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I will not be afraid of women

One of my all time favorite musicians is folk singer Dar Williams. Beginning in high school, her song “As Cool as I am” became a real anthem for me and my friends. The song itself is a declaration— and a calling out: of the way in which women are sized up and cut down so often, by other women. Its refrain is joyous and explosive, as Dar Williams echoes herself singing the words, “I will not be afraid of women, I will not be afraid of women”. I can remember singing this song at every age and stage of my young adult and adult life- on the grass at an outdoor music festival in college. In the car, windows rolled down with my best friends. At countless little music venues around the country as my 20s and 30s took me between Wisconsin, Brooklyn, and then the Berkshires. But never, have the words felt more necessary than at this moment. An affirmation, a chiding, a hope, a request: I will not be afraid of women. But, will you? Are you? My fear is that yes, many people are indeed afraid of women: and with that fear, there is a silencing, and erasure.

This silencing and erasure aren’t new. I don’t really even need this weeks’ headlines to make my point- though I certainly could point to the countless thought pieces circulating over the past 24 hours about the disappointment and anger than many women are feeling right now. This silencing and erasure is nothing new- it’s so old, we might even call it “traditional.”

So first, a story: There was once a man named Ulla— a wandering merchant and devotee of the rabbis who would go back and forth between Israel, and the Jewish community in exile in Babylonia. He would bring the latest rabbinic gossip, the newest ideas in Jewish legal thought. One night, he visited the home of Rav Nahman. Together they ate— blessing the bread before the meal, and ending with Birkat HaMazon- the blessing after the meal. Full from the delicious meal, Ullah raises a cup of blessing, — a glass of wine held in his right hand, understood to be a gift of gratitude. Rav Nahman says to him, “Don’t you think, sir, that you could pass that kos shel bracha cup of blessing to my wife, Yalta?” Ulla does not want to do this, saying that it is enough to pass it to Rav Nahman, and cites a teaching that a husbands blessing passes through to his wife, but that there is no need to directly bless a woman. Yalta, Rav Nahman’s wife, overhears this and is enraged. She gets up, goes into the wine cellar, and smashes 400 barrels of wine. Unruffled, apparently—Rav Nahman says to Ulla, “let’s send her another cup of blessing.” Ulla replies—”all of this is blessed wine”. In other words, the wine is already blessed, there’s no reason to waste another cup on her specifically. Yalta turns to him saying “From wandering beggars who go door to door, words are generated; from rags, lice are generated.”1 Yalta is angry. She’s more than angry— she’s insulted and enraged and maybe—at her wits end. (1)

Of course, Yalta’s actions are dramatic. 400 barrels of wine, over a simple blessing? I have a lot of compassion for Yalta— let’s fill in a little bit of color to her story. Yalta was the daughter of the Exilarch; having grown up in a home of relative wealth and power, she was also learned. And this cup of blessing was no ordinary cup of wine– So not only does Ulla appear to disapprove of sharing this cup of blessing with women, but he appears to suggest that fertility, of all things, is a blessing bestowed through men! Even the people of the Talmudic era understood that this is not how biology works. As Rabbi Amy Scheinerman writes: Traditional commentaries often paint Yalta as an ill-tempered, spoiled, hysterical woman. But consider: How many Cups of Blessing did she obliterate? Who controls fertility now?

Yalta ultimately gets the last word— her husband, Rav Nahman supports her— imploring his guest to include his wife. In her final words to Ulla, she equates his interpretation of Torah with tall tales, not legitimate halacha, his opinion worth the lice of a rag picker. And that is where the cup of blessing lands all these thousands of years later— in the memory of a woman who got good and mad.

Had I swapped out the names Ulla and Rav Nahman and Yalta, and perhaps changed a few other details— would it be hard to imagine this story, or some version of it taking place in the last 50 years? Probably not.

But, women aren’t supposed to show anger like that. It’s not nice. It’s not lady like. Over time, we’ve come up with other ways of getting things done: by being impeccable and expert, calm, serene, unimpeachable in our conduct and behavior. And yet, we don’t need to look to the pages of the Atlantic or the New York Times for further examples of what happens when a woman, well learned and experienced, respectable, poised and prepared tries to make change.

This fear of powerful, angry women is older, deeper, and wider than that. Why not look right to our Purim story, which we’ll read here on Monday night?

Growing up, I don’t know that I had much to say about Vashti. Queen Esther was the real star of the show after all, and I think I had this idea that somehow, Vashti was the “bad guy”.

A closer look at her story: As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a remarkable, almost cartoonish extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver couches; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine—the only thing missing is the golden toilet. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, entertains the women in her quarters. The king commands his eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on (Est. 1:11). Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. The king wishes to display Vashti’s beauty before the feasters – flaunting before them his prized possession. However, in this pivotal moment, Vashti is holding her own court amongst the women. As a proud and autonomous woman she refuses to surrender the ownership of both her will and body to the king. Upon hearing this, King Ahasuerus is furious. Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by the eunuchs; therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him (Est.1:12).

Spoiler alert: women who defy men don’t do well in the bible. It’s not becoming— not ladylike, after all. It should come as no shock, that Vashti’s defiance and fury will be her undoing. The king asks: “What shall we do with Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done my bidding?” (Est. 1:15)

The response of the princes is somewhat lengthy, but deserves mention because it gets to the heart of their unrighteous anger, and also highlights how Vashti’s transgression is dealt with through legal sanction. Memucan answered before the king and the princes: Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she didn’t come! And now the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen will say the same thing to all the king’s princes! So will there arise a great contempt and wrath.”

So: to make sure we all understand what’s going on here—the King’s court is utterly flummoxed by the audacity of Queen Vashti, and more than that, they’re afraid that she will inspire similar bad behavior on the part of their own wives. And so King Ahaseurus issues a royal decree- banishing Vashti, and publishing it throughout the kingdom, so that all of the other wives will hear of her fate.

In other words: don’t let that woman give the other women any ideas! A silent, isolated woman is far less dangerous.

A small note of comfort: today, Vashti’s brief appearance in the Book of Esther captures far greater attention; the resonances with our own modern situation around women, bodily autonomy, and sexual harassment are hard to ignore. Our teens here at Hevreh, who each year write their own Purimshpeil get it—as they joked a few years ago, Vashti started the #MeToo movement.

So what are we to do with all of this righteous anger? Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad, tells us that anger is our why. The whole premise of her book that women’s anger has been a crucible for some of the most important social movements in our country, and that we are “never taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism and our art. We should be.” From women’s suffrage, to the civil right’s movement, to the fight for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy— women’s rage has been a powerful fuel for making change. So, on this Shabbat — lest you walk away thinking my message was just to get and stay “good and mad”, my hope is this:

May your anger be a force for passion. May you be like Vashti— willing to walk away from the situations and the communities that do not serve you, where your values are not matched and you are not respected. May you be like Yalta— 400 barrels of wine may seem like an unforgiveable waste, but framed differently: it was fueled by a passion for a seat at a table, and the opportunity to drink deeply from the cup of blessing.

There are a lot of people right now, working tremendously hard to ensure that folks all of our country, and our world have the opportunity to drink equally from that cup of blessing. With Yalta and Vashti in mind, I am only more deeply resolved to let my anger be my fuel, rather than freezing me in my place.

As Rebecca Traister writes: The task—especially for the newly awakened, the newly angry, [especially for the white women], for whom incentives to renounce their rage will be highest in coming years—is to keep going, to not turn back, to not give in to the easier path, the one where we weren’t angry all the time, where we accepted the comforts of racial and economic advantage that will always be on offer to those who don’t challenge power. Our job is to stay angry…perhaps for a very long time.

Shabbat Shalom.

works cited:

1 BT Berakhot 51b as taught by Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi PhD 2. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 3Ibid. 3: transgender-women/ 4. Rebecca Traister. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

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