Off the Shelf: Exploring the stories of biblical women

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There has been an explosion of midrash – stories that explain or amplify the tales found in the Bible – particularly ones that focus on the voices of biblical women. As Rabbi Marla J. Feldman notes in “Biblical Women Speak: Hearing Their Voices Through New and Ancient Midrash” (The Jewish Publication Society), there are two primary types of midrash: one explores the legalistic aspects of Judaism, while the other focuses on the narrative part of the text and seeks to explain the actions of the characters. A great deal of contemporary midrash looks at the biblical women whose names and thoughts were generally ignored in the text. Feldman not only offers her own midrash on 10 biblical stories, but also explores traditional rabbinic versions.

Feldman notes that “the rabbis take note of some female characters in order to convey a specific lesson about a value or law, but there is little depth to their portrayal in rabbinic literature. As a generalization, rabbinic commentaries posed transactional questions. They wanted to know how to understand a particular word or text, what actually took place in a particular narrative from the perspective of the primary characters of the Israelite saga, and what lessons were to be learned for their own days and age. In contrast, when this volume asks what transpired from individual women’s point of view, that perspective is a relational one.” That means Feldman looks at the emotions experienced by the characters and how they affected their relationships with those around them. She also is interested in the stories of non-Israelite women featured in the biblical stories, sometimes offering a radically different story than those featured in traditional rabbinic midrash.

Each chapter is divided into four sections, the first featuring the biblical verses about the woman and story under discussion. Feldman then offers a modern midrash, most of which reads like a short story. In the next section, the author analyses traditional midrash, showing the variety of different opinions offered about the character’s behavior. In the conclusion, Feldman compares her ideas to those found in the traditional midrash. Among the women she discusses are Keturah (who was married to Abraham), Leah and Rachel, Bilhah, a variety of women connected to the story of the Israelites in Egypt (including Potiphar’s wife, the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter), Miriam and Noah, one of Zeloiphehad’s daughters.

One of the most interesting chapters discusses Shelomith Bat Dibri, known as the blasphemer’s mother in Leviticus 24:10-14. After an unnamed man “pronounced the Name in blasphemy” during a fight with an Israelite, he was sentenced to death. That man was Shelomith’s son by an Egyptian. Feldman’s midrash talks about how Shelomith came to be pregnant and the way the Israelite community negatively viewed her son’s Egyptian heritage. It also notes how Shelomith felt about the execution of her son. Feldman discusses the fact that rabbinic midrash was more interested in how Shelomith’s son’s “presumed rejection of ritual practice illustrated a rabbinic disagreement as to whether the half-Israelite, half-Egyptian man was bound by the laws given at Sinai. If he was considered Egyptian, his rejection of the commandments given by the Israelites’ God was not surprising. Still, the prohibition against blasphemy was one of the universal Noahide laws that would still have applied to him regardless of his religious status.” While the rabbis debated the different punishment given depending on his status, readers may wonder whether patrilineal or matrilineal descent was the norm of the time. 

Other chapters focus on women’s relationships. For example, in her midrash, Feldman notes the way Rachel and Leah were both “devoted sisters and bitter rivals.” Katurah complains that Abraham generally ignored her children, even though she gave him six sons. Those sons were shunted aside, even after Abraham’s death: the biblical text notes that only Isaac and Ishmael took part in his burial. Even though she admits she lied about Joseph, Potiphar’s wife gets sympathetic treatment as result of her lonely, loveless life. Feldman does the same in all her midrash: the women’s behavior is explained in an understandable and compassionate way, even when that behavior is not positive.

“Biblical Women Speak” is well done, although readers may not always agree with Feldman’s contemporary interpretations. Feldman does note that her book does not include discussions of other contemporary feminist midrash, but that is beyond the general scope of her work. Readers looking to better understand midrash will particularly enjoy the sections on classic commentary, while those interested in new ways of understanding the text will find the contemporary midrash of interest. “Biblical Women Speak” would also make an excellent text for Torah discussion groups.