Шуламит Калугай в статье Д. Рубин (на английском языке)

Feminist scholar probes new visions

Midrash by women celebrated in talk at New Brunswick shul

Author: Debra Rubin

NJJN Bureau Chief/Middlesex

December 2, 2008

Midrash, the rabbinical commentaries used to explain the Torah, through history have lacked a female perspective.

But according to a scholar at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as women found a foothold in the larger literary world and in Jewish life over the last century, a reinterpretation of these texts emerged, colored by a feminist viewpoint.

Dr. Wendy Zierler, an associate professor of feminist studies and modern Jewish literature at the Reform movement’s HUC, spoke Nov. 16 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, delivering the Dr. Louis Schrager Memorial Lecture.

In her talk, Rereading Midrash: Rabbinic Versus Modern Feminist Interpretation, Zierler spoke of the almost “complete and utter absence of women’s voices” in the biblical commentary through the 19th century — not surprising, since the authors were men.

“We don’t have women editing or writing the Tanach, no women writing the halachic [Jewish legal] literature…, not one single piece was written by woman,” said Zierler, the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing.

Even in later centuries, women’s perspectives were closed out by male-dominated society.

Contrasting traditional midrash with poetry and literature by modern women writers, Zierler offered examples of how classical text was often used to buttress negative views of women.

Genesis Rabbah 45:5, for example, states, “Four traits are attributed to women; they are gluttonous, prying, lazy, and jealous.”

To prove the charge of laziness, the midrash’s authors quote Abraham telling his wife Sarah in Genesis to “make ready quickly three measures of fine meal” when strangers approach to visit their tent.

Felice Schrager of Highland Park, left, who endowed the Dr. Louis Schrager Memorial Lecture at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in memory of her husband, joins speaker Dr. Wendy Zierler.
“Why would the rabbis say that?” asked Zierler, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and graduate degrees from Princeton University. “It makes it sound like she was sitting around eating Bon Bons.”

Similarly, a midrash attributed to Rabbi Joshua declares that women are “wrathful and talkative.” The proof offered: in Numbers, Moses’ sister Miriam speaks disparagingly about her brother’s Cushite wife. Of course, their brother Aaron also “said evil” against Moses — so why is Miriam singled out for criticism?

“In some cases [the rabbis] were so unabashedly selective, and these small quotes were taken so out of context,” said Zierler. She did add that — “to be sure” — there were some more positive portrayals of women, especially biblical women, in rabbinic literature.

However, it was only during the Age of Enlightenment, beginning in the 18th-century, when education became more accessible for Jewish and gentile women alike, that Jewish women found their voices in interpreting the traditional texts.

Among these were Emma Lazarus, the poet best known for her sonnet “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor…”), which is inscribed on a tablet in the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus also translated works of Eastern European Jewish writers into English and was one of earliest advocates of modern Zionism.

Shulamit Kalugai (1891-1972), the sister of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, in her Hebrew poem “Somewhere,” seemed to be penning a counter-midrash when she described biblical women “of grace, splendor, bravery” and wrote “on Bathsheva’s head, a crown, in Deborah’s hand, a staff.”

In modern prose and poetry the tradition of women’s voices is expanding, according to Zierler.

Anita Diamant’s bestselling book The Red Tent, which recounts the biblical story of the rape of Dinah not from the point of view of Jacob’s sons, but rather from the perspective of Dinah and other women, is but one more example of a modern Jewish feminist offering her own take on tradition.