BY RABBI ZEV FARBER // AJT //
Last week’s AJT (March 8 edition) featured an article by Rabbi Shlomo Pinkus that critiqued Eden Farber’s column, “Who put the ‘SH’ in Vashti?”, the basis of which was the dissonance between the simple reading of the Megillah text about Vashti and the midrashic reading. Although the Midrash lampoons Vashti, the simple reading of the text paints an understandable, even heroic, character.
Even though Vashti is the queen of Persia, her husband King Ahasuerus demands that she stand before his drunken colleagues so they can gaze at her beauty. Offended, Vashti refuses, a decision which causes her to lose her royal status.
In her column, Eden noted that this decision can be seen as a courageous example of a person sticking to her guns and not allowing herself to be debased, no matter what the cost. On the other hand, Rabbi Pinkus, in response to this column, writes:
“More than disturbed by the writer’s lack of research and understanding of the information obtained, I was scared that someone would actually think, write and print the ideas that were presented.”
I must admit that I share some of Rabbi Pinkus’ feelings – but in regard to his article, not Eden’s. Putting aside the questionable propriety of his tone as a rabbi responding to an article by a high school student, I will limit myself to the methodological and factual errors contained in his piece.
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These errors fall into two main categories: understanding the difference between Midrash (homiletical readings) and peshat (simple or contextual readings), and the determination of historicity when reading stories about the past.
To begin with, Rabbi Pinkus believes that it is illegitimate practice to read the text of the Megillah in a way that contradicts the midrashic reading. But the Megillah includes nothing about Vashti persecuting Jewish women, or about Ahasuerus requesting her to show up nude.
Also, the idea that Vashti was grotesque actually contradicts the explicit statement of the Megillah that she was beautiful. Nevertheless, Rabbi Pinkus seems to believe that the rabbis’ interpretation of the text is so authoritative that one cannot legitimately interpret the Megillah by its own words.
In making this claim, Rabbi Pinkus is doubly mistaken. First, there is a Talmudic principle known as ein miqra yotzei midei peshuto – a verse cannot be removed from its simple meaning. In other words, one can offer midrashic readings of text that differ from the plain meaning, but these need to be viewed as additional to but does not cancel out the plain meaning.
And second, although Rashi quotes the midrashic reading in his commentary, there are a number of traditional commentaries that read the text simply, without the midrashic changes, such as those below.
Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yeḥiel Michal Wisser; 1809-1879, Russia) believes that Ahasuerus wished to show off Vashti’s beauty to demonstrate that he only married her for her appearance, and that her family history (the rabbis believed Vashti descended from Nebuchadnezzar) was of no consequence to him. Vashti, Leibush, refused to allow this insult to her family and wouldn’t appear.
The Gra (R. Elijah Kramer, 1720-1797, also known as the “Vilna Gaon”) offers a similar interpretation in his peshat section. And finally, Rabbi Joseph ibn Nahmias (14th century, Spain) writes that although the midrash says that Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to come out nude, the peshat is that he wanted her to appear clothed and wearing the crown to show off her beauty.
But onto the second category of Rabbi Pinkus’s errors: his comments about historicity. He argues that it would have been impossible for the rabbis to invent the claims they make about Vashti since these Midrashim “were recorded at the time of Purim by the people involved, who witnessed the miracles unfold.”
Actually, the Midrashim are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, a work edited in the late fifth-to-early sixth century C.E., while Ahasuerus (the Hebrew name for Xerxes) reigned from 519 to 465 B.C.E. That’s a difference of more than 1,000 years.
Thus, the editors of the Talmud can no more write eye-witness accounts of the Purim story than I could write an eyewitness account of the First Crusade. And even if one wanted to say that the Talmud was recording an older tradition, the people quoted are Rava (4th Century), R. Yossi bar Ḥanina (3rd Century), and an unnamed Tannaitic source (2nd Century) – still a difference of 700 years or so.
Of course, one can suggest that these sages were just passing along ancient information, but this is a faith claim – i.e., an assertion one can believe or not, rather than one based on evidence. Although such claims may pass as history in certain more fundamentalist circles, historians would not consider these stories eye-witness accounts.
And finally, when Rabbi Pinkus claims that there is no evidence for a “good Vashti” in either midrashic or Persian texts, I do not know what he means. There are no Persian annals extant from this period of time, and the historical outline we have comes from a combination of archaeological evidence (including some written material like the Daiva inscription) and Greek historians such as Herodotus.
Vashti – good or bad – is not mentioned in any of these.
In short, there is nothing stopping Jews from interpreting Vashti as either a positive or a negative character, and both interpretations can be found in traditional commentaries. Rabbi Pinkus’ critique notwithstanding, there is no historical evidence about Vashti one way or the other, and no religious imperative to jettison the simple reading of the Megillah for the midrashic one.
Rabbi Zev Farber has his ordination (yoreh yoreh) and his advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from YCT Rabbinical School and has just completed his Ph.D. in Jewish studies at Emory University. He is a founding board member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and is the editor of “Brain Death and Organ Donation in Halakha and Jewish Thought” (forthcoming, Koren pub., 2013). He is also the father of celebrated AJT columnist, Eden Farber.