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The Jewish Woman’s Bible

A millennia-old book of the Bible demonstrates just how warped society can get without women's active participation
Illustrative. 'Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him,' circa 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. 'Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him,' circa 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. (Wikipedia)

Last week as I scrolled through Kobe Bryant game highlights, interview clips and heart-rending photos, a thought piece by Jill Filipovic appeared in my feed. In her piece, Filipovic elegantly posed the tough questions many of us were ambivalent about articulating “too soon.” She raised questions about how we, as a society, appropriately eulogize people with a complicated history, and how we talk about them in a way that does justice to their legacy without silencing those they wounded. Her article was nuanced and empathic, and still, there were vicious calls by many to silence her voice.

At the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in the summer of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, led discussions alongside other suffragettes in which they considered the role of women in society. In the months and years that followed, Stanton authored The Woman’s Bible, convinced that canon law and traditional interpretations of the Bible stood in the way of women’s liberation. While the slow receptance, and inadvertent implications of the work’s publication is a fascinating tale in its own right, the challenge posed at that initial gathering is one that, in today’s climate, we need revisit and seriously consider. The Bible has been the single most influential work on the Judeo-Christian culture in which we find ourselves, and as Jews, it is critical that we pinpoint the starting point for any conversation about the Jewish approach to abuses and subsequent silencing of women.

While there are various approaches to tackling this question, the Book of Judges is a constructive place to start, as some of the most vicious crimes perpetrated against women can be found within its chapters. The book tells of Israel’s earliest phase as a nation within the Land of Canaan and, were it to be adapted to screenplay, would easily be rated R. The work is filled with accounts of violence, intrigue, and a startling amount of sexual and physical abuse of women. The story of “The Concubine of Gibeah” for example, tells of an innocent woman that is shoved out the front door by her own husband to a gang of rapists. When she stumbles home the next morning, her husband dismembers her violated body and sends pieces of the corpse to each tribe in Israel. The story is harrowing in its own right, but what troubles students of the Bible, perhaps even more than the horrors themselves, is the fact that a cursory reading of the story doesn’t seem to reveal the sort of divine disapproval that typically follows appalling crimes. There also don’t appear to be any leaders, or even righteous bystanders that attempt to intervene and prevent the tragedy. And so, what we seem to be left with is the Bible, at best turning a blind eye, at worst, condoning heinous treatment of women. And so, it comes as no surprise that this episode, among others recounted in the book, is frequently quoted to bolster claims that the Bible is, at its core, a misogynistic corpus of literature. As we will see, it is also a prime example of how reading the Bible, in a de-contextualized manner, leads to a misconstruing of the work, and erroneous beliefs about the author’s intentions.

The Book of Judges is a historical narrative that chronicles the events that took place in the Land of Israel roughly between the years 1200 and 1050 BCE. It tells of different leaders that arose, wars that were fought, and struggles both internal and external, with which the nascent nation of Israel was forced to contend. But like all historical works of the Bible, Judges is not comprehensive, and it is also not a straightforward historical record. Historical documentation and narration in the Bible are utilized as mediums through which important ideologies and doctrines are communicated. The myriad of historical events that took place are curated in such a way that the specific lessons the author wants its audience to take from that given period in history, are at once obvious and profound.

The Book of Judges has a very clear agenda. It is coming to explain why, despite the Bible’s explicit disapproval of a monarchic system, Israel finds itself, at the turn of the millennium, appointing its first of many successive kings. The work claims that, despite its obvious shortcomings, a monarchy is still preferable to a lack of centralized leadership. As such, the book depicts the dangers that arise when subjective morality fills the vacuum of agreed-upon standards of right and wrong. In order to highlight those ways in which society without a king fails, Judges isolates a series of societal components, and through clever literary devices, depicts their erosion over the course of the book. We watch for example, as the fervent monotheists of the book’s first generation are replaced by generations that capitulate to pagan worship. We witness the caliber of leaders decline with every successive storyline, each one becoming more unhinged than his predecessor, and we track the disintegration of the unity that once existed among the tribes of Israel. Each isolated element, the author seems to be claiming through his persistent use of recurrent motifs, serves as a barometer for the relative health of the society being portrayed.

And that’s where women come in.

The first few chapters of the book are jampacked with stories of powerful women. What is more striking than the impressive content of their stories though, is the fact that the society depicted by the author in its initial phases, presumes powerful, independent women as a given. In one of the earliest chapters of the work, we are told in passing about a woman named Achsah who mounts a donkey, travels to her father’s home and demands land rights from him. Not only are the land rights instantly guaranteed, but there are no hints of shock at the nature of her demands, and nothing about her actions seem the slightest bit exceptional. Just a few chapters later we are introduced to the famous Deborah- a woman renowned throughout the land for her prophetic abilities, juridical expertise, and military prowess. Deborah’s story is paired with another legendary woman, Yael, who slays Israel’s enemy Siserah by luring him into her tent and subsequently using the pegs of that very tent to impale her unsuspecting guest. The juicy irony of her scene, that didn’t escape the attention of renaissance painters, is the way in which Yael lulls Sisersah into a false sense of security by playing into his assumptions of female powerlessness. In the most maternal of acts, she offers him a respite from the battlefield with a blanket and some milk. She uses his own stereotypes to fell him, and the leader Deborah memorializes Yael’s victory in a post-battle chant that reverberates throughout the land. Powerful women with the bandwidth to create a better world mark the zenith of the book’s 150 year period.

Of course, as society deteriorates, the stories of women the likes of Deborah and Yael become fewer and far between. There are still women that act skillfully, even heroically, and those that receive prophecy, but their names are gradually dropped from the text. They are simply remembered as “the woman that…” or “the wife of…” Society, the author is posing, through this subtle stylistic shift, can be measured by how much space it carves out for, and how much esteem it grants, individual women. And the situation only deteriorates from there. Midway through the book, we are told of a war hero by the name of Jephthah. In some respects, Jephthah is a relatively successful leader that manages to protect his people from enemy onslaught. But in a dichotomy that is difficult for the reader to digest, we then watch that same venerated hero fulfill a clumsy vow, by sacrificing his daughter on an altar to God. Jephthah’s daughter deferentially accepts her fate, and we realize, as we watch her yield to his deadly blunders, that the world that she is living in is no longer the world of Deborah. Jephthah’s daughter resigns herself to a life over which she has no control, and her father is enabled by the people around him that look away or pretend not to see; her murder is sanctioned by silence. Society, we are being warned, is headed in a direction from which it will be difficult to reverse, and there will be political and religious implications for the people of Israel. The author marks this shift with the restrained surrender of an abandoned daughter.

As we reach the final chapters of the book, we read about the above-mentioned Concubine of Gibeah. When we first encounter the woman, she is traveling by donkey to her father’s home, evoking the image of the independent Achsah who confronted male authority to insist on her rights. The Concubine’s story could not end more differently. It is explicit, and with each development in the plot we become increasingly sickened as the nature of her abuse hits inconceivable depths. But only when we segue into the ensuing chapters, and watch a senseless civil war erupt among the tribe of Israel, do we realize that the author has woven a most profound metaphor into his moral saga. The body of Israel is broken, because it tolerated, among other things, the breaking of women.

In those days, there was no king in Israel, each man did what was right in his eyes, is the closing refrain of the 21-chapter work. The author of the work is arguing that a society without a centralized establishment to impose order will inevitably implode. And while Judges reveals a myriad of ways in which breakdowns occur, it is the decline of women’s rights and freedoms that most evocatively signals the gradual erosion of society wholesale. The work culminates with a story of maidens snatched by men on the prowl for young brides. The women are seen dancing in vineyards, naively assuming that the world they inhabit is a safe one. But the reader, along with the maidens, find out just how wrong they are. The women are carried off by their kidnappers and the author conspicuously omits their screams of resistance. Mirroring the society that betrayed them, the text silences their voices. And in that silence, with its case sufficiently made, the book ends.

Handpicking isolated incidents from Judges, or any Biblical work for that matter, to foster claims of the Bible’s chauvinism, is easy. But investing time to read those incidents within the larger frameworks in which they appear, leads to intellectually honest and fruitful dialogue. There is much to be gleaned from our traditions, and at the same time, many biased interpretations to sift through. But there is no question that to speak of the “Jewish Approach” to any matter, requires that we start where all matters Jewish begin.

We are living in a time in which people are speaking up against millennia-old injustices and claiming that a truly stable society can only thrive when women’s voices resound. Coincidentally, there is a millennia-old text that fortifies that position. We just need to study it.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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