Off the Shelf: Exploring the Torah through history and midrash

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are many ways to explore the Torah text, all of which offer insights into its meaning. Some of these approach the work from a historical point of view, rather than a religious one. Others offer a historical, close look at specific words in the text. While different types of study appeal to different audiences, when viewed together, they can enrich one’s understanding and appreciation of the text. While “The Book of Revolutions: The Battle of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah” by Edward Feld (The Jewish Publication Society) looks at the historic reasons behind the development of three codes found in the Torah, “Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash” edited by Tamar Biala (Brandeis University Press) offers an interpretation of the biblical text that is both feminist and very traditional at the same time. 

“The Book of Revolutions” is an extremely interesting, but complex, look at how three sections of the Torah developed. Feld focuses on the Covenant Code (Exodus), the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy) and the Holiness Code (Leviticus) to show how each developed during different time periods, and how they differ from each other. His work is so detailed that it’s difficult to summarize, but some general observations are possible, even if the explanations are simplified. 

The Covenant Code: Feld suggests that the Covenant Code developed in the Kingdom of Israel and only later was adapted by the Kingdom of Judah (after the Kingdom of Israel was conquered and dispersed). This code was similar and different from other covenant codes of that time period. Unlike most covenant codes that have been discovered, all citizens were treated as equal (for example, there were none of the class distinctions that appeared in other codes); the punishments were seen as dictated by God, rather than by humans; and civil and religious laws were not considered separate entities. There was also one law for everyone in the kingdom, including non-Israelites. 

The Deuteronomic Code: Feld sees this code as having developed during the reforms of King Josiah of Judah. Although the Covenant Code can be read as suggesting there might be more than one god, Josiah’s reforms focused not only on the exclusive worship of Adonai, but the idea that Adonai was the only God. Worship was now to take place in Jerusalem exclusively. There is a nationalist aspect to this code, which makes a clear distinction between those who are members of this community and those who are not. 

The Holiness Code: Feld sees this code as developing in Babylonia when the exiles were deciding what form their religion would take now that there was no Temple. The Holiness Code expanded religious practice: God required not just sacrifices, but ethical behavior. This meant that the Israelite religion was not something only priests could do, but behavior everyone should follow. These ideas came from the prophetic books that noted that God didn’t want the people’s sacrifices if their society is unjust and treats its vulnerable citizens poorly. 

Each code offered different ways of viewing the relationship between God and Israel. The Covenant Code saw Israel as a holy people, but required them to treat everyone fairly. The Deuteronomic Code transformed the idea of holiness, showing the Israelites as a “distinguished people treasured by God,” something specific to them. The Holiness Code modified this claim, showing that holiness didn’t belonging to a particular nation, but rather was a way of life and a system of behavior. 

Feld does an excellent job not only explaining the codes, but showing how they were influenced by political changes in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. His final discussion focuses on how these different codes came together in one book – the Torah. Feld sees the inclusions of these disparate codes as what makes the Torah a unique and powerful text: “The Five Books of Moses seems to have triumphed in the Jewish community that [survived the Babylonian exile] precisely because it did not resolve contradictions but instead incorporated the theologies of numerous traditions and parties. In holding on to its internal contradictions, it preserved a certain mystery, and a profound understanding that contradictory viewpoints and a variety of beliefs provide insight into truths beyond single-minded formulations.”

Among the things Feld notes in his final chapter are the midrashic interpretations that developed in order to explain these differences and contradictions in the text. Midrash was originally written by male rabbis. In contemporary times, women have begun to write their own, many looking at themes specific to women’s concerns. For most North Americans, these midrash have appeared as short stories, novels or poetry, formats very different from traditional rabbinic midrash. However, Israeli women have recaptured that ancient format in “Dirshuni,” a Hebrew word Biala translates as “seek me.” These writers’ works feature a very close reading of the original Hebrew, a language they use in daily life, and their interpretations play with these words and their meaning. 

These midrash appear in sections labeled “Creation of the World,” “Israel in the Desert,” “Sexuality, Love, and Marriage,” “Rape and Incest” and “Inequality in Jewish Law and in the Rabbinic Court,” to name just a few. Each of the 50 midrash included opens with a short note about the subject matter, followed by the biblical text under discussion. The author’s midrash (discussion of the text) appears next, before concluding with a commentary about the midrash, which is often the longest part of the discussion. All works have been translated from the original Hebrew into English. 

Which midrash will appeal to readers depends on individual tastes. Those who are only familiar with North American midrash might at first be puzzled by these texts. However, anyone who has studied traditional rabbinic midrash will recognize the format and be better able to appreciate what these women are doing – how they are able to be traditional in form and feminist in content. Most interpretations are not radical, at least in a North American liberal context.

While all the midrash have something to offer, a few stood out:

  • Rivkah Lubitch’s “Sarah and the Sacrifice of Isaac” speaks of God testing Sarah, rather than Abraham. Her discussion focuses on the phrase “and it came to pass after these matters,” which Lubitch sees as continuing a discussion between Sarah and God. In this midrash, Sarah passes the test by refusing to sacrifice her son. 
  • “In the Presence of His Wife” by Hagit Rappel looks at the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. She shows how their marriage developed so that both were able to appreciate their partners’ good points and their flaws. Rappel also notes how Isaac came to understand Rebecca’s pain due to her inability to conceive.
  • Gili Zivan’s “Bityah, the Daughter of God” uses the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved Moses’ life, to speak of contemporary politics – the racism that foreign workers and their children face in Israel.
  • “The Blessing for Breastfeeding” by Efrat Garber-Aran focuses on what blessings should be said over nourishment. In her discussion, men and women sages debate the appropriate blessing for breast feeding. Since babies cannot say the blessing (they are incapable of speech), their mothers must bless. The specific blessing chosen is a wonderful one.

“Durshuni” would be an excellent work for study groups, schools or Rosh Chodesh groups. The texts need a close reading, which is why these formats would work best. However, anyone interested in midrash or contemporary Israeli women’s thought should find this work intriguing and stimulating.