A Purim Teaching for our Time: Malbim’s Proto-Feminist Commentary on Esther

A Purim Teaching for our Time: Malbim’s Proto-Feminist Commentary on Esther

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Don Seeman

In 1845, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Mikhel Wisser, better known by his acronym and nom de plume ‘Malbim,’ published his first biblical commentary, on Megillat Esther. Malbim is often characterized as a conservative commentator who defended traditional rabbinic exegesis and the sanctity of biblical texts. Yet his underappreciated commentary on Esther also contains the seeds of a radical political hermeneutic that might even be described as “proto-feminist” because it explores the political roots and consequences of women’s oppression. We are used to thinking of Esther as a heroine who saved her people, but Malbim’s analysis goes beyond the role of any individual person to describe how it was, in his view, that the systematic disempowerment of women in general helped to create the political conditions for genocide in Megillat Esther. This is a shockingly modern sort of analysis for a commentator better known for his fierce opposition to religious reform in the lands he served as rabbi.

For Malbim, the mise en scene of Esther is Ahasuerus’ meteoric rise to power and the political intrigue that would have accompanied such an upheaval. He notes, for example, that the biblical story begins just three years into Ahasuerus’ reign, when he still would have been consolidating power, and cites a midrash that portrays Ahasuerus as a commoner who seized power.[1] This is not historical research. Instead, it is a form of biblical interpretation grounded in rabbinic exegesis and it needs to be appreciated in that vein.

Crucially for his account of gender politics in this book, Malbim adopts a midrash that portrays Vashti as a daughter of the supplanted royal house, suggesting that her marriage to Ahasuerus would have been a political matter contributing to the legitimacy of his new regime.[2] This in fact is the heart of the story that Malbim wishes to tell, because it helps to make sense of the first two chapters of the book whose proliferation of details about drinking and life in the capital might otherwise have seemed superfluous. For Malbim, Ahasuerus’ political dependence on his wife sets up a dynamic of murderous intrigue that reverberates through the book.

 

Political Prologue: “It’s Good to be the King!”

In his somewhat lengthy prologue to the commentary, Malbim elaborates on two broad theories of government that would have been very familiar to his nineteenth century readers. In a limited or constitutional monarchy, he writes, royal power is constrained by law and by a conception of the common good. Sometimes the king even needs to demonstrate that he has received the consent of the governed. Not so the absolute or unlimited monarch, who rules by fiat as both lawgiver and king simultaneously. In Malbim’s account—which he tries to illustrate through close reading of biblical and rabbinic texts—Ahasuerus seized power from a constitutional monarch but was set on absolutizing his rule through a series of very intentional stratagems that required him to sideline or eliminate his wife. Faced by the ancient rabbinic conundrum whether to portray Ahasuerus as a wise or a foolish king, Malbim decides from the outset to treat him as someone who knows what he wants and works deliberately to achieve his goals.[3]

        

This kind of excursus in political philosophy is unusual among rabbinic commentators, but it is crucial to Malbim’s methodology, lending vital context to the plethora of small details on which he builds his interpretation. Why, for example, would Scripture devote so much attention to the lavish parties Ahasuerus held for his servants and subordinates throughout the whole third year of his reign? Malbim’s answer is that no mere constitutional monarch could have opened the state coffers so brazenly for his own aggrandizement. Ahasuerus understood that people would be less likely to object to the precedent he was trying to set if they were included among its early beneficiaries.[4] 

Why specify, furthermore, that Ahasuerus had invited three distinct groups to these parties: the nobles and princes of Persia, the nobles of the (conquered) provinces and ultimately “all the people who were present in Shushan the palace, both great and small?”[5] As a commoner who had seized power in a large and centralized empire, Ahasuerus wanted to signal that the traditional Persian elites (who would have been most likely to challenge the legitimacy of his rule) had no more access to him than anyone else. Extending invitations to lowly servants conveyed to Ahasuerus’ more privileged guests that “both great and small are equal before him for all are [merely] his servants.”[6] 

This flattening of the political structure may not have immediately weakened the Persian nobility but it would have stoked the fires of a fiercely populistic loyalty to the new king among the leaders of the disenfranchised, non-Persian provinces and the lower Persian classes who had been systematically excluded from most of the benefits of the constitutional—but colonial and deeply class conscious—state Ahasuerus had come to dominate.

         

Malbim certainly gives signs in his commentary of a preference for constitutional monarchy, yet he implicitly lays the groundwork for a critique of both constitutional and authoritarian regimes. Ahasuerus’ attention to the provinces and to the servant class of Shushan could not have been successful unless there were already deep reservoirs of disaffection throughout the empire. Malbim never says this in so many words, but the pretense of a state governed by law for the common good may not have appealed so much to the provincial nobles chafing under imperial rule or the underclass of Shushan whom Ahasuerus had been so careful to flatter. Malbim’s deep personal intuition for the workings of power in social contexts makes him a profound commentator on a book devoted to the intrigues of a royal court, but these same intuitions sometimes seem to outstrip his commitment to critical analysis of the world beyond the text.

 

Every Man Should be Master in his Own House: On Misogyny and Power

Vashti, we have seen, poses a special problem for Ahasuerus. She is at once the key to his legitimacy in the eyes of the traditional Persian elites and the most distressing evidence that his independent power is limited. So, at the end of his long populist campaign, when his heart was “merry with wine,” Ahasuerus cleverly sends his chamberlains to summon the queen.[7] Sending his own servants rather than those who normally attend upon her was meant, in Malbim’s reading, to signal his disrespect. If she answered his call it would be a symbolic victory for him and if she refused it might present him with an opportunity to move against her. Directly attacking her dignity as the daughter of a royal house, he he also summons her “to show the people and the princes her beauty,” as if her attractiveness outstripped the importance of her royal person and pedigree.[8] By demanding that she appear wearing her royal crown, according to one well-known midrash, the king went so far as to intimate that she should appear before the gaze of his servants, dressed in nothing else.[9] 

Malbim pointedly ignores several popular midrashim that attribute Vashti’s refusal of the king’s summons to mere vanity because she had developed a skin disease or even (miraculously) grown a tail.[10] I consider it a scandal of Jewish education that these fanciful midrashim belittling Vashti are often the only ones taught to children, while more substantive readings like Malbim’s are ignored. Ever the close reader, Malbim notes that Ahasuerus called for “Vashti the Queen,” putting her private name first to emphasize that her status was derived from marriage to him while she responds as “Queen Vashti,” emphasizing that her own rank came first.[11] Read this way, her refusal of the king’s summons constitutes a self-conscious act of political resistance because she understood what her husband was trying to accomplish at her expense.

Baiting Vashti in this way would have been a dangerous strategy for Ahasuerus because the Persian nobility was likely to side with her in any serious dispute. Malbim thinks that Ahasuerus still loved her and did not wish her condemned to death but that his advisor Memukhan ultimately prevailed with the argument that Vashti’s public challenge had to be treated as an offense of the state if Ahasuerus’ plans for unlimited government were ever to be achieved.[12] Her offense should not, moreover, be framed in the context of Ahasuerus’ political struggle with the last remaining representative of the old royal house but as a woman’s rebellion against her husband, thus implicating every man in the desire to see her put in her place. Ahasuerus’ cabinet would have to work quickly, because Malbim assumes that both Vashti and the Persian noblewomen with whom she had feasted had already seen through this subterfuge and might work to subvert it.[13] So they released a royal edict banning her from the king’s presence almost immediately before following up with seemingly unrelated letters “to every province according to its writing and to every people according to their language that every man should be master in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.”[14]

On the level of political rhetoric, Ahasuerus’ executive order must have seemed a master stroke because of all that it simultaneously accomplished. Malbim thinks that by emphasizing that the letters were to be sent in the diverse languages of the polyglot empire, Ahasuerus was once again stoking popular resentment against the Persian elites who used to demand that all state business be conducted in Persian.[15]Apparently, “cultural diversity” can be coopted by authoritarian state power as easily as any other ideology under the right circumstances. More importantly, Ahasuerus’ letter would have distracted people from his naked power grab by disguising it as the utterly ordinary resentment of a husband whose wife has defied him, guaranteeing the support of other men who feared the rebellion of their own wives in turn. Could he have found a more potent strategy for harnessing their resentment? In the 1970’s it began to be said in some quarters that “the personal is political,” but Ahasuerus’ letters represent the utter suppression of that frame by insisting that the political is merely personal. Whether or not she was finally executed—as Malbim assumes—Vashti’s resistance had been nullified.

 

On Purim and Genocide

One of the extraordinary features of Malbim’s commentary is how little it initially focuses on the fate of the Jews. For Malbim, that fate rested not just on divine providence but on an exceedingly subtle reading of contemporary events by social actors holding  a wide a variety of different political aspirations. Ahasuerus had no particular brief against the Jews, according to Malbim, but was ultimately manipulated by his advisor Haman the Amalekite, who bore Mordekhai a personal and hereditary grudge. Without mentioning who the targets of his wrath would be, Haman tells the king that “there is a certain [unnamed] people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom . . . who follow their own laws and do not obey the king.[16] Haman convinces Ahasuerus that extermination of the Jews will be welcomed by all the nations of the empire whose support he has been seeking. Driven by hatred rather than financial gain, Haman even offers to fill the king’s coffers with the Jews’ money rather than keeping it for himself.

Astoundingly, Ahasuerus turns down Haman’s offer of booty because his own intentions at this point are merely to “improve his nation by destroying the harmful religion and its vices.”[17] One may easily perceive here an echo of Malbim’s critique of reformers and state agents in his own day who claimed to be interested in public morality or “progress” but whose efforts were often construed by traditionalists as efforts to assimilate or destroy the Jewish people.[18] Be that as it may, Ahasuerus ultimately accedes to Haman’s request and once more sends letters throughout the land allowing the Jews to be exterminated.[19] Later, when Esther intervenes with the king on her people’s behalf yet a third group of letters must be sent, giving the Jews the right to bear arms in self-defense.[20]

So where does this leave us? A curious Talmudic text suggests that “had it not been for the first set of letters” in Megillat Esther “no remnant or remainder of the Jews would have survived.”[21] As Rashi glosses, the “first set of letters” refers to the one that mandated male control of the household in the first chapter of Esther. The rule that every man should “speak the language of his own people” is taken to mean that women who marry a man from a different ethnic or linguistic group than their own must limit themselves to speaking in their husbands’ language.[22] But such a decree was so clearly daft and unenforceable that it cast all of the king’s subsequent decrees into disrepute.[23] When the letter about exterminating the Jews later arrived, most people dismissed it as another laughable farce, and this allowed the Jews to mount a successful defense against the relatively few who did attack them.

Malbim and a few other interpreters have a different reading, whose direct source in rabbinic literature (if there is one) I have not yet been able to identify. Malbim’s version, which he attributes without specific citation to “our sages” reads “if it were not for the first set of letters, the second set could never have been fulfilled.”[24] On this reading, the second set of letters were the ones permitting the extermination of the Jews, and the meaning is that Haman could never have conspired to kill the Jews in a constitutional monarchy.[25] The first set of letters disempowering women paved the way for Ahasuerus to become an absolute monarch and it was only under those conditions that a genocide of the kind Haman plotted could ever have a chance to succeed. To put it simply, the murder of Vashti and the suppression of women throughout the empire paved the way for Haman’s projected Holocaust.

Though this is bound to be provocative, I have referred to Malbim’s commentary on Esther as proto-feminist for a few reasons. First, because this commentary demonstrates how the systematic domination of women served broader imperial interests and was also enhanced by blurring the relation between patriarchal domination of households and despotic domination of the empire. Under Ahasuerus, women (starting with Vashti) had to be controlled or neutralized so that the household could serve as a model for the state, even while the state claimed to be modeled on the structure of households. This sort of mutually reinforcing dynamic or political cosmology is by now a commonplace of social analysis, but it wasn’t in 1845.[26] 

Malbim shows, moreover, that the political project of misogyny formed a necessary prelude to authoritarian rule and genocide. Jews reflecting on Purim ought to reflect as well on the ways in which the fate of the Jews cannot help but be embedded in larger structures of power that also determine the fates of other groups, including women and all those other peoples (some of them also quite vulnerable) who also inhabit our necessarily imperfect political regimes. Though the Megillah and its commentators certainly assume a transcendent significance to the travails of Israel, a reader shaped by Malbim’s commentary would also have to conclude that those travails can only be understood by reference to a much broader canvas of interlocking stories, political calculations, and tribulations suffered by others. “Without the first set of letters,” Malbim reminds us, “the second set of letters could never have been fulfilled.”

Concluding Thoughts

Malbim’s interests in the commentary on Esther bear witness more to his thoughtfulness as a reader than to any explicit political project, and that is why I only referred to his commentary, in all fairness, as proto-feminist. I do not mean to imply that he would himself have subscribed to any of the the much later developments in feminist thought or practice, including those that seem to be at issue in contemporary Orthodox Jewish life. Given his attitude toward Reform in his own day, it would be odd to portray him as a hero of religious reforms in ours. But this is actually one of the reasons that his commentary on Esther is so profoundly unsettling. He isn’t trying to sell anything but a better reading, grounded in rabbinic sources, and a more nuanced appreciation for the dynamics of power. The fact that this leads him to an unprecedented analysis of gender politics in Scripture tells me that this is a discussion we ought to be having no matter what our stance on hot-button contemporary issues might be. At the very least, it will make us better students of Torah.

This is not a small thing. Does the fact that Malbim presaged later developments in gender theory and linked his observations about gender and politics to Scriptural interpretation mean that we can begin to have non-defensive conversations about these matters in religious settings? That our sons and daughters might be able to confront the complex realities of power in their own lives as well as Tanakh rather than focusing almost exclusively on fanciful midrashim about Vashti’s physical deformities?  Or that we might recapture the importance of political philosophy to almost any kind of intelligible conversation about sacred Scripture? That may be a lot to rest on the back of one short commentary on a biblical book, but I am hardly deterred. Purim, after all, is a holiday of miracles.

Malbim learned about the dynamics of  power on his own flesh in the decades following the publication of his commentary on Esther.[27] In 1859 he became chief rabbi of Bucharest in Romania but was denounced as an enemy of the state because of his fierce opposition to various reforms and assimilationist policies. Moses Montefiore intervened to save him from being sent to prison but he was exiled and forced to seek redress from the Turkish government in Constantinople. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life embroiled in controversies with reformers and state authorities in a variety of cities across Europe and finally died in 1879 while traveling to assume a new rabbinical post. A committed traditionalist of deep learning and broad intellectual horizons, Malbim can be read with profit today not just for the specific positions he took (these are inextricably tied to his time and circumstances) but for the habits of mind and spirit that writings like his commentary on Esther exemplify. Within a traditional frame, he sought more complex and contextually coherent understandings of Jewish literature and Jewish life. At a moment when many are struggling with renewed passion to comprehend the intersection of different potential forms of oppression (racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny) and also questioning the forms of political discourse in which more constitutional or more authoritarian trends might come to the fore of our national life, Malbim should be on the curriculum.


[2] See, for example, Esther Rabbah 3:14.

[17] See Esther 3: 11, in which the king gives Haman the treasure to do with as he sees fit, as well as Malbim’s comment on that verse.

[18] Malbim would not have been alone in that regard. See for example Barukh Halevy Epstein’s account of rabbinic interactions with the Jewish reformer, Rabbi Max Lilienthal, in his memoir Mekor Barukh: Zikhronot Me-Hayyei Ha-Dor Ha-Kodem Vol. IV, chs. 43-44 (Vilna: Rom Publishers, 1928), 1850-1927. For an analysis of this and other relevant sources, see Don Seeman and Rebecca Kobrin, “‘Like One of the Whole Men’: Learning, Gender and Autobiography in R. Barukh Epstein’s Mekor Barukh,” Nashim 2 (1999): 59-64.

[21] Megillah 12b; also see Pesikta Zutrata (Lekah Tov) Esther 1:22.

[22] Rashi on Esther 1: 22. See similarly Hakhmei Zarfat cited on the same verse in Torat Hayyim: Megillat Esther ‘im Perushei Ha-Rishonim (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 2006), 48. See Esther Rabbah 4: 12 and additional sources cited by Torah Shelemah Megilat Esther (Jerusalem: Noam Aharon Publishers, 1994), 50n.187.

[23] See Rashi to Megillah 12b s.v. Iggerot Rishonot.

[25] Ibid.

[26] For a few ethnographic treatments of the relationship between cosmologies of gender and state regimes, see, for example, Carol Delaney, The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Sally Cole, Women of the Praia: Work and Lives in a Portuguese Coastal Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Rebecca J. Lester, Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[27] See Yehoshua Horowitz’s  entry on Malbim in Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. XI (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1971), 822-23.

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