May 13, 2021

Motherhood’s Vast Possibilities: Four Biblical Mothers

By Sari Fein

While the modern observance of Mother’s Day almost universally presents a one-dimensional version of what it means to be a mother, the biblical construction of motherhood shows much more diverse constructions. You certainly won’t find anything in the Bible quite like the greeting cards that declare, “When a mother says ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I’ll do anything for you,’” and “Moms do it all, and they do it with ease,” but you will find complex, nuanced versions of motherhood that resonate with us today.

The same critique can be made of the popular understanding of Jewish motherhood. Stereotypes of the American Jewish mother have persisted for nearly a century. She is frequently depicted as an overbearing “Yiddishe mama” nudging her offspring to eat, to become doctors (especially sons) or get married and have babies (especially daughters). These caricatures sometimes veer into meanness, making the Jewish mother “a universal metaphor for nagging, whining, guilt-producing maternal intrusiveness,” according to Joyce Antler in You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. The caricatured Jewish mother appears regularly in many comedic settings, such as the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2019), where Mrs. Wolowitz (who is only ever heard, and never seen) provides many opportunities for laughter at her expense.

In full disclosure, I’m a mother of two young daughters, and I’d happily receive the praise of the greeting card or a good Mother’s Day brunch.  But, how we imagine mothers on Mother’s Day comes nowhere near the full spectrum of mothering experiences or the actual history of the American holiday of Mother’s Day, which is much richer and more complex than contemporary practice might suggest, dating back to the Civil War era, and taking some inspiration from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Motherhood, as we know, is much more complicated than sitcoms and cards suggest. Jewish art and literature, as far back as the pages of the Bible, provide wildly diverse portraits of motherhood, each one rich and multifaceted. They challenge our contemporary understanding of both Jewish motherhood and motherhood in general as something natural, innate, and universal. In my dissertation project, I investigate four case studies of early Jewish texts that “retell” stories about biblical mothers. These investigations reveal variant depictions of motherhood that are uniquely constructed by social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Such revelations beg the question—if depictions of motherhood throughout history are so diverse, can we open up our understanding of motherhood today to allow for alternative expressions of what it means to be a mother?

Mother as a Prophet: Hannah

Early Jewish audiences, in attempting to work through what it meant to be a mother, turned to the framework of maternal prayer. Targum Jonathan, a Second Temple-era Aramaic translation of the biblical book of Samuel and other prophetic texts, greatly expands the prayer of Hannah, originally found in 1 Samuel 2. Surprisingly, Targum Jonathan’s expansions effectively make Hannah an apocalyptic prophet. The biblical text of 1 Samuel 2 relates a prayer supposedly uttered by Hannah at the occasion of her dedication of her firstborn son Samuel at the local temple. Her prayer can be categorized as thanksgiving to God; it offers general praise of God’s power, especially God’s ability to raise up the lowly, which readers are left to assume refers to Hannah’s particular situation as she has been raised from a barren woman to the mother of a favored child. Targum Jonathan elevates the urgency of Hannah’s prayer and adds an eschatological dimension to it. It explicitly states that Hannah prays “in a spirit of prophecy,” making Hannah one of Jewish tradition’s few women prophets. Targum Jonathan also makes extensive additions (noted in bold, below) to Hannah’s prayer, in which Hannah predicts divine destruction of the cosmic enemies of Israel, which will result in a new, messianic age. She prophesies:

“The Lord will shatter the enemies who rise up to do harm to his people. The Lord will strike down on them from the heavens with a loud voice. He will execute vengeance of judgment against Gog [considered a cosmic enemy of Israel], and the armies of the robber nations who come with him from the ends of the earth, but He will provide strength for his king, and he will increase the kingdom of his Messiah.”

These changes shift the text’s portrayal of Hannah from a mother singing a song of thanksgiving and praising to the Lord, to an apocalyptic prophet predicting the arrival of the messianic age. By describing Hannah speaking “in a spirit of prophecy” and inserting additions which describe the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the rise of God’s messiah, Targum Jonathan suggests that she not only gives birth to the child Samuel, but she also gives birth on an additional, cosmic level to a new eschatological age. Targum Jonathan expands the possibilities of the maternal body to imagine the birth of a whole new world.

Mother as Activist: The Widow

Another model of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination was the maternal activist. An example of this model can be found in the wall paintings of the Dura Europos Synagogue, a third-century synagogue on the banks of the Euphrates. On the western wall of the synagogue, one painting depicts a scene from 1 Kings 17, which scholars have called “Elijah Reviving the Widow’s Child.”

Figure 2: Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child; http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/dura.html

What scholars fail to capture in this naming is the important role the Widow, the mother of the child, plays in saving her child’s life. In 1 Kings 17, when the poor, widowed woman’s son falls so ill “that there was no breath left in him” (v. 17, NRSV translation), she turns to Elijah the prophet and demands “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (v. 18, NRSV translation). It is these words that prompt the prophet to act, as he then takes the boy, performs a series of ritual actions over him, and restores him to life and health. The visual interpretation of this scene at Dura Europos expands the woman’s agency in this narrative by depicting her in active physical poses. On the left, she gives her child to Elijah, rather than the prophet taking her from him; she gazes at her child to emphasize the mother-child connection. On the right, after her child has been restored to her, she extends her arm in an echo of the Hand of God above her, suggesting that they are both partners in the miracle of bringing her child back to life. This visual “text” shows another form of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination; a mother who stood up to authority in order to protect her child—and who received divine approval for her bold actions.

Mourning Mother: Rachel

While the Widow’s story has a happy ending, early Jewish communities were also forced to confront the reality of high infant mortality rates in the ancient world, and thus another theme on which they focus in their writing is maternal grief. The rabbinic midrash Lamentations Rabbah from the fourth or fifth century CE imagines a scene where Rachel, one of the matriarchs from the biblical book of Genesis, leverages her grief over her lost children to convince God to return the dispersed Israelites to their land. Because the book of Genesis does not describe the death of any of Rachel’s children, Lam. Rab. takes as its jumping-off point a line from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD:

    A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.” (31:15, NRSV translation)

Like Jeremiah, the rabbis imagine Rachel as the “mother” of all the people of Israel, whose land has been conquered and who are forced into exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rachel is not the only mourning mother in rabbinic literature with a voice—other texts describe Sarah’s grief after she hears of Isaac’s (near) death in the akedah (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera; Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer; and Vayikra Rabbah), and Sisera’s mother’s grief as she waits for her son to return (though readers know he has been killed by Yael) (Rosh HaShanah 33b). The rabbis compare these mothers’ wails to the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown on solemn occasions such as Yom Kippur. Rachel seems to be unique in that she uses her grief for her children as the basis for an eloquent accusation against God. She castigates God: “How come then you are jealous of idolatry, which is nothing, and so have sent my children into exile, allowing them to be killed by the sword, permitting the enemy to do whatever they wanted to them?” God immediately responds to Rachel’s grief by agreeing to return the Israelites to their land. This text thus imagines mourning mothers like Rachel to be endowed with the power to “stand in the breach” between the divine and human realms, precisely because of the grief they feel for their children.

Valorizing Martyrdom: Mother and her Seven Sons

The aforementioned three narratives of motherhood all assume a mother’s love and devotion for her children leads to prioritizing their health and safety. The story of the “mother and her seven sons” complicates this notion in its valorization of martyrdom. In a tale which appears in 2 and 4 Maccabees and rabbinic texts such as BT Gittin and Lamentations Rabbah (but not in the canonized Jewish scriptures), we learn of a mother whose seven sons are brought before a “tyrant” and ordered under threat of torture to violate the laws of Torah. Rather than attempt to protect her children, as modern audiences might expect, their mother encourages them to stay true to their principles and even sacrifice their lives for them. The texts describe the gruesome tortures and deaths of the seven sons, which culminate in the death (described in different ways in different texts) of the mother herself. 4 Maccabees lauds the mother for these actions in flowery terms: “Yet that holy and God-fearing mother did not wail with such a lament for any of [her sons], nor did she dissuade any of them from dying, nor did she grieve as they were dying. On the contrary, as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (16:12, NRSV translation). This narrative presents yet another contrasting version of motherhood which teaches that a “good” mother is one who raises up children who are so firm in their religious convictions they would rather die than violate them—and she would even encourage her children to do so.

These four texts from the early Jewish period demonstrate that even in antiquity, motherhood was understood to encompass vast possibilities. Different ways of being a mother were valued by different communities at different times, depending on a unique confluence of social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Let us take a lesson from Jewish history and expand our understanding of motherhood to include all the ways it can be expressed. And, let us begin on Mother’s Day.

Sari Fein is an HBI Scholar in Residence, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University.

Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field

Editor’s Note: HBI is hosting Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field to launch Issue 37, dedicated to the study of Jewish feminist ethnographies. The conference is Wed, May 12, 12:30 pm EST. Register Here

By Amy Powell

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute will host Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field to launch the latest issue of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, at a virtual conference on Wed., May 12. The conference will feature short talks from several of the issue’s authors and artists.

Nashim #37The work collected in the current issue of Nashim, titled Jewish Feminist Ethnographies connects along the theme of the “pressing feminist agendas, expressed in attention for example, to intersectionality in women’s lives, systemic inequalities of power, and the movement from marginalization to empowerment,” wrote Consulting Editor Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies and a member of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Virginia.

Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs

 

Underscoring these themes, Ochs noted that many of the contributors to this issue completed their papers while facing issues unique to the pandemic — teaching remotely for the first time, caring for children or elders, in a “fearful time without precedent,” an accomplishment to be “lifted up and celebrated.”

Work to be presented on May 12 includes: 

  • The “Vulnerable Hero” and His Wife: PTSD and the Shifting Dynamics of Gender and Care in Contemporary Israel by Keren Friedman-Peleg, a senior lecturer in the School of Behavioral Science at the College of Management – Academic Studies, Israel. She is the author of PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel: A Nation on the Couch  (Hebrew, Magnes Press, 2014) and (English, University of Toronto Press, 2017)

 

  • They Must Join Us, There is No Other Way,”: Haredi Activism, the Battle Against Sexual Violence, and the Reworking of Rabbinic Accountability by Michal Kravel-Tovi,  an associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel (Columbia University Press, 2017, 2020) and co-editor of Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life (with Deborah Dash Moore; Indiana University Press, 2016).  

 

  • Milk Sisters: Forging Sisterhood at Kohenet’s Hebrew Priestess Institute by Cara Rock-Singer, an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is affiliated with the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, the Holtz Center for Science and Technology and the department for Gender and Women’s Studies. 

 

Judith Margolis, art editor of Nashim, will interview Joan Roth, who contributed In Search of Jewish Women: My Travels into Light, a photo essay about Jewish women living far from the familiar centers of modern Jewish life. The work features women in Ethiopia, Yemen, Morocco, the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, South America, Bukhara and India.  Joan Roth’s photographs have been published, exhibited and collected worldwide, starting in the 1970s. The work featured in Nashim was previously published in her book Jewish Women: A world of Tradition and Change (Jolen Press, 1995). 

 

Other work in Nashim includes: 

  • The Chinese Unicorn, in memory of Irene Eber, by Kathryn Hellerstein
  • Creating Jewish Mothers: A Feminist Ethnographic Investigation of the Mothers Circle of Coastal Virginia and the Interfaith Parents Circle, by Amy Milligan
  • Two Poems by Janet Heller
  • A Mother’s Prayer (poem) by Shirley Adelman
  • Water Wears Away Stone: Caring for Those We can Only Imagine by Sarah Zager 
  • Gender, Language and Territory: The Tsushtayer Literary Journal in Galicia and the Contributions of Yiddish Women Writers by Anastasiya Lyubas

There are several book reviews:

  • From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History (Wayne State University Press, 2020) by Nancy Sinkoff, review by Dana Herman
  • The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 2018) by Mara Benjamin, reviewed by Benjamin Pollack
  • Chava Rosenfarb: Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) edited by Goldie Morgentaler and reviewed by Anastasiya Lyubas.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Register here for Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field

Wed, May 12, 12:30 pm EST. Obtain your copy of Nashim: Jewish Feminist Ethnographies here. 

Passover: Achieving the Ideal

By Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

If Purim is the holiday of making do, then Passover, by contrast, is about achieving the ideal. The Jews are in a sorry state at the start of the Purim story – dispersed among the nations and isolated from one another. While we celebrate the foiling of Haman’s evil plan by the end of the megillah, the Jewish people are still scattered in exile and potentially vulnerable to the next tyrant once Esther and Mordechais’ influence wanes. On Purim, the people celebrate by sending gifts of food to one another because they cannot actually be together. While Esther has used her sway with the King to great effect, at the end of the book she is still married to a foreign king whom she did not choose, and the rule that every man dominates his wife is still very much the law of the land.

On Passover, the Israelites don’t just demand better conditions for their servitude. Instead, they emerge as free people, heads held high, bedecked with the finery of their oppressors, as they sing their way to liberation. On Passover, there are no compromises. Moses demands (Exodus 10:9) that not a single Israelite, neither young nor old, neither female nor male, be left behind.

When the rabbis describe the Exodus, they highlight gender equality as a striking feature. Both women and men receive reparations from the Egyptians. Both women and men rejoice at the splitting of the sea. It is specifically in the merit of the righteous women (Talmud Bavli Sotah 11b) that all of Israel is redeemed. This gender parity is further highlighted in the laws of the Seder night. Even though halakhah generally releases women from time-bound obligations, women are commanded to fully participate in the Seder. Women and men are both obligated to eat matzah, to drink four cups of wine, and to retell the story of the Exodus. 

Shifting from a posture of coping to one of change requires leaning (pun intended) into different aspects of being human. The name for the first human, Adam- אדם, famously has its roots in “from the earth” אֲדָמָ֔ה (Genesis 2:7) – literally grounded in the reality of the present and limited to whatever is available at the moment. However, Adam- אדם also has its source in the word אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה which means to imagine (Hosea 12:11). We as the descendants of Adam have the power to aspire to and achieve a better world than the one in which we currently exist.

A third meaning of אדמה is related to the word לדמות, to compare. Isaiah 14:14 teaches:

אֶעֱלֶ֖ה עַל־בָּ֣מֳתֵי עָ֑ב אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה לְעֶלְיֽוֹן׃ 

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be comparable to the Most High.

The phrase אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה לְעֶלְיֽוֹן reminds us that we, as people, should always be reaching for the ideal and striving to be Godly.  

Reordering society begins by questioning the current status quo. We start the seder with the Four Questions because questions themselves bring about change and highlight the unique aspect of being human: to ask (מה and אדם have the same numerical value of 45) and answer. By engaging in this humble process of discerning what is essential and true and what is false and fantastical, our understanding of reality is transformed. 

Wisdom,  חכמה – chochma, comes from the power of questioning כח מה (Mesach Chachma). Throughout the year we strive to be talmidei chachamim, students, and practitioners of wisdom. On the night of Passover, when we recite Mah Nishtanah – the asking itself changes and affects change differently.

Visioning requires us to know where we are so that we can plot a path forward. We prepare for the Passover experience by searching for bread with the light of a candle, in all of the cracks and the crevices, to really understand our point of departure. The seder, meaning order, is a lesson in restoring the wholeness and equity of this broken world, as a model for a sustainable year-round version.

The wise child of the Haggadah asks: “What are the testimonies, decrees, and ordinances which Hashem, our God has commanded you?” The child wants to understand the rules, presumably so they can understand how these laws apply to the world today. The parent’s answer is not about legal specificity. Instead, the answer is, “Do not eat anything after the Passover sacrifice!” We want the child to understand, and linger over, the taste of freedom. Questions are sometimes best answered by experience.

What is the taste of freedom? If we were to prepare for the needs of the world the way we prepare for the Passover seder, what would the world look like? How can we achieve it? When do we know to settle for improvements and when to start anew in pursuit of perfection? As we reflect on this time in the Jewish calendar, may we appreciate the small steps that have been taken to ameliorate oppression, but may we also be bold enough to imagine and then to achieve complete liberation.

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat and is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program. (Pronouns: She/Hers)

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him) He will be teaching gender and sexuality at Brandeis this summer in the Genesis Pre-college Program. 

 

Jewish Women Passing During the Holocaust

By Gavi Klein

Editor’s note: The HBI Research Award program awards grants annually to support research or artistic projects in Jewish women’s and gender studies across a range of disciplines. In 2021, HBI gave out 16 awards totaling $62,000. This is one in an occasional series on past research award recipients and their ongoing work. 

Most known stories about Jews hiding during the Holocaust focus on the physical act of hiding. Hana Green, 2019 Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award recipient, finds the narratives of non-physical hiding an equally important and largely unaddressed issue.

“In brief, my research centers on assessing the experience of Jewish women who passed as ‘Aryan’ by assuming false identities and hiding in plain sight,” Green said. She is using her research award to understand more about what she has found to be a gaping hole in the historical studies of the Holocaust: specifically the “passing” of Jewish women. While her research has been stalled, temporarily, due to the closing of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in light of the pandemic, Green already has some extensive ideas on the topic, in part thanks to her work in the past two years at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.

Initially, Green wasn’t looking at the impact of Jewish women passing during the Holocaust, but more broadly at womens’ experiences during the period overall. She says, “Early on in my research I worked with diaries and oral testimonies of Jewish women both in hiding and those passing ‘in plain sight.’ I was astounded by these experiences and as I began to look deeper, I realized that there was little specific research on passing more broadly.” From there on, Green’s research proceeded with a singular focus on Jewish women who passed as Aryan in Germany and Austria during the Holocaust. 

Part of what initially drew Green to this topic was the lack of research around what she saw as a poignantly significant issue. “I think that largely, passing narratives have been subsumed alongside those of hiding and resistance,” she says. “They’ve been primarily incorporated within these other narratives because of how deeply entangled they are (passing was a form of hiding and was, I argue, an active act of resistance) and because of the fluid nature of passing.” The distinctions between narratives of passing and narratives of hiding and resistance are key, Green notes, and she intends to use her research to draw conclusions on the impact of these distinctions later down the line.

Until then, Green has explored other accounts of passing, and the revealing nuances within those accounts. For one, she has delved into the complexities that family dynamics played in narratives of passing. “I’ve come across both individuals who passed by themselves, as well as individuals who passed with either a partner, friend or other family member,” she says, “Many of the individuals I’ve studied have commented on the often painful decision to leave family members behind in ghettos or when transport orders arrived.” Often, only one or a few family members of a given family unit were able to access the proper documents to “legally pass,” and as Green notes, were forced to face the heartbreaking decision of whether or not to leave their family behind.

Family is only part of it, however. Green’s research mostly centers on women’s experiences of passing and the role of gender in those experiences. “For a long time it was contended that women were more successful in both hiding and passing,” she notes. She goes on to explain that the physical markers of Jewish men (circumcision) and the stereotypes of them, in addition to sexual politics, tended to make it easier for a woman to pass. She is still learning whether or not women were actually more successful at passing, or more likely to have attempted to, but even though her research centers on women, “studying the experiences of Jewish women who passed will also play a role in understanding this survival mechanism more broadly, and thus inform the study of male passers.”

Green’s studies have a far reach; while she delves primarily into the Holocaust, her findings have echoes even farther back in history, with noted parallels to Crypto-Jews and Conversos in the Spanish Inquisition. In more recent times, she draws connections to modern American Jewish history and American Jews concealing their Jewish identity in order to bypass occupational discrimination or academic quotas, such as changing their appearance to appear “less Jewish” or anglicizing their surnames. Green’s work in a past project on the Inquisition notes several uniting qualities of passing both then and during the Holocaust: “passing as an act of resistance, the impact of appearance and aesthetic on one’s ability to pass, the impact of racial conceptions in each instance of passing, the effect of one’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish practice, the complexities of Jewish identity construction and malleability, and the centrality of antisemitism in the Jewish experience.” She goes on, “While, at their core, each of these examples of Jewish passing were unique, these key common threads appeared in each instance and entwined them together to form distinct lines of continuity and crossover which, I argue, contribute to the creation of a longer, shared practice of passing as a Jewish response to persecution.” Many of these qualities also seem to also draw in modern-day American Jewish experiences as well, though in a notably different and less immediately threatening political and social environment.

Green’s project highlights fascinating connections between the present and the past and how they intersect in ways that remain timeless. “This research may be helpful to the broader study of questions related to identity fluidities, ambiguities, and transformations,” Green says, “Perhaps even more significant, this investigation may provide fruitful commentary on passing experiences more broadly—across race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality and beyond.”

Hana Green is a Ph.D. student studying Holocaust history at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she holds a Claims Conference Fellowship.  She received a Research Award from HBI for this work in 2019. 

Gavi Klein, Brandeis ‘21, American Studies, is an HBI student blogger. 

 

Queering Sacred Texts: Reclamation and Resistance Through Midrash Making

By Aliyah Blattner

Editor’s note: Aliyah Blattner was a 2020 HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern. Applications are open now for the 2021 summer internship. More information is available here. Deadline is March, 15, 2021. 

I remember reading midrash as a child at my Schechter day school. While we explored the stories of the Tanakh through the eyes and words of the rabbis, my teachers emphasized the power of midrash as a testament to the dynamic, ever-evolving nature of the Jewish tradition. If the foundations of our culture were built upon centuries of thoughtful debate and discussion, then anyone could find meaning and personal power in the sacred texts we studied, even us as modern, American children. However, the midrash we read and studied was mostly a Rabbinic period’s “greatest hits” list. Instead of portraying the liveliness of Jewish storytelling practice, the midrash we were exposed to was predominantly based in perspectives that were as removed from our lives as the biblical stories they were intended to make accessible. 

Additionally, like many of the most essential aspects of Judaism, the influence of patriarchy impeded upon my ability as a young girl to feel connected to the interpretations and explanations of the stories that we elevated in the classroom. I found myself pushing back against many of the rabbis’ writings, unable to help myself from noticing the glaring absence of women from the tradition of midrash making. How could I celebrate the power in questioning and reimagining ancient texts if the innovative interpretations we glorified felt equally inaccessible to me as the biblical stories they were meant to unpack? I found myself seeking out new ways to find myself in the textual legacy of the Jewish tradition.

I largely came across midrashei nashim, or women’s midrash, by accident. As a poet, I often write on biblical themes, and am fascinated by the relationship between divinity, queerness, and womanhood as it appears in the Tanakh. I also am an prolific reader of Jewish feminist poetry, much of which focuses on elevating the stories of women in the Torah. But I never saw my work or the work of these poets as “midrash making.” We were just women who happened to reimagine Jewish texts in our creative works. In my mind, this was distinctly different from the ancient rabbis of the sixth century who penned the midrashim I read as a child. This disconnect is not random. As someone who did not see Jewish women in leadership roles (religious or otherwise) until much later in life, I understand why I never conceived of women being capable of shaping Judaism in the same ways as the male rabbis of the past. It was not until this summer, through my work as a Gilda Slifka intern, that I began to perceive what I (and the inspirational women rabbis, scholars, and artists) had cultivated from the 1960’s to present day as a legitimate form of midrash.

I would describe the experience of reading feminist midrash as the moment when one learns that their favorite book has been missing its most important pages. While you can enjoy the story without all its chapters, that incomplete experience can never compare to reading the novel in its entirety. Feminist midrash makers strive to reinterpret the Tankah through a feminist lens to fill in the gaps left behind by Jewish misogyny. These women recognize the danger of allowing men alone to debate the meaning of the Torah without engaging with other perspectives and they champion the importance of female interpretations of religious texts to expand upon and complicate the ways that women related to their Judaism. Feminist midrash aims to enhance and build off the Tanakh by providing readers with access to a different perspective that serves to enrich the text and make a more whole Judaism. It’s about giving women a voice in a centuries-old conversation from which we’ve largely been excluded and as an avid reader (and aspiring maker) of midrash, I have discovered an entirely new way to relate to my Judaism through queerness and womanhood. 

One of my favorite evolutions of midrashei nashim has been the proliferation of midrash that roots itself in LGBTQ+ perspectives and experiences. Unlike the writings of cisgender, straight women in the 1970s and 1980s who centered their own voices and lenses as the “truest” forms of feminist midrash, queer Jews aspire to re-envision the ways that we understood and related to Judaism by both queering biblical characters and unpacking the Tanakh in radical ways. While early women’s midrash works toward uplifting the stories of biblical women by giving them voice and agency, queer midrash draws into question the fundamental categories and norms that underpin ancient texts, challenging the ways that Jewish tradition reinforces arbitrary standards, binaries, and understandings of human existence.

One of the first pieces of queer midrash I ever read was acclaimed poet and professor Joy Ladin’s quintessential “Wrestling Till Dawn,” which reinterprets the classic tale of Jacob wrestling with the angel through a transgender lens. She depicts Jacob’s struggle as a battle with both a higher power and his own gender identity. When Jacob ties with the messenger in Parashat Vayishlach, dawn breaks, and Jacob is renamed Israel, or “the one who wrestles with God.” From this struggle, Israel emerges with a renewed understanding of both himself and the way that he fits within the world as a Jewish person. Additionally, Ladin draws from the biblical Hebrew to advocate for a trans context for Jacob’s actions, citing the description of him “limping on his hip” as a coded reference to his body’s physical relationship with gender. 

While Ladin’s interpretation of this story functions to reveal the way that trans experiences and perspectives enrich the ways that we interact with sacred texts, her words also serve to achieve a greater goal. She reveals that while queer midrash, on a surface level, can be written to portray biblical characters as queer themselves, she celebrates how a queer lens can reveal hidden meanings within the text and provide contemporary queer Jews with both a voice in the canon and a path toward liberation through biblical narratives.

In a way, I would characterize the process of writing midrash as a distinctly queer act. When the rabbis were presented with a normative and seemingly irrefutable text, they chose to read between the lines, ask questions, and challenge the assumptions that underpinned the words of God. By expanding upon and going beyond the text through innovative interpretations, Torah scholars relied upon the text itself to reveal answers to the questions that bothered them. As a queer woman, navigating the nuances of my identity, in many ways, reminds me of the methods that the first midrash makers utilized to understand and interpret the Tanakh. We both understand the danger in blindly accepting the truths we are given and seek meaning in the act of questioning as a form of resistance and an expression of love for the complexity of the human experience. 

I believe that queer midrash provides us with an incredibly important lens through which to better understand the Jewish tradition. If women’s midrash pushed to fill the proverbial second half of the shelf, queer midrash is an extension of that legacy, adding more voices into the conversation to achieve a more whole tradition. When we treat rabbinic midrash as irrefutable truth, we undermine its value and compromise the ability of midrash to provide modern readers with the insights and questions necessary to learn from and grow through the study of the Tanakh. Furthermore, we limit the scope of Jewish tradition because only certain members of our community can find themselves in traditional texts or feel entitled to critique our culture. To that end, in order to bring queer Jews into the conversation, it is essential to treat midrash as the tool of reclamation and resistance that it has been for generations of queer Jews. If the radical act of questioning is foundational in Jewish culture, then we must also embrace queerness and the diverse experiences and perspectives of queer Jews into our religious traditions as a celebration of our collective ability to wrestle with sacred texts in our everyday lives.

Aliyah Blattner is a sophomore at Brown University and was HBI 2020 Gilda Slifka summer intern. 

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