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Little Miss Shushan
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Little Miss Shushan

A bevy of beautiful single women are paraded before a rich guy. After an elaborate winnowing process, the man selects the one he likes best and makes her his wife. The bride seems happy with the deal, though one of the partners in this odd marriage harbors a secret past. Those who hear the story will vigorously debate the beauty pageant approach to matrimony.

Two thousand years before The Bachelor, the authors of the Book of Esther invented reality television (and, quite possibly, the Republican primaries). On Purim we read the story of Ahasuerus, king of Persia and Media, and Esther, a Jewish maiden. Chosen by Ahasuerus as his queen, Esther will eventually use her high office to foil a plot by the king’s evil minister, Haman, to wipe out the kingdom’s Jews.

The holiday commemorating this story of Jewish deliverance is a day of carnival, masquerade, even rabbinically sanctioned drunkenness. Esther and her uncle/guardian Mordechai are remembered as heroes, and Haman as an enemy so vile that every mention of his name is drowned out in a storm of noisemaking and catcalls.

But all the revelry can’t disguise the controversial plot element at the story’s heart. Esther’s physical charms, as opposed to any other qualities, are emphasized again and again. She is not merely paraded before the king and asked a few “if you were a tree” questions. She and the other contestants are put through a yearlong spa treatment of ointments and cosmetics before being presented to Ahasuerus (the losers are relegated to lesser spots in his harem). Early Jewish commentators, not to mention generations of Jewish mothers, had to explain why a Jewish heroine was competing for the hand of a gentile.

Debates among modern feminist commentators on the Esther story sound like the ones over reality dating shows. (Jewish Women International has just released a guide, “Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships, and Jewish Texts,” touching on a number of these dilemmas.) Should Esther have allowed herself to become a sex object? Should marriage be reduced to a casting call? And by what right do men — the king’s courtiers in suggesting the pageant, Mordechai in nominating Esther, Ahasuerus in expanding his harem — manipulate young women for their own gain and delectation?

Finally, how weird is it that, in the words of Celina Spiegel (coeditor of Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible), “Esther’s sexuality is presented as the embodiment of Jewish virtues”? Synagogues across America will mark Purim with a costume contest for children. Sure, there will be prizes for the best Mordechai or Haman, and kids will show up as cartoon characters and superheroes. But the main event is invariably the prize for the best little Queen Esther — the cutest girl in the prettiest costume. Forget The Bachelor — it’s Toddlers & Tiaras!

Some suggest that the real Purim role model is Vashti, the queen who preceded Esther. Vashti is remembered for standing up to Ahasuerus, who had asked her to come to a drunken feast and “show the people and the princes her beauty.” For refusing to parade herself before the boys, Vashti is dethroned, banished from the king’s presence, and possibly killed, according to some readings.

The king’s lackeys know exactly what’s at stake in this feminist uprising: “For the Queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands.” (Esther 1:17) Along with the “Queen for a Day” pageant, the king issues a proclamation to be sent throughout Persia and Media, “that every man should wield authority in his home.” (Esther 1:22) Vashti becomes biblical feminism’s Rosa Parks, flouting the law to recover women’s dignity.

Not that Esther is without her defenders. If she and the other contestants were forced to take part in the pageant, as some interpretations suggest, then she and Mordechai made the best of a bad situation. But even if her participation was voluntary, the text allows her to grow from a passive concubine to a righteous redeemer. She is courageous in approaching the king and revealing her secret identity as a Jew, subtle in exposing Haman’s designs, and a regular Katniss Everdeen (ask your kids) as she wreaks revenge on the Jews’ enemies.

“Obviously, Queen Esther is by no means an embarrassment to women,” writes Rachel M. Brownstein of the City University of New York. “On the other hand, she falls short of being a cause for feminist celebration.”

That the Book of Esther continues to be read after 2,000 years owes much to its complex images of women and matrimony. Reality television is reviled because it displays women as shallow, gold-digging objects, willing to trade love and dignity for money or celebrity. The Book of Esther lives on because it celebrates one woman who said no, and another who grows beyond a submissive role to become a true heroine.

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