Talmud says that the king’s anger was “abated twice”, it was his anger about how Vashti and Esther were treated.

These texts teach us that #MeToo is not only directed at a single person’s abuse of power, but the network that enables it. Change can be affected only when that entire structure is dismantled. We need less ‘quick fixes’ and more systematic change. In addition, women need to support each other and find allies. “Even though Vashti was totally different to Esther, Esther saw that they had essentially been in the same position,” said Amsellem. Banding together is more powerful than standing apart.

“We need to take control of our own narrative,” she said. “The Book of Esther is unusual as it’s in Esther’s own words. It shows how she changed from someone who was obedient and malleable to someone who stood her ground and took control of her destiny.”

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