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Naomi Graetz

Can Modern Midrash Repair the World?

Cover of Marla Feldman's book
Cover of Marla Feldman's book, from the author's website with permission.

I started to write this blog early this week, Tuesday, July 11th, the day when all of Israel went on strike. My daughter, who was on the way to Portugal, sent me a detailed list of the full schedule where the demonstrations were taking place. It looked ugly. They took the train and got to the airport very early; but before boarding there was an announcement that the pilot and crew were caught in the traffic caused by the strike, so the flight was delayed. If you have been disconnected from media, you can read the newspapers to find out why there was a general strike. However, I decided to escape reality and retreat into something more uplifting as a topic.

TURNING THE LOCKUP INTO OUTREACH

At the beginning of Corona, my daughter, who was then serving as a rabbi in Nahariya, asked me if I would teach a zoom class on the modern midrashim I had written. Of course, I agreed—it was an opportunity and an ego trip. There were about 7 or 8 participants and we had a lot of fun. I prepared power points and took my preparation very seriously. The group grew by word of mouth and today there are about 30 some people who participate, and about 5 of the original group still are sticking with it. I have learned a lot and hope that they did as well. I took (and continue to take) an unabashedly feminist point of view in my presentations and each year, I reintroduce what midrash is—since there are always new people joining. Sometimes, I use old material, especially when I am too busy to prepare. I also invite other writers of midrash to join, especially when I use their work. Several of the women in my group are themselves writers of midrash. In the Fall, it will be the fourth year of my doing this. A few weeks ago, as preparation for one of my classes, I received a review copy of a new book from one of the participants, which I will review towards the end of this blog. But first, what is the importance of midrash and modern midrash?

MIDRASH AS REPAIR/TIKKUN

Midrash is a form of tikkun; it asks questions of the text; it interprets it; it allows us to get different views; it can be subversive; it doesn’t accept a fixed reality; it encourages change and demands answers. Until recently, midrash was the tool of the patriarchy—i.e. males set the agenda for textual interpretation. Midrash can be in the form of intra-biblical texts; it can be by juxtaposing two texts; and it can also be used to fill in the gaps of what is not there. Several examples come to mind without much thought: What did Cain say to Abel after God warned him (Genesis 4:8)? Or what was Jacob thinking after his son Reuben raped his concubine Bilhah when it said “And Israel [Jacob] heard…” for the text ends abruptly in mid-sentence (Genesis 35:22)? Or who was the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-34)? And on what basis did our tradition decide that he was the father of the five daughters of Tzelophad (Numbers 27:3)?  I will come back these five daughters soon.

The Second Wave of Feminism

In the mid 70’s there was a change. Under the influence of the second wave of feminism, people began to recognize the injustice done to survivors of incest, rape victims, and battered women as well as organizing to do something about it. During this time, Jewish women also began to look at the inequities of religion and started demanding equal participation. Although the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972 by the Reform movement, it took many years until the Conservative movement caught up when Amy Eilberg was ordained as a rabbi in 1985. It took years of advocacy and debate until this happened. More recently the modern Orthodox movement began to ordain women as rabbis. Sara Hurwitz, was originally ordained as a maharat in 2009, but later began using the title rabba (feminine for rabbi or rav). These were slow developments during which time women began to be counted for the first time as equal partners. Even in Israel, there is Beit Midrash Har-El (https://www.har-el.org/) an Orthodox institution which ordains both men and women.

One of the early tools for promoting equality was women writing modern midrash, or retellings of biblical stories. Although there were many ancient precedents for retellings of the bible (e.g. the Book of Jubilees, which retells tales from the Books of Genesis and Exodus) women were not usually the re-interpreters.

THE FIVE DAUGHTERS OF TZELOPHAD

This week we finish the fourth book of the Torah and next week move on to the fifth one, Deuteronomy, which is an early example of a “retelling” of Israelite history from Moses’s perspective. The book of Numbers ends with the story of the Five Daughters of Tzelophad (Numbers 36: 1-12). So for me it is timely to look at a new book of retellings, Biblical Women Speak: Hearing Their Voices through New and Ancient Midrash, which has just come out. It is written by Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, who is now retiring from being the Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism.

I first met Feldman when I invited her to present a midrash that I came across in a book, now out of print, Reading Between the Lines: New Stories from the Bible (1996). Not everyone responds favorably to my invitations, but she was very happy to present and join my group. When I told her that I would be presenting a zoom class on the five daughters, she sent me her midrash about Noa, one of the five daughters of Tzelophad. We read the entire story in class and were transfixed. SPOILER ALERT: The story does not have a happy ending; but it reflects the reality of the world in which Noa lived. After getting God to agree that women have the right to inherit (Numbers 27: 1-11), this right of inheritance is restricted by the men of the tribe of Menasseh with Moses’s stamp of approval—they can inherit, but only if they marry within the tribe. So Noa is an example of someone who cannot marry the man she loves, because he is from a different tribe.

I asked Feldman for a review copy of her book which she sent to me.  Having read through it, I am very impressed by the author’s creativity and in depth understanding of her characters. She often leans on traditional commentary, but is not bound by it.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK

There are ten retellings (or stories) in this stunning collection. It begins with “Keturah: Abraham’s Last Wife”. Each of the ten retellings presents a tale of a biblical woman (Leah and Rachel, Judah’s wife Bat-shua, Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine, Shelomit Bat Dibri, Three of Pharoah’s women, Miriam and ends with Noa—who is spelled Noah in this volume). Of course, you’ve heard of some of these women. But most of the stories focus on characters that we don’t usually think about. And Noa, in particular exemplifies a woman who suffers the consequences of the patriarchal system in play at the end of the Book of Numbers. What is most interesting to me is how she enables us to empathize with these marginal biblical women. The book is arranged meticulously and is clearly well-researched. Each chapter begins with a presentation of the entire biblical text. Then we read the original retelling, the modern midrash. After reading this, we can see how the author may have been influenced by her section quoting classical commentary and midrash. And she follows this up with her own insightful commentary. There is an appendix which gives us an overview of Midrash, a glossary of classical sources, notes on the stories and a bibliography. This book, which has intrinsic value in the stories alone, can be used by many people (ranging from teachers like myself to newbies, who are just starting out). It can be read by adults who study the weekly parsha and is useful for rabbis and educators—who will be happy to have the sources right in front of them without searching too hard. I’m not sure if it should be marketed as a bat mitzvah gift; but since today’s learners are fairly sophisticated, why not? An example of the entry in the clearly labeled Table of contents is the last chapter, Chapter Ten, “Noah: Daughter of Zelophehad”; “Biblical Texts: Numbers 27:1–8, 36:1–12”; “Noah and Elishama—A Love Story”; “Classical Commentary and Midrash: Five Righteous Women”; “Commentary: Rights Given and Taken Away”.

On the credits page it is noted that some of the stories were originally published in the 1990’s in different forms.

In her “Introduction: Finding Ourselves with the Biblical Text,” Feldman writes:

In this work, I have tried to fill in the gaps of select biblical stories from the first-person vantage point of certain female biblical characters, some who are named and central to the biblical storyline and others who are unnamed and considered minor figures. In the biblical era, women were defined by their relationships; they were daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. As such, the locus of their (limited) power, authority, and influence would have been in their family lives. Women like Leah, Bilhah, and Miriam are significant characters in the Bible, yet the rabbis failed to explore critical moments in their familial lives (p. xxiii).

She also explains about her story about Noa:

[T]he rabbis consider the story of Zelophehad’s daughters significant because of the underlying property laws at issue, and even today we celebrate the progressive ruling allowing them to inherit land in the absence of male siblings. Yet, though their names are memorialized in the biblical text, the rabbis—and many of us today—fail to consider the potentially devastating impact of the additional requirement of intratribal marriage imposed upon women. These sisters’ personal and nuanced stories of love and loss beg to be told… (p. xxv).

I have one major critique of this book and that is that Feldman neither engages with nor even mentions other modern writers of midrash. One can be left with the impression that she is the first one to do this. Since in my class, I make a point of mentioning the many books (besides my own) that are out there, I find this to be unfortunate. There is no mention of the many other fine writers of modern midrash, even in the bibliography. To be fair, she does write in the introduction:

….I have not explored the rich and growing body of modern feminist scholarship, midrash, and theology that are enhancing our understanding of these and other biblical women. Many individuals are continuing the development of midrash as I have in this book, expanding upon the teachings of the past and contributing modern interpretations of biblical characters. As we put ourselves and our own life experiences into the text, there are many “truths” to be uncovered. Others may offer similar or vastly different depictions of these biblical women and their stories, all of which will augment our understanding of and connection to our sacred tradition (p. xxviii).

However, I do not think this is enough. It is lip service! It is crucial that she points out that she is not writing in a vacuum, that there are already other wonderful collections of modern midrashim by women. I have reviewed many of these books over the years. She could have inserted something like “for further reading”. It is striking, that for an avowed feminist, she does not include one woman in her bibliography. This despite the many female Bible commentators out there in the Jewish and non Jewish world. But other than this, I have no quarrels with the book and highly recommend it. I plan to use Feldman’s fascinating midrashim (together with the many other authors who have written) in my future classes and will of course invite her to partake and teach, when I use one of her midrashim. Her book is available here.

CAN MODERN MIDRASH REPAIR THE WORLD?

I started this blog by writing that I want to escape this week’s bad news. Obviously, we should not be ostrich like. However, my escape is to read broadly—I love mysteries—and to engage with the bible. This last year I decided to make connections with the real world and see what the Tanakh has to say that is relevant, in particular the weekly portion. This week, women’s rights are being taken away, both in the real world and in the parsha. But there is also protest against this. Modern midrash humanizes the characters who are effected by the deprivation of rights. We understand and are inspired: If they could do it, in the ancient world with all the restrictions, surely we can try and do the same in our modern world.

Next week, the Book of Deuteronomy awaits us, with Moses’s midrash on his entire life enterprise. Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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