An innovative feminist reading of the Book of Esther, by Prof. Zehavit Gross, Chair Holder UNESCO chair for Values Education, Tolerance and Peace & Head, The Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research& Instruction, School of Education, Bar Ilan University, Israel,
Queen Esther was a great feminist leader and one of the great saviors of the Jewish people, but above all she was creative and a virtuoso. A new contemporary feminist reading of the Book of Esther through the lens of the postmodern neo-liberal, digital world in which we live reveals that Queen Esther was actually a hacker. That’s why every year we sit fascinated as we read the scroll that describes her courageous and unique conduct. Esther undertook a mission to crack the code of activation and behavior of Ahasuerus and, in a systematic planned path, she constructed a transformational process to bring him to the understanding that he must rescind the decree against the Jews.
Ahasuerus was captivated by the cunning and flattering Haman. Esther realized that if she could succeed in cracking the Ahasuerus mental code, she could save Israel. Hackers have a number of prominent features: they are goal-oriented, their approach is action-packed in detail. They take risks. They are brave and bold. They are innovators who create a new reality. They enter fire fields to change reality. Ahasuerus is trapped in a network that weaves him together with the evil Haman and a paradigmatic change was needed to save Israel. Haman in his obsessive hatred of the Jews prepared what we know in today’s terms Holocaust and he took care to anchor things in scripture.
Haman plotted to kill to destroy and wipe out the Jews “young and old, children and women” (Book of Esther [BOE], 3:13). He certainly designed what was called by the Nazis “the final solution”, with the extinction of the Jews. When her uncle, Mordechai, informed her of Haman’s plan and she understood the severity of the situation, she agrees to act. She knew that she must take a risk and asked Mordecai to organize a national fast and pray for her. Determined to ensure that the decree was cancelled, she was aware that this was an almost impossible task, so she planned it in several stages.
Esther realized that the main problem she had to deal with is the obsessive love of the hedonistic Ahasuerus and Haman of honor (dignity) and power and control over people which is why her mission was complex. Esther did not reject any means to accomplish the task, nor lose time. Recognizing her husband’s mentality, she realized that approaching the king through his cognitive mental level was not going to work. Ahasuerus, who spent much of his time in acute drinking – was a capricious king with a tendency to erupt uncontrollable extreme moods.
His kingdom is ruled by lust, so it is necessary to produce dramas and scandals in order to awaken her husband’s curiosity. First, she ran the risk of entering her husband’s territory without having been invited. Crossing the border and penetrating the decision-making arena, namely the territory she was not allowed to enter, was a necessary stage in her plan. She dressed in the best, as the text relates: “Esther donned [garments of] royalty” and set out to captivate the king with her feminine and charms. When the King saw her, he immediately “lit up” and handed her the golden wand. This phallic symbol will influence the entire plot and will be a major factor in her success in the future. The surprise factor played in her favor as the King was curious and wanted to find out what her request was and what led her to risk her life to reach the courtyard without being called. As we know, Esther had a very simple request: she invited him and Haman to a banquet. Haman translated this invitation immediately into the meaning of power and dignity and respect and he bragged to his wife: “Along with the king, Queen Esther invited only me to the feast that she prepared” (BOE, 5:12).
Achashverosh comes to the banquet and asks her again What is your request? [Even if it be] half the kingdom, it will be granted you” (BOE, 5:3). He realized that she must have some issue that he had yet to identify. In response, Esther broadcasted “business as usual” and asked that he and Haman come to another banquet on the next day. Haman saw this invitation as a strengthening of his status in the kingdom and he arrived happily and then when the king asked her what her request was, she developed her response in stages. She said to him: “if I have round favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the King, let my life be granted me, by my plea, and the life of my people by my request” (BOE, 3:7). She created a clear connection between her individual and collective national identity.
Esther explained to the king: “If you love me you also have to love my people”. And she then revealed her origin and collective identity that was unknown to the king because, until then, Esther had not divulged her race or ancestry, for Mordechai had instructed her not to tell anyone (BOE, 2:10). When the king asked her: “Who is this, and which one is he, that has the audacity to do such a thing?” (BOE,7:5) – and here comes the surprising response when she says – “A man who is a persecutor and an enemy: this evil Haman!” (BOE, 7:6). The hacker finally gave a frontal blow, and this came as such a surprise that her opponent was unable to defend himself.
Haman who arrived for a fun-friendly drinking evening received an artillery front attack that he could not escape. When the Persian king went out to ponder on Haman’s plea, he fell on her. The Midrash claims that an angel of heaven dropped him on her, creating a planned sexual display that provoked the jealous king who said to Haman: “Does he even intend to have his way with the queen while I am in the palace (BOE 8:7). The king commanded that Haman should be hung, but Esther realized that the task was still not complete. The death of Haman still did not violate the decree of extermination of the Jewish people because it was written and sealed with the king’s ring, and what is sealed cannot be changed.
Once the first obstacle had been removed, the removal of the written decree of evil had to be planned. Esther realized that the previous trickery would not help her so the agentic Esther constructed a heartbreaking dramatic scene. She fell to the king’s feet, crying and begging him to erase Haman’s decision. First, the king hands her the golden baton, the phallic symbol, and she realizes that her feminine ruse was working, that the king was turned on and liked her, which is a good foundation and a safe ground to continue striving to accomplish the task, while building the personal argument and intersecting it with the collective argument.
Her personal weapon – her charm – would be utilized and enlisted to the maximum to meet the needs of the national collective she wanted to save. Esther wanted to make sure that she was indeed on safe ground and gave Ahasuerus a fidelity check when she returned and said “If it pleases the King, and if I have found favor before him, and the idea is proper to the King, and I am pleasing in his eyes” (BOE:8:5). Why should she repeat the phrase: “I am pleasing in his eyes?” Because when she came to request the elimination of the decree, she wanted to make sure he loved her and she was pleasing in his eyes, conveying the message that if I am good to you then you must also care for my people because “How can I watch the loss of my people?” Esther turned appeal to his kindness and asked him for a personal gesture stemming from the love he had for her. Having previously based his sense of commitment towards her people on the love he had for her by ordering Haman’s execution, she demanded from him again the same attitude called love.
This is where the transformation took place. Esther “exploits” the king’s weakness and love for her to be drafted into the mission to undo the final solution. Throughout the whole episode, Esther made him feel that he was the head, but she really was the neck and managed to turn the head according to her national needs and interests and so navigated the plot. Thus, feminist Esther, the hacker, cracked the Ahasuerus activation code and rescued her people while using her femininity, wisdom and agency.