And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety.
The tapestry she wove was one which sang our history.
With every thread and every strand she crafted her delight.
A woman touched with spirit, she dances toward the light.
-from "Miriam's Song" by Deborah Lynn Friedman
Midrash Aggadah: texts of biblical exegesis, including grammatical explications, theology, ethics and legends. The genre was created by the rabbis of antiquity, and reached its height during the classical period in the Tannaitic and Amoraic academies. It is the duty of each generation of Jews to contribute to this evolving text. Thus, the composition of midrashim is considered an ongoing process, available even to the present community of Jews.
As they work to expand the roles of women in Judaism, many liberal feminists have begun to write their own midrashim, using this traditional form as a mechanism for change. In her feminist vision of a renewed Judaism, She Who Dwells Within, Lynn Gottlieb points out that the oral tradition has strong associations with the feminine:
In the Kabbalah, the Shekhina is identified with the oral tradition. She is the talking mouth, the word illuminated in living speech, the story that blossoms like fruit from the tree of life. Shekhina is the hidden root of stories. The Torah itself speaks of Torat emecha, 'the Torah of your mother.' Life instructions are transmitted through storytelling, and women have always engaged in this art. In our biblical role as Em Yisrael, Mother of Israel, we serve the people as interpreters of God's voice. (Gottlieb 59-60) (link to Shekhina)
And according to Judith Plaskow, the midrash genre, simultaneously modern and traditional, is an ideal outlet for feminist exploration.
The open-ended process of writing midrash--simultaneously serious and playful, imaginative, metaphoric--has easily lent itself to feminist use. Feminist midrash shares the uncomfortable self-consciousness of modern religious experimentation: elaborations on the stories of Eve or Dina, we know the text is partly an occasion for our own projections, that our imaginative reconstructions are a reflection of our own beliefs and experiences. But if its self consciousness is modern, the root conviction of feminist midrash is utterly traditional. It stands on the rabbinic insistence that the Bible can be made to speak to the present day. If it is our text, it can and must answer our questions and share our values; if we wrestle with it, it will yield up meaning. Listening to the traditional sources, we wait for the words of women 'to rise out of the white spaces between the letters in the Torah' as we remember and transmit the past through 'the experience of our own lives.' (Plaskow 54)
In their interpretations of the Torah, feminists retell stories from the woman's perspective.
A feminist approach to the Torah begins with the question, How might women have told their stories if they were central, rather than peripheral, characters in the Bible? What happens when we let Dinah speak in first person about her rape? When Miriam becomes the prophet who leads us through the parting seas?
|When we transform Rachel and Leah's stories into a tale about two loving sisters instead of jealous rivals? When we allow biblical women a story behind their roles as mother?...through wisdom contained in the traditional sources and help one another envision a future in which men and women have equal opportunities to tell stories in public. (Gottlieb 60)|
|Jacob, Rachel, and Leah at the Well by Claude Gel Lorrain, 1666|
I want midrash to give a voice to women in the Bible who have had nearly none. To be an advocate for biblical figures over whom the ages have kicked considerable dust, and to imagine their lives. (Rosen 6)
... and consider the matriarchs outside their roles as mothers and wives.
Sometimes feminist midrash uses humor to break gender stereotypes.
Jewish feminists also transfer biblical tales tales to a contemporary setting to develop characters their daughters will be able to identify with. In some cases, women have composed midrashim to help find comfort in the Torah during times of personal trial:
When my life has presented a problem or paradox, I have sought a solution in close study of the sacred text ... One of my teachers, Judah Goldin, explained that when the rabbis found something in the text which disturbed them, from a grammatical deviation to a perplexing character flaw, they responded with a midrash.
When I lost my first pregnancy after trying to conceive for a prolonged period of time, my sense of living harmoniously with Nature was sufficiently disturbed to impel me to make a midrash in response. This midrash would be a hybrid creature, part-story, part-ritual (Penina Adelman from Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality 247-248).
In addition to the Torah, sources for feminist midrash include classical Jewish legends; Jewish folk tales, fairy tales, songs and proverbs; stories passed on from the living Jewish women of today; and even goddess mythology of the Near East.
Feminist midrash writing classes have grown popular in the liberal Jewish community, and collections in this genre are growing.
For a copy of Taking the Fruit: Modern Women's Tales of the Bible, a collection of feminist midrashim produced by the Jewish Women's Network, write to:
Irene Fine, Director of Jewish Studies
Women's Institute for Continuing Jewish Education
4079, 54 Street
San Diego, CA 92105
or call (619) 442-2666
Fruit and a White Rose by Willam J. Glackens
Feminist Midrash and Traditional Judaism
The feminine spirituality movement of traditional Judaism, suggests that before feminists begin writing new midrashim, they ought to consider the powerful, independent women of existing midrashim.
It often seems that the stories of Sarah, Rivkah (Rebecca), Rachel, Leah, and the others are so embedded in the stories of men or events relevant to the whole Jewish people that the women seem to be simply helpmates, accessories to history. Further, the major figures have been extolled for their virtues as 'the mothers': What relevance would they have to women seeking models beyond or in addition to motherhood?
But first impressions do not tell the whole story. The past does not belong only to men...Many women have begun to create modern 'midrash' out of biblical women's stories. In my view we have not yet read carefully enough in the Torah, other biblical writings, and the midrash we already have. Even though the writers or compilers of this literature have been male, so far as we know, they often took account of the women in their stories as acting independently and having their own special character distinct from their husbands (Frankiel 2-3)
A brief argument for new interpretations of the Torah on the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) website offers a possible response to traditional Judaism's perspective on feminist midrash:
I don't want to rewrite the Bible; I want to make it ours by having it reflect women's reality as well as men's. In other words, our task in writing interpretative works, or midrash, is to put woman's voice back where it should have been in the first place. This kind of midrash does not detract from or undermine the Torah, rather it adds additional dimensions to the Torah by making it contemporaneous, relevant and religiously meaningful (Graetz).
Feminist Midrash as a Viable Mechanism for Change:
Feminist midrash is an ideal mechanism for change in Judaism because it works within the constraints of traditional Judaism and appeals to feminists from the liberal branch as well. Midrash is a highly fluid genre that is continuously evolving, and as far as my studies have revealed, Orthodox women are not halakhically prohibited from contributing to it. Although midrash does not have the power of the official halakhah (Jewish law), it is an outlet for women to communicate new ideas and perhaps eventually inspire changes in halakhah. Feminist midrash is an organic technique that works within the tradition to bring about lasting change. Dramatic change, however, will come about slowly.
As Tamar Frankiel points out, it is also important to explore past midrashim for examples of strong women. Judaism is a religion that constantly builds on its past. If Jewish feminists hope to write midrashim with a lasting effect they must begin with a strong understanding of the history of the genre. However, I believe many of today's feminist midrashim reveal authors overeager for change. It seems they brought pen to paper before developing a strong understanding of the midrash genre. The task now for feminist Jews is to undertake in-depth studies of the gendered vision in previous midrashim while continuing to develop the growing collection of feminist midrash.
Blood, Power, Gender and Feminist Midrash:
Although some Jewish feminists use mind and body in dance to create midrashim (i.e.: dancer Fanchon Shur), most feminist midrash is recorded in written words, from the mind to the page. Thus, this powerful tool for revisioning women's roles in Judaism originates predominantly from the mind rather than the body. And it seems highly appropriate that feminist Jews have adopted such a mental approach, for frequently the subject of their midrashim is the independent minds of biblical women who were cherished primarily for their dependent bodies. As feminist theorist Blu Greenberg argues, in order to bring about lasting change in Judaism, women in all branches of the religion need to find outlets for developing and communicating their independent minds. Through learning, Jewish women can eventually become accepted as potential authorities and leaders. Thus, it is through mind rather than body that Jewish women can gain power in their religion and destroy existing hierarchies between male and female.
Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism. Boston: Beacon, 1998.
Büchman, Christina and Celina Spiegel, ed. Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
Frankiel, Tamar. The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990.
Friedman, Deborah Lynn. "Miriam's Song" Hoosier Times.com.
Gottlieb, Lynn. She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.
Graetz, Naomi. "Why I Write Midrash" Masorti Judaism.
Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.
Rosen, Norma. Biblical Women Unbound: Counter-Tales. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
Schneider, Susan Weidman. Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today. New York: Simon Schuster, 1984.
Umansky, Ellen M. and Dianne Ashton, ed. Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon, 1992.
All art on this page from: Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now