Book Review | From Half a Line to Hebrew Heroine

By | Aug 11, 2023
Book Review, Featured, Latest
A fragment of a mosaic showing a young woman's upper face.

Biblical Women Speak: Hearing Their Voices Through New and Ancient Midrash

By Marla J. Feldman

Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, 208 pp.

A book cover featuring an illustation of two olive-skinned mothers holding babies exchanging a meaningful glanceMost modern readers would be at a loss if quizzed about biblical characters such as Keturah, the third wife of Abraham; Bat Shua, the wife of Judah; Bilhah, the handmaiden of Rachel; or Noa, the daughter of Tselophehad. Rabbi Marla J. Feldman’s recently published book Biblical Women Speak brings these neglected women to our attention, along with many others to whom the Bible devotes only a line or two, if that, treating them as props or as background against which the male characters interact.

Feldman not only recovers these female characters but brings together the traditional rabbinic commentaries on these marginal or marginalized women (as well as on better-known female figures such as Miriam and Leah). Although for the most part the sages neglected these minor characters or viewed them negatively, their thinking was not monolithic. Given the same sparsely described character, some sages will condemn her as a temptress or a gossip, while others, sometimes on the very same page of the Talmud, see her as a role model and an inspiration. Feldman brings this conversation into the modern era: She composes midrashim that turn these biblical characters into real human beings, facing problems familiar to those of women (and men) today.

For example, in one of the ten chapters, we meet Shelomith Bat Dibri, the only woman mentioned in the entire book of Vayikra (Leviticus)—and she only gets half a line. All we know about her aside from her name is that her mate was an Egyptian and that her son was executed for committing the sin of blasphemy.

The Torah says nothing more about her than this, but if we turn to the early rabbis, we find them filling the vacuum in our knowledge in very negative ways. “Why was she called Shelomith?” they ask. “Because she said shalom to every single man that she met on the street.” And why was she called the daughter of Dibri? “Because she was like a plague (dever) to the people of Israel.” Better to be dismissed with half a line!

But to a modern reader influenced by feminism, the brief mention of Shelomith Bat Dibri raises fascinating questions. The first and most obvious: How could an Israelite woman have an Egyptian partner? Was there intermarriage between the Egyptian taskmasters and their Hebrew slaves? And what drove her son to commit the sin of blasphemy, for which he was executed?

Several modern writers outside this book have created new midrashim to answer these questions. Wendy Zeirler imagines Shelomith Bat Dibri as a rape victim, who gives birth to a child that the rest of the Israelite committee would not accept. The son tries to find a home in his mother’s tribe, is rejected, appeals to Moses and the court and blasphemes when the court turns him down. Zeirler pictures Bat Dibri as a single mother who tries her best to teach her adolescent child self-control, only to see him lose his temper when he can find no place for himself or her within the community.

In another midrash by Lily Dresher, Shelomith Bat Dibri lives outside the camp, feeling rejected by her people for having given birth to a half-Jew. After his death, in the middle of the night, another woman appears and tries to comfort her. This woman is the wife of Aaron, the High Priest, who has herself lost not one but two children. Her children, Nadav and Avihu, went into the Holy of Holies and brought a sacrifice there without permission, and for this they were struck down by God. The Torah tells us how Aaron mourned and how Moses mourned and how Aaron’s two remaining children mourned, but it says nothing at all about how this mother mourned—she does not even get a half line. But in Dresher’s midrash, the two women—one from the smallest tribe in Israel and the other from the most prestigious—sit together and share a bit of comfort by telling each other stories about the children they have lost. This poignant midrash carries the message that we must not abandon those who are in grief but instead listen and share their pain.

A headshot of a smiling white woman with light brown hair, a pearl necklace, and a dark blue background.

Rabbi Marla Feldman

Perhaps the boldest midrash comes from Feldman herself. She pictures Shelomith Bat Dibri as a Hebrew slave who falls in love with one of the Egyptian taskmasters—and he with her. The two try to find a few precious moments to escape and be together, but the rest of the Israelite slaves discover the affair and mock her for it. When the taskmaster sees the woman he loves being treated so cruelly, he begins to beat one of the Hebrew slaves ridiculing her. And just at this moment, Moses, the prince of Egypt, happens to come by. He misunderstands what is going on, so he kills the Egyptian taskmaster. Shulamit Bat Divri is left alone, unwanted by both the Egyptian world and the Israelite world, with the impossible task of raising a child no one in either community wants to accept. This teenager whom no one cares for ends up being executed for committing blasphemy in a world where he has no place.

In commentary on her own midrash, Feldman writes, “Our ancestors committed the sin of rejecting someone whom they should have accepted. We moderns should learn from what happens in this story to be a community that embraces people of all kinds who want to join us…including those who come from other faiths and those that come from other races and those who come with other sexual orientations than the ones that we are used to.” In the new midrashim Feldman has created in this book, these people become real human beings who deserve our attention and our respect, and who should never be cast out of our community.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of many books that explore little-known facets of Jewish tradition. His latest are Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Parking Lot.

Top image: The “Gypsy Girl” is the most well known Roman mosaic in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in the city of Gaziantep, Turkey. She does not necessarily represent a Biblical figure.

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