The Star of absence/3 – When reading Esther now, we cannot help but seeing the Iranian women before our eyes and in our hearts
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 04/12/2022
"As the hoopoe builds its nest in the holes of old walls, so the spirit resides in the ruins of our knowledge. The gospels are the only book whose existence does not humiliate those who are illiterate."
Christian Bobin, A library of clouds (Une bibliotèque di nuages)
Queen Vashti's refusal, and the king's decree to reaffirm the dominion of husbands over their wives, invites us to make the Bible a "place" of moral and civil commitment even against the wrongful decrees that are being enacted against women today.
From time to time, the collective human consciousness experiences leaps. With the exception of a few extraordinary cases, these leaps are not the result of large human groups nor of the action of the majority of the population. Instead, the driving principle behind the development of moral consciousness is found in individuals, sometimes in just a single person. Ethical achievements are the result of processes activated by someone who obeys an inner command, takes action, and the world begins to change. This is the deep root of the personalist principle: for the truly important things in the life of communities and peoples, only the individual soul is great enough to welcome the soul of the world and transform it. Because it is only within that mystery of freedom that we call a person that a new phase of the human spirit can be activated. It is born and then continues to mature from civil dialogue, but can only blossom in the special warmth of a single human heart.
Moses, Jeremiah, Mary, Christ, Francis, Rosa Parks, Etty Hillesum, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: individuals who helped to generate new collective souls. And while wars are being fought and empires are trying to resist today, the consciousness of the world is growing in the hearts of the women and men who know how to say their "yes" and their "no", and by saying them help to save us. You have to cherish being loyal to the calling of a voice your whole life, in order to be ready on the day of that one decisive appointment, when the response to a different request from the same voice suddenly gives meaning to decades of suffering in silence. The value of an existence cannot be measured with the metre of the god Kronos, because there is only one moment that really matters, the one needed to pronounce that "no" or that "yes" - even if it should be the last "yes" that is pronounced.
The Book of Esther opens with a "no" from a woman, a queen, Vashti, who does not obey the wrongful request of King Ahasuerus, her husband. The queen does not go to the banquet, she does not lend herself to interpreting the role of the most precious "object" of the house, to be shown off to the men attending the feast. Therefore, «The king became furious and burned with anger» (The Book of Esther 1,12). A first message: angering someone is not necessarily a wrongful act if it arises from the desire to be faithful to one's conscience. «Thus the king spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king - Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom. “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her”» (Esther 1,13-15). The king wishes to look for a solution and consults his sages, which the Hebrew version of the text defines as those who «understood the times» (1,13).
The Biblical reader-listener knows what «understanding the times» means. The words in Ecclesiastes, a text more or less contemporary with Esther, and one of the most beautiful and profound sapiential pages in the Bible – «There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens…» (Ecclesiastes 3,1). Understanding the times and moments is at the very centre of biblical wisdom, because those who are in tune with the right time of people, communities, nature, of themselves, and of God, understand life and do not lose their way. Hence, defining astrologers and scholars as "connoisseurs of the times", is not only an ironic line (which will be understood in the light of what the text is about to tell us), but an implicit citation of another kind of wisdom. That great resource which enabled the Jewish people not to lose themselves in times of exile and foreign occupation - wisdom in fact is Ariadne's thread bringing us home from the desert and the acorns in pigsties.
Here is the “wise” response from the sages: «Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord». (Esther 1,16-18).
One of the wise advisers, Memukan, perhaps the leader, makes a clearly exaggerated and hyperbolic and thus comical speech, expressing in any case something important in the economy of the Book of Esther - and to us. The councillors are concerned about the possible imitation of queen Vashti's gesture; they fear that if decisive and effective action is not immediately taken, the other women of the kingdom may follow the queen's example of liberation, «they will despise their husbands». Thus, the very social order of the empire was at stake, based on the domination of husbands over their wives. Archaeological excavations of the twentieth century have found documents showing that in Xerxes' Persia the wives of the royal house participated in public and religious life, receiving honours. The law recognized them the right to sell and buy with their own seal, to make business agreements, to have access to their inheritance, to keep their dowry after a divorce. In the provincial courts (“satrapies”) high-ranking women held public roles, managed concubines and handmaidens, and could travel to manage their properties (Paola d’Amore, A female world. Goddesses and queens of ancient Persia/Un mondo al femminile. Dee e regine dell’antica Persia, 2016).
The banquet that Queen Vashti had organized for the women (Esther 1,9) therefore reveals this autonomy that the queen and wives in general had. The concern expressed by the sages was therefore not entirely unfounded. It is probable that men feared that the freedom of their wives would exceed a threshold considered to be acceptable (by them). Hence, here is the solution they propose to the king: «Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest» (Esther 1,19-20). First, Queen Vashti had to be repudiated, so the king could find another wife. Then, the news had to be communicated to everyone with the help of an imperial decree, so that when seeing how badly Vashti ended, all wives would continue to obey their husbands. Indeed: «The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue». (Esther 1,21-22).
This is where the farce gives way to tragedy, it had to. When reading these passages today we cannot help but seeing the Iranian women before our eyes and in our hearts, sisters of Vashti and of those ancient Persian women, who are still fighting against other decrees issued by males who legislate on what women can or cannot do, say, and wear. Thus, we exit the book to arrive in the squares, in the homes, in the prisons, in the cemeteries, in the decree of Fahimeh Karimi’s death sentence, a mother of three children, who only expressed her own free "no". So we must not linger on the comic and grotesque tone of the story, we cannot afford to. We cannot afford to lose even one drop of the tears of the women who, today as back in the day, continue to be the subject of decrees from men who fear that the gesture of a free woman could destabilize an order that they have imposed. The author of the Book of Esther, or perhaps the female hand that assisted or inspired him, (the history of literature has known the hand of more than one woman using her husband’s name to write words that the male culture of her time did not allow her to sign with her own name), knew that this subversive gesture was something very serious indeed.
Every year during the feast of Purim, the scroll of Esther is read out aloud, together by everyone in the synagogue, in its entirety. It is read entirely unrolled, as if it were a letter. Women and men heard and hear the same letter, heard and hear the same words. The meaning of the story, however, is not and was never the same for males and females: it is never the same, especially when talking about women, family, life and death. The rabbinical reading of the episode of Vashti, for example, has not traditionally been sympathetic to the queen (as it has not been, in general, even the Christian tradition): «The wicked Vashti used to take the daughters of Israel, strip them naked, and make them work on the Sabbath… Thus, what she had done was decreed against her» (Talmud, bMeg.12b). There is not only a blessed solidarity between women; there has also always been a different kind of solidarity between males regarding women.
I like to think that perhaps some, or many, Jewish first and then Christian women will have given another meaning to that ancient story. Some, perhaps, will have sympathized with Vashti, not approving of the king's decree, which reaffirmed that husbands had to be the "masters" of their homes. Maybe during Purim or after a celebration, some will have started dreaming of homes without masters, envisioning family transformed into a place of reciprocity and equality. Then, once the ceremony was over, she must have talked about that episode on the way from the synagogue, or church, to her home. She must have talked about it during lunch, then, leaving home, she would have continued mentioning it in the market and in the square, until that speech became a political commitment to try to change those wrongful decrees one day, a blessed day. Sometimes women have succeeded, other times they have not, but they keep dreaming, talking, fighting. A good reading of the Bible is not just a spiritual or religious exercise. When and if it becomes just that, the Bible shrinks, and we shrink along with it. The word we hear during liturgies generates and nourishes the words we say to each other when we go home, along the way. Some of these words, daughters of the word, have made the world better, and they have made the Bible better.