D’var Torah: Reclaiming Her-story

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 12 March 2020

D’var Torah: Reclaiming Her-story

Divorced – beheaded – died – divorced – beheaded – survived

This is how I grew up knowing Henry VIII’s six wives, from a poem I learnt in year five history, the year I studied the Tudors. I’m so terrible with dates, and with names, that I couldn’t tell you which one was which, when they lived, for how long, and how they died. That was until Six the Musical was written, in which the six wives take to the microphone to tell their tales, in their plight to become more than ‘just one word in a stupid rhyme’.

The music remixes five hundred years of historical trauma into a 75 minute celebration of girl power. After months of listening to the songs, I finally saw the production last night and it took my breath away, not just because of the talent and energy, but because every single musician both on the stage and behind it, was female.

For once his-story became her-story. The hidden stories of the women, told from their perspectives, shone a new light on the culture and society of that time. It was like a modern day midrash, written around the text to help these women reclaim their place in the narrative.

As we approach Purim, the story of Vashti is also one that is often lost in a wider narrative. Appearing in the first chapter of the book of Esther, she refuses to dance in only a crown, and consequently disappears from our narrative for good.

With a modern day lens we view her as a strong women, who speaks out for herself and refuses to be objectified by her husband. However, the rabbis of our tradition are deeply unhappy about Vashti’s disobedience.

They view her as a threat and reclaim her story for themselves, using her as an example of what happens when you disobey your husband. They make her disgusting, inflicting her with infectious bodily diseases such as leprosy. They even give her a tail in one story.

Rabbi and author, Arthur Waskow wrote:

The Talmud’s midrash about Vashti arises from panic at the idea of an independent woman. The MEN of the Talmud… saw women as uncanny deviations from model (i.e. male) human beings and defined their place as subordinate and protected — to be treated nicely by their masters. Vashti clearly challenged that role. So the men of the Talmud created a midrashic gestalt that further denigrated Vashti. And today, feminist women and men create midrash that celebrates her.

In the same way that Henry’s wives were the unsung heroes in their stories, Vashti is the unsung hero of our Purim story. Today, she is seen as a feminist icon, one of two women in arguably the most feminist book of our tradition. Vashti was a woman that fought to be counted as an equal to her husband. She is a great example to us all. She teaches us that we all have right to assess how comfortable we feel in a situation, and the power to change how we act if we do not feel comfortable.

Reading her story on Monday night, the day after International Women’s Day this Sunday, feels very pertinent. First observed in 1911, International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

This year the theme is Each for Equal. Gender equality is not a women’s issue, but a worldwide issue. It is essential for economies and communities to thrive, as it can create a world that is healthier, wealthier and more harmonious.

Collectively, we can make change happen. Collectively, we can each help to create a gender equal world. We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements.

May we share the stories of women, rather than hide them from our history. May we find those which have been lost and reclaim them as our own. And may we celebrate the successes of our women today and help their stories be recorded in our narrative for future generations.