It never occurred to me when I was growing up, studying Bible in Hebrew day school and in Yiddish with a rabbi in the afternoon, that I was not seeing the same role model in the texts that my own mother was giving me. She had survived the second quarter of the 20th century with powerful resourcefulness and never gave in to rules or mere reality, and the contemporary expression, “It is what it is” would have made her hold her sides with laughter. Nothing for her was absolute, and capitulating to situations would have literally been suicide many times over.
What I was learning from my varied biblical studies was very different. Even though it was always wished that I grow up like the mothers of the Bible, upon close observation they were not exactly as virtuous or as ideal as the blessings would have me believe. I didn’t know how I felt about Sarah’s agreeing to act as Abraham’s sister, moving in with strange men, and chasing away the concubine she herself had given to her husband, and I wasn’t at all sure where she was when her husband took her only son away to be sacrificed.
It was a challenge to really understand them, and I began to put myself in their place. What if I were Rebecca? What would make me go off to marry a stranger? What would it feel like to be Leah, unloved, shared with her beautiful sister, and yet visited repeatedly by her husband? How did it feel to be the wife of Noah or Lot? What was it like to be Tamar listening to her biological clock ticking while her father-in-law was keeping her away from men? What about Jezebel and Delilah? And why don’t we know more about Judith?
The Gershwin song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from “Porgy and Bess,” kept spinning in my mind. Maybe I was influenced by Itzik Manger, whose irreverent Yiddish collection of poems, “Bible Verse” was my favorite reading as a child, presenting the characters as simple human beings. Maybe it’s just a part of the way I look at things, what would be referred to in Aramaic as ifcha mistabra, which is often translated as “the opposite is true,” but I see as: “Let’s look at it from a different direction.” In the case of the women in the Bible, I began to think, “What if I or my daughters or grandchildren were in this situation – how would they behave? How would we see the situation?” There were some over whom I literally wept, and many of whom I was proud.
So I began to try out their situations, sometimes simply for fun, thinking that if Potiphar’s wife was married to a eunuch, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal for her to expect the servants to service her. Maybe it was part of Joseph’s job description, and maybe he gave her the wrong idea by parading around before her the way he had lorded it over his brothers. Of course, I was ignoring some of the important elements in the story, her accusation of rape, his imprisonment, and the conceivable nobility of his behavior, but it was fun to examine her side of the situation, to see the people in the Bible as fallible human beings. Midrash as role-playing.
And there are so many women in the Bible who have things happen to them, and their response, if there is any, is rarely registered. Rebecca sees her husband for the first time and falls off her camel, Lot’s daughters get offered to a sex-hungry crowd by their father, Rachel is suddenly forced to leave her father’s house and steals his idol, but never says goodbye. There is so much room for conjecture about how these women react to these strange decisions, and why.
It isn’t unusual for the Bible to ignore feelings and concentrate on facts, and not surprising either. The emphasis in any chronicle has to be on action without dwelling on motivation or emotion, to further the narrative.
Still, unless I understood these women, how could I learn from them, how could I create my role in contemporary society unless I could rise above the limitations of their situations?
When I first came to Rochester, New York, from the age of 3 almost into my teens, we would frequent the Kippele Shul, which was a synagogue of refugees and immigrants. The women with whom we sat in the high balcony knew no Hebrew, were bored by the services taking place far below in a foreign language, and used the occasion of their weekly meet to gossip. These were my first introductions to the Torah reading, and I don’t want my children and grandchildren to experience the women of the Bible in the same way. My mother must have felt the same way and worked very hard to move to a neighborhood with a synagogue where women sit together with men and study equally.
And I wanted to understand and learn about the possibilities of women. So I found myself writing a book of dramatic monologues called “A Word in Edgewise,” and my concluding poem puts my ladies together in our women’s section:
So I’m sitting here in my favorite place
in the women’s balcony of the Kippele Shul,
just above the place where they read the Torah
and I can almost make out the letters.
Of course I’m forbidden to know the language
it’s written in, but fortunately my companions
can tell me the stories first hand.
Except for Eve and Lilith
who sit on opposite sides of the benches
and glare at each other, everybody
has something to say.
“You should have been there,”
says Rebecca, “When I first saw those jewels!
“You’d think I’d have the sense to figure out
why they sent a servant to court me
instead of the bridegroom himself!”
“Talk about blind matches,” Tamar intervenes.
“I got two loser husbands, and was lucky
to get one more chance to get some seed
before my biological clock ran out!”
From below, the Torah readers
stop the ceremony, bang on the table
and raise their faces at us to shout “Sha!”
and we lower our voices for the moment.
Then the old ladies begin their harsh whispering,
“Me, I was fine before the flood.
but can you imagine what it was like
hanging around an old man who knew
he was the only righteous one
in the world!” “At least he didn’t try
to kill his son,” Sarah says from the corner.
“I had to deal with a traumatized kid
for the rest of my life.” “Kvetch kvetch
kvetch,” I suddenly intervene.
“We could go on forever,
but we just repeat ourselves
over and over