Purim, Progsplained

One of the central precepts of Purim is to render oneself so intoxicated “until one can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and “blessed be Mordechai’.”

More recently this intoxication seems to start a bit before the holiday: there seems to a tendency to whitewash certain femalefactors past—Vashti; and present—AOC.

One must ask: whence the urge to rehabilitate?  Why does Vashti especially conjure up the impetus to be dan lekaf zechus (judge favorably?)

Queen Vashti’s status as an ostensible feminist icon goes back to the First Wave of Feminism in the 19th century, attributable to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  More recently she has been elevated to honorary #metoo martyr owing to her having stood up to unwanted male attention.

The narrative in TB Megillah surrounding the #metoo incident: Achasverosh makes some clearly offensive remarks about his Queen that would qualify as harassment at the very least in any setting; Vashti certainly has the right to say no, and her retort about the King’s inability to hold his liquor as compared to her royal forebears’ stable boy (and the implied subtext that she was likely mocking his ability to perform in the royal bedchamber, especially when in his cups) certainly qualifies as a worthy riposte.

So—taken in isolation, which is how the incident is presented in the text—the #metoo-ers might have a point.  (Or, as a Facebook sparring counterpart claimed, “P’shat wins”.)

Except that: Bibliteralism is never a Jewish value.

The Purim story categorically has to occur before the Megillah was written, ergo the text has to be subservient to the oral tradition.  To chain oneself to a closed basic reading of the text without the tradition does a tremendous disservice to the actual “P’shat”, both of the text itself and the actual narrative.  Ergo, the Talmudic and midrashic narratives are the ones that actually “win” over the text.

That tradition overwhelmingly presents Vashti as a scoundrel and enemy of women who didn’t have royal pedigree (here was another area where she was ahead of the curve: slut-shaming those below her “class”.)  Which might explain why there’s an element of Divine poetic justice in her ultimate comeuppance as a result of her suddenly diminished beauty, as payback for her maltreatment of her female charges.  Not to excuse Achashverosh for his overall maleficence (pun intended), but no one is trying to make an icon out of him.

Ultimately, Vashti is hardly a role model for either gender; her apparently justified impudence owes as much to political power dynamics as it does to ancient Levantine male privilege.  Her entire relationship with her husband is bidirectionally parasitic: Vashti is trying to recover the royal status lost when Balshazar was overthrown; Achasverosh is trying to accord himself legitimacy in order to compensate for being a usurper.

In one debate last year, Vashti was compared to a female Harvey Weinstein.  More appropriate might be a cross between Serena Joy as “feminist” and Roy Cohn as “victim”.

Additionally, not only does an ostensibly restrictive “p’shat” reading of the Megillah that holds up Vashti as a “feminist” violate the narrative, it also egregiously shortchanges the true heroine and namesake of the story: Esther.  While she may not check all the progressive and #metoo boxes in her response to being forced into the King’s harem and sexual service, her prudence and guile actually underscores her actual character and how proactive she really was.

While she has to be prodded into taking initiative, when she does she all but issues a p’sak (the 3-day fast), and she even wants to go far as calling out the King (“ish tzar ve’oyev”), but is apparently redirected by an angel–she never forgets who the real enemy is, even the one she has to sleep with.  She’s not exactly a “b’nos Tzelaphchad” feminist either, working within the system: she is pulls all this off while in a very public extramarital liaison (a forced one, to be sure) with a non-Jewish king–which, according to the Talmud, she uses to scare the Jews into doing more fervent teshuvah.  Talk about “outside the box”: if Vashti was “revolutionary”, Esther was smart.

Finally, as the Megillah was written by Mordechai AND Esther (need we mention it having been named for her?), any notions of “mansplaining” are more than canceled out both by that fact and by the nearly two-century old impulse to progsplain the Purim narrative.

Which is why Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent insistence on taking AOC’s tweets as “p’shat”—especially since he clearly has no truck with progressivism—is so surprising.  Ad d’lo yada AND venahafoch hu?  It didn’t look like Purim Torah. 

Again, one must ask: whence the urge to rehabilitate?  Why does AOC especially conjure up the impetus to be dan lekaf zechus?  One doesn’t even need to use Jewish issues to paint AOC as a villain: there are tons of other reasons.

Rabbi Shafran links to a HaModia piece in order to criticize it for lumping AOC in with the Omar-Tlaib axis of evil, but he fails to address the key charges that are clearly laid out:

“A week ago, after speaking with noted anti-Semite British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, Ocasio-Cortez gushed, “It was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with you.”…Throw the Women’s March into the mix and you have a veritable smorgasbord of progressive female representation of anti-Semitism.” 

Oy lerasha, oy lishcheno (woe to the evildoer, woe to the neighbor); maasim mevarerim zu es zu (actions prove one another): each principle by itself should override any notion of being dan AOC lekaf zchus.  Kal vachomer when both against one.

And, for the sake of bipartisanship enough, here’s a progressive who recognized the real import of of AOC’s tweet, who recognized what Rabbi Shafran refuses to:

“Liberal Jews aren’t concerned about criticism of Israel. We do a lot of that ourselves. We’re terrified of members of Congress using anti-Semitic tropes that have gotten our people murdered when they criticize the Jewish state.” 

Contra Rabbi Shafran’s insistence that “It would be a regrettable irony if some of us who care deeply about Israel, in fits of zeal, carelessly pushed her in that dark direction”, some very far to his left recognize that she is already there.  The open alliance with evil is obvious.

Also contra Rabbi Shafran, p’shat of the AOC tweets aren’t just what’s on the surface.  In addition to her overtures to Corbyn, and open alliance with Omar and Tlaib, her unequivocal support for the Gaza “demonstrators” at the border should be further proof of AOC’s Judeomisia.  Like AOC, Rep. Omar now has come out for the 2 state solution.  Was Omar lying then or is she lying now?  Why would AOC not be as prone to dissemble as Omar?  As no less a terrorist than Yasser Arafat said: “I would kill for my cause; you don’t think I would lie for it?”

Rabbi Shafran concludes thus: “every person – even a “progressive” – deserves to be judged impartially.”   The evidence impartially disproves his point.  Further: having just read Parshas Zachor, one can be reminded of two of the major mistakes that King Saul made in the war with Amalek, as delineated in the Haftara (I Samuel 13): being merachem al hach’zarim (merciful to the cruel) and al tihyeh tzadik harbeh (do not be righteous overmuch).  For those who are clearly our sworn enemies, being dan lekaf zechus is clearly “Jewishly wrong, not to mention counterproductive”, but also dangerous: “Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.