Book Review | Studying Talmud with Beruriah

Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash
Edited by Tamar Biala
Brandeis University Press, 304 pp., $30.00

When the ancient rabbis had a question about the Torah—an important detail that seemed to be missing, an inconsistency between two passages, even a redundant word or verse—they would often solve the problem by writing a midrash, or story, filling in the missing piece or reconciling the seeming contradiction. One well-known example of such a midrash is the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s workshop, then claiming that the largest idol had done it, so as to trick his father into admitting the idols were merely powerless, human-made statues. People often assume this is part of the Bible story, but in fact it is the rabbis’ creative answer to a question not answered in the text: Why did God choose Abraham to convert the heathens to monotheism?

Many of these invented stories reflect sensibilities that bother contemporary women, and women have responded by composing a rich variety of feminist midrash in response. (I take pride in thinking I have been part of this effort, particularly in my two novels that seek to flesh out the life of the otherwise unnamed “Rav Hisda’s daughter,” exploring why the Talmud would describe her as having married two of her father’s best students after being asked, “Which do you want?” and responding boldly, “Both of them.”)

For an example of the conversation between ancient and modern values in midrash, consider the story of Lilith. Traditional rabbis wanted to reconcile the two different accounts of the creation of man and woman that appear in Genesis: Chapter 1 describes God’s creation of man and woman at the same time, but Chapter 2 recounts how God makes man in the Garden of Eden and then creates woman as man’s mate later.

The rabbis wondered what happened to that first woman—why was Adam alone again and in need of a mate? They contrived the legend of Lilith, created as Adam’s equal, who left him when he insisted on dominating her. In this tradition, Lilith became a baby-killing demon, while Eve, created from Adam’s body in the second story, was more willing to submit to him and thus more acceptable to the ancient rabbis. In 1972, though, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow wrote “The Coming of Lilith,” which transforms the fearsome, demonic Lilith into a wise and brave woman. Instead of a rival to be feared, she becomes Eve’s friend and empowerer.

How might women have told their stories if they were central characters in the tradition?

Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash is the long-anticipated English edition of a collection of midrash composed by Israeli women. Three of the Dirshuni authors are rabbis; all are educators, many with advanced degrees. Using the classical forms developed by the ancient rabbis, they seek to fill what the book calls “the missing half of the sacred Jewish bookshelf.” Like other feminist approaches to the Torah, Dirshuni asks: How might women have told their stories if they were central, rather than peripheral, characters in the tradition?

As with traditional midrash collections, this volume begins with Genesis and Exodus and continues through Prophets and Writings. Here the similarity ends, as the following seven chapters are arranged by subject, including “Fertility and Parenthood,” “Holidays,” “Inequality in Jewish Law” and “The Rabbinic Court.” Each is fashioned in the traditional form: first the text, then the midrash explaining or expanding on it, then commentary on its implications, legal or otherwise.

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Some of the authors retell stories in a way that highlights women’s pain in greater detail, creating sympathy and revising traditional judgments. Retired high school teacher Ruti Timor offers a heart-rending alternative explanation of how Lot’s wife was transformed into a pillar of salt after she looked back at Sodom:

She was unaware of God’s command not to look behind (Genesis 19:17). Lot said to his wife, quick…we’ll run for our lives or be killed. She said, we’ll save ourselves, and our [married] daughters will stay here? …He walked sure-footed and she lagged behind. Her heart was heavy upon her, she looked back and saw her city, her family, and her property going up in flames. Tear after tear dripped from her eyes, and the tears grew fuller and fuller, stronger and stronger; until they became a pillar of salt. She stumbled and fell, and stirred no more. And Lot did not look back. Our Sages said, She sinned and with salt was punished. And I say, she sinned not, but was punished all the same.

Other retellings add new takes on long-standing debates, such as whether Sarah was complicit in Abraham’s decision to obey the command to sacrifice their son Isaac. Tamar Biala, a feminist scholar and longtime Torah teacher who spearheaded both the Hebrew and English Dirshuni projects and edited this volume, imagines the voices of various female biblical figures reacting to the verse describing Abraham’s early morning departure (Genesis 22:3):

And where was Sarah at the time?… Jezebel said: Sarah was of one mind with Abraham and she too sought not to withhold her only son, whom she loved. For Abraham and Sarah both worshipped the same God, and would convert people to Him; he the men, and she the women. Dinah said: Sarah was in the tent and didn’t know of their departure, for ever since she had returned from the palace of Avimelekh, her husband had told her All the princesses’ treasure is inward (Ps. 45:14). She would hide within the tent and no longer took notice of other people. The Great Woman of Shuman said: Sarah hurried after Abraham to stop him from slaughtering her son, but judges and officers at the gates prevented her.

Biala, in her own commentary, concludes by blaming God:

…for the Holy Blessed One had told Abraham Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice (Gen. 21:12). But He had not said those words to her…Against a patriarchal reality in which women truly do have the power to intervene and avert catastrophe…yet they fail to act because [they] are unaware of their own strength.

Some midrashim in this collection go further and depict women studying together in the Beit Midrashah shel Beruriah—Beruriah’s Study House, an imaginary yeshiva headed by Beruriah, the learned wife of Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir. This allows for narratives in which women are shown studying text and contributing legal rulings as in classical Talmudic passages. One of my favorites, by Rivkah Lubitch, a scholar and advocate for women in Israel’s religious courts, is about mamzerut, the issues surrounding the treatment of mamzerim, or bastards—children born to parents in a forbidden union, who are then, under religious law, prohibited from marrying other Jews. In Lubitch’s midrash, Moses ascends to heaven to write down the Torah as God dictates it, but becomes distressed:

He came to the verse Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister, she is your father’s near kinswoman (Leviticus 18:12), and he said, isn’t my mother my father’s aunt? After all, Amram, my father, is the son of Kehat and grandson of Levi…And Yocheved, my mother, is the daughter of Levi…Moses felt faint. He came to the verse No mamzer will enter the assembly of God, even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3)…He said: Could I and my siblings, Aaron and Miriam, be mamzerim? He grew weak. He wept and wept…

He [traveled forward in time] and sat in the beit midrash of Beruriah. He heard a woman ask: Why is the law of mamzer not practiced today? And they answered her: Because we do not receive testimony on a mamzer; because it has already been decided that the entire community are presumed to be mamzerim, and are permitted to one another. Moses’s mind was eased.

In a commentary following this story, Lubitch shows how one might use this midrash as a basis for contending with the mamzerut problem in religious law today. She imagines the court adopting a legal principle based on the precedent that Jacob violated the prohibition against marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel, during their lifetimes:

…the halakha maintains that the entire Jewish community is presumed to be bastards and thus all are permitted to marry one another…Throughout the generations, rabbis have made such general statements and legal presumptions…Similarly the entire Jewish community is presumed to have been rendered impure by contact with the dead, such that most of the purity and impurity laws no longer apply.

Not every midrash in Dirshuni is so encouraging. Jerusalem prosecutor Oshrat Shoham’s trilogy of tales in the “Rape and Incest” chapter (“The Father’s Scream: Concealing and Revealing,” “The Mother’s Scream: Uncovering and Expulsion” and “The Woman’s Scream: Cover-Up and Tikkun”), where each victim is ignored, shamed or both, upset me so much I could barely skim them.

Upon reflection, however, I think they were written to make readers outraged and empathetic, to force changes in attitude and to demand justice. By contrast, two contributions to the chapter on post-Holocaust theology are more comforting, drawing on texts about Noah’s dove and raven and on passages from the Song of Songs to emphasize how important it is for humanity to feel God’s presence, especially in a difficult, frightening and painful period. The human tendency is to forget God and ignore His presence when all is well; the closeness between God and humanity depends on both working to ensure that the bond endures.

These are merely a taste of the formidable resources in Dirshuni. While scholars will relish the book’s nuances, it is the less experienced Torah student who will learn most from this wealth of new insights into the tradition.

Maggie Anton is an author of historical fiction, including the trilogy Rashi’s Daughters and The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud. 

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