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From Eve To Esther: Rabbinic Reconstructions of Biblical Women

by Leila Leah Bronner



This study focuses on female characters of the Bible as perceived through the aggadic traditions of Talmud and Midrash. While study of women in the Bible has burgeoned in the last two decades, as has study of the halakhic and legal status of Jewish women, little work has been devoted to the analysis of rabbinic lore on biblical women.2

I believe such a study is important because rabbinic loreˇwhich is essentially an interpretation and explanation of the biblical textˇhas significantly shaped human perception of heroes of the Bible for all these generations. As women today attempt to reappropriate past historical models, it serves us well to understand the values and inner workings of that process of interpretation. The rabbis were an elite culture that stood somewhat above and apart from the average Jewish person of that time.3 How much of their reading into the biblical text was based on the actual status of women of their own times? How much was an idealized attempt to communicate to women the values and models they thought appropriate? Recent scholarship has begun to differentiate between what the rabbis said about women and what women's reality may actually have been.4 As Kraemer explains:

Strikingly different portraits both of Jewish women and women's Judaism emerge from ancient rabbinic sources on the one hand, and inscriptional, archaeological, and neglected Greek literary sources from the Greco-Roman period on the other. Rabbinic writings have led many scholars to conclude that Jewish women led restricted, secluded lives and were excluded from much of the rich ritual life of Jewish men, especially from the study of Torah. Evidence from the Greco-Roman Diaspora suggests, however, that at least some Jewish women played active religious, social, economic, and even political roles in the public lives of Jewish communities.5

Whether or not rabbinic literature is an accurate mirror of most women's lives of that time, this literature came to constitute part of the canon of Judaism in subsequent times. Consequently, it has had an impact for many centuries on the lives of actual Jewish women until today. It is therefore extremely important to obtain an accurate, balanced picture of what exactly classical rabbinic literature has to say about women.

Contrary to widely held belief, we will find that the sages' attitude toward biblical women in the aggadic, legendary literature of the Midrash and Talmud was not fixed or monolithic.6 Rather it was flexible, changing in accordance with the exegetical problem under discussion. Indeed, views expressed by the sages in a given midrashic context usually appear to have arisen out of the needs of the specific biblical text that they were analyzing.

But there is more to it than that. What appears to be a bi-polarization of rabbinic attitudes toward biblical womenˇsometimes praising, sometimes criticizingˇis quite likely the result of a tension between their own social preconceptions about women and the demands of the written tradition guiding them. Behind rabbinic analysis also stands a good deal of intellectual curiosity and imagination; and these factors, too, influenced their method of argumentation. Thus, the interaction between rabbinic society, midrashic method, individual sensibilities, and the inherited honor and awe of biblical text served to recast biblical woman into new and various images. It also explains another phenomenon: even though many women of the Bible were revered as heroines, and the rabbis adopted a more lenient attitude toward them than toward women of their own times; nevertheless, they were occasionally critical even of these exceptional biblical figures. They could not help but view them, like the women of their own day, according to preconceived notions regarding the limitations of the female sex.

I shall endeavor here to study how the sages interpreted biblical verses dealing with women. Since my concern is with the midrashic texts, let me begin by defining what I mean by Midrash. I will discuss Midrash as a genre of literature below. For the moment I am concerned with Midrash as a method of inquiry. The word "Midrash" means to interpret, or on deeper level, to research select verses of Scripture.7 The Bible is a laconic, elliptical, and, at times, ambiguous text; and it is thus open to a variety of interpretations on any one verse.

Midrashic analysis typically focuses on difficult words, inner contradictions and problematical passages in the text. Much can be read into a text (eisegesis) through this sort of interpretation.8 The sages, by viewing the text against the grain of their own ideology, formulated hermeneutics congruent with the preoccupations of their times. We can better understand what is meant by the word "hermeneutics" if we realize that different groups of people bring with them different presuppositions that influence how they understand the text. Group ideological stances as well as individual natures have a great bearing on exegetical projects. In this study, for example, I will show how the rabbinic valorization of female modesty often colored rabbinic readings of biblical texts about women.

The classical texts of rabbinic literatureˇMishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and Midrashˇ will constitute our primary sources for this study. Where applicable, I will also examine for comparative purposes Jewish literature that predates the rabbis, namely the writings of the first century C.E. historian Josephus and his earlier contemporary, the philosopher Philo. In addition, there are other sometimes relevant Jewish writings of the ancient world whose particular authors are unknown, most of which is typically designated as Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha. Occasionally, there will be reference to Christian texts. Although many centuries lie between these texts of the Second Temple Period as compared with post-Second Temple rabbinic literature, there are affinities between them, as well as with classical Greek literature. Therefore, reference will be made to these sources for purposes of comparison or contrast. But the main focus will remain on the rabbinic sources, so it is worthwhile to describe these briefly.

The Mishnah is a book primarily comprised of topically arranged legal rulings, which was edited approximately 200 C.E. The Tosefta augments the rulings of the Mishnah and traditionally is believed to include materials contemporary with those of the Mishnah. It was edited slightly later than the Mishnah, however. There are two parallel but different commentaries on the Mishnah, namely the Palestinian Talmud (completed circa 400 C.E) and the more voluminous and authoritative one, the Babylonian Talmud (redacted circa 600 C.E.). Finally, Midrash, as I indicated above, is an inclusive term for a genre of exegetical literature commenting on Scripture.9 Some of the earliest collections of Midrash, such as Midrash Genesis Rabbah, are believed to be contemporary with the Tosefta, while others, such as Midrash Numbers Rabbah, extend well into the medieval period. At times I will make reference to the Zohar, a medieval mystical work which is not classified a work of classical rabbinic Judaism but which sometimes develops ideas present in earlier classical texts.

Often the midrashic collections and the Talmuds contain overlapping material, frequently in slightly different versions. Some of these differences reflect the differing environments and time periods in which the rabbis lived and taught.10 Unfortunately, much of rabbinic literature cannot be precisely placed with regard to provenience, and this limits our ability to view specific rabbinic comments in a precise historical or social context.

Rabbinic literature contains both halakhah, which is codified legal discussion, and aggadah, which is folkloristic, narrative, and legendary. Whereas the Talmud is more heavily halakhic, the Midrash is more heavily aggadic. Both bodies of literature, however, contain both types of material; and there is continuous flow on every page from one type to the other. In sum, halakhah and aggadah stand for the law and lore of the Talmud and Midrash. The contrast between the legal and narrative discourses is described graphicallyˇalbeit exaggeratedlyˇby the famous national poet, Bialik:

Halakhah wears a frown, Aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbendingˇall justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliableˇall mercy. On the one side Í reason is sovereign. On the other side Í emotion is sovereign.11

The distinction made by Bialik applies especially to the situation of women in rabbinic literature. Women generally appear as individual persons in the midrashic sources, whereas in halakhic discussion they are treated as depersonalized prototypes for case study. The legal corpus of the Mishnah, which contains a great deal of material about women, cites only three women by name, whereas many named women feature in the Talmuds and midrashic collections. Individual biblical females figure far more prominently in aggadic material than in halakhic material.

In the first chapter, "Aggadic Attitudes Toward Woman," I will survey the historical, social, and political factors contributing to the rise of exceptional women in biblical times, who attained fame by their own action or profession despite the disabilities inherent in their legal status. This public dimension is completely lacking from the lives of women described in talmudic literature. I will explain how the absence of female participation in public affairs was controlled by a premise held by the majority of rabbis that modesty should rule the lives of women. Modesty became an overriding obsession in the rabbinic portrayal of women. The androcentric valorization of modesty transformed women into private persons, their lives and activities ideally restricted to the domestic realm. I will try to evaluate whether rabbinic rules of modesty presented the state of affairs of the society as they actually were. Or did they instead represent matters as most rabbis wished they would be?

The second chapter, "Eve's Estate: Temptation, Modesty, and the Valorization of Matrimony," will deal with the Eve narrative. It has always intrigued me that Eve, described in the Bible as the mother of all life, became the mother of death in so many androcentric analyses.12 Many ancient exegetes, the sages included, were led by their interpretation of the Genesis story to attribute sin and death to this primeval female character. As part of this transformation, Eve became the archetype whose behavior supplied the sages with the rationale to formulate rules that, in the name of modesty, removed them from public life and leadership and restricted them to the domain of the home. The sages projected their cultural presuppositions onto the Eve character, adding to the already stereotypic ideas informing the biblical characterization of the first woman. As a result of Eve's actions, all her daughters were subjected to the rabbinic regime of modesty and were profoundly restricted in their lives as a result.

In contrast to the stark image projected by the rabbis onto Eve, I shall discuss a totally different sort of woman in chapter three, "Serah bat Asher: The Transformative Power of Aggadic Invention." Serah bat Asher strikes me as the most unique and fascinating character to emerge from midrashic exegesis on a female biblical figure. No more than a mere name on genealogical lists in Scripture, Serah is transformed by the rabbis into a visionary, an advisor heeded by no less a leader than Moses himself. The sages accord crucial redemptive powers to this obscure biblical woman. She is credited with having made possible the departure of the Jews from Egypt. Moreover, they also ascribe analogous powers of redemption to other women who figure in the story of bondage and redemption, in particular, the midwives who acted to save the male children condemned by Pharaoh.

Another woman highly favored in rabbinic exegesis is Ruth, great-grandmother of King David, who is the subject of chapter four: "The Regime of Modesty: Ruth and the Rabbinic Construction of the Feminine Ideal." Midrashic interpretation goes into great detail about her conversion, marriage, and role in redemption. The rabbis wished to legitimize the ancestry of David and show that Ruth, a Moabite woman, was worthy of her place as a progenitor of the messianic line. Rabbinic exegesis highlights the extraordinary hesed (lovingkindness) displayed by Ruth in the biblical story, and ascribes to her certain additional qualities, including beauty and modesty, that are nowhere mentioned in the biblical text. In the Bible Ruth is an archetype of lovingkindness, but in rabbinic lore she instead becomes the very paragon of the cardinal female virtueˇmodesty.

Hannah also points up rabbinic contradictions. Discussed in chapter five, "'Remember Thy Handmaid': On Hannah and Prayer," her story brings to the fore the interesting problem of women's place in cultic practice in biblical times, and in liturgical practice in rabbinic times. Hannah prays in the public, ritual space of the biblical tabernacle; but the rabbis see the sincere, spontaneous, heartfelt, that is, private, quality of her prayer as what makes it an outstanding model of how oneˇman or womanˇshould try to pray.

Women's prayer is characterized in rabbinic literature as a spiritual but private act. Even when a woman is physically present and praying in the synagogue, such praying is different in a fundamental way from the normative, public liturgical practices of men. We see interestingˇand unresolvedˇcontradictions in the rabbis' attitude toward such private, noncommunal prayer, at once approving, for its spontaneity and sincerity, and disapproving, for its departure from the privileged canons of public, communal, synagogue worship. Paradoxically, women are not models of prayer in the rabbinic community, yet Hannah becomes the prototype for excellence in prayer.

Next we turn our attention to the member of the Hebrew family accorded the lowest status: "'The King's Daughter is All Glorious Within': The Estate of Daughterhood". Biblical law clearly places daughters on a lower rung than sons. Few daughters are mentioned by name in the Bible, and these only when they play dramatic roles as calamity befalls the family. Beginning with Dinah and the rabbis' censure of her alleged immodesty, the uneven saga of daughters begins to unfold. The daughters of certain notable biblical figuresˇof Lot, Jacob, Zelophehad, and Jephthahˇare discussed. Some of these girls and women are given names in the Bible, others remain forever anonymous. Rabbinic indulgence on behalf of these piteous figures demonstrates the merciful, smiling quality that Bialik describes as distinguishing the aggadic from the halakhic mode, and shows how in the individual human case, the rabbis could bend their categorical rules and see through the confines of their own gender preconceptions.

Chapter seven, "Hope for the Harlot: The Estate of the Marginalized Woman," deals with the question of prostitution in ancient Israel and the rabbinic interpretation of harlots and harlotry. The social practice of prostitution posed a challenge to the normative institutions of marriage and family, and its existence in ancient Israel was something the rabbis had somehow to encompass within their moral framework. The aggadic traditions surrounding the biblical figures of Rahab, the former harlot who, according to the rabbis, eventually marries the hero Joshua, and Tamar, who ingeniously solves the predicament of her childless widowhood by using a ruse of harlotry, shed light on this subject. I will also discuss some illuminating stories about rabbis and disciples encountering prostitutes in their own day. Surprisingly, the rabbis hold out hope for the reintegration of such women into the sphere of propriety. They achieve this through repentance, a concept heavily emphasized throughout rabbinic literature.

The female prophets are an exceptional category of women, and aggadic treatment of them demonstrates the variety and complexity of the rabbis' attitudes. Chapter eight, "'Deborah, Say Your Song": Female Prophecy in Talmudic Tradition," deals with the question of female prophecy. Quite striking is the fact that the sages clearly seem to have found the most exceptional personages, such as Deborah and Huldah, intimidating, even threatening, whereas the less powerful female prophets earned their unqualified approbation. Also of interest is that, in contrast to most biblical women, the prophetesses are by-and-large not measured according to the criterion of modesty. They are not usually praised for embodying it nor censured for failing to do so. Their prowess in public endeavors seems to exempt them from these considerations. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that their achievements in the public realm were made possible by their acting outside the rabbinic rules governing female behavior, and the rabbis in this instance generally tolerated it.

Women in the aggadic traditions of Midrash and Talmud have not received the attention they deserve. This study explores some of this rabbinic material to gain a better and more complete picture of women as they appear in this vast and complex literature. We will see that while these bodies of rabbinic exegesis are rife with stereotypes of feminine qualities, the sages were also ready to appreciate admirable and even heroic qualities in female characters, sometimes even when such characteristics are not plainly evident in the biblical account.

I will show a frequent pattern whereby the rabbis' interpretation of scriptural material first discerns in it stereotypes of female weakness and sexual allurement, and then formulates codes of behavior to enforce female confinement to domestic roles. These rules, which relegate women to the private sphere of home and family responsibility, remove her from learning and leadership, the keys to power and prominence in the community. But even here, there are significant complications and contradictions evident in the attitudes of the rabbis and in the scriptural material they are interpreting.

Today, women continue both to benefit and to labor under the impact of rabbinic interpretation of scriptural models. The way culture and texts interacted in the past still speaks to our lives today. The challenge for creative men and women is to reclaim biblical models in new and different ways, appropriate to our times. To do so, we must adequately understand the processes and the values that informed our teachers, whose work we need not reject in order to build new myths for future generations. In the pages that follow, I will try to explore rabbinic perspectives on biblical women with the care they deserve.

Reconsideration and reinterpretation constitute an exciting project. I hope that this study might be taken as part of a larger trend toward looking at the women of the Bible and Talmud afresh, and that it encourages further studies in the emerging tradition of depatriarchalizing interpretation.13 I have taken pains to recognize and present what the aggadic traditions of Talmud and Midrash actually say, rather than what in retrospect we might like them to have said, so that the process of reinterpretation and recuperation can proceed on an honest and authentic ground.