A Valuable Companion in the Biblical Wilderness

Frankel's unique book helps correct an injustice, by liberating the female voices that have been suffocated in traditional Jewish discourse

"The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah," by Ellen Frankel, HarperOne, $13 (translated into Hebrew as "Midrash Miriam" by Azzan Yadin, Am Oved, 372 pages, NIS 89)

This is a unique book, representing an entirely new genre. It is unique and impressive because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the first book to offer a midrashic interpretation of the Pentateuch - following the order of the parashot (weekly readings) - written by a woman. It is also unique and surprising because sometimes its tone resembles a soap opera, and sometimes an ordinary conversation.

Dr. Ellen Frankel is the chief executive officer and editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), the most important Jewish publishing house in the United States. She chose to explicate the Pentateuch through the voices of 18 women and another representative 20 voices, which make what could be called guest appearances. Every Sabbath, she enables the previously missing voices of women from various generations to be heard. The multi-voiced nature of this one-of-a-kind work and genre is also multidisciplinary and multi-generational.

Traditional Jewish discourse is rich, daring and fascinating. The Pentateuch derives its strength not just from the original text's conciseness and drama, but also from the endless exchange of views between scholars, artists, authors and poets. The many layers that have been written about and around the Pentateuch - the Mishnah, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and the midrashim - are a large, blue sea, which is sometimes placid, sometimes stormy, but which always aspires to a distant horizon.

However, despite all its abundance and its continually renewing flow, traditional Jewish discourse is also partial because, over the generations, its exclusive creators have been males. Among the injustices our generation must correct is the liberation of the voices that have been suffocated in that discourse. In recent years, a mighty project has been underway: Women are rescuing female voices from canonic sources and breathing new life into them because, ever since the Torah was given to us at Mount Sinai - when "the voice emerged, becoming 70 tongues" (Exodus Rabbah, section 5, subsection 9) - some of those voices have vanished. By seeing how Frankel chose her voices and how she presents them, we can understand this book's uniqueness.

The first voice in "The Five Books of Miriam" is that of the Torah itself, through which the author offers an abstract of each weekly reading. The next three voices are those of our daughters, mothers and grandmothers, and their voices deepen the intergenerational dialogue. No easy task, because the changes that have occurred in the status of women in the past century raise many difficult questions. The fifth and sixth voices are not those of women, rather they belong to the classic rabbinical authorities and to modern Jewish studies; they are intended to place things in a contemporary context that does not ignore what was written previously - whether in Orthodox or academic discourse - but which is interwoven with it. Nine additional speakers are presented, each with a unique epithet: "Lilith the rebel," "Sarah the ancient one," "Hagar the stranger," "Wily Rebecca, granddaughter of Milcah," "Leah the namer," "Dinah the wounded one, daughter of Leah and Jacob," "Serach bat Asher the historian, granddaughter of Zilpah," "Esther the hidden one," and "Bruria the scholar."

This is undoubtedly a selection that is daring in terms of its composition and which is also innovative because many of the women referred to in the Torah are not identified by name. The injustice committed against additional voices making a guest appearance in this midrash has been partially corrected - in other words, they have been given a first name - by the classic rabbinical authorities. Thus, we are introduced to Amitlai, Abraham's mother; Na'ama, Noah's wife; "Edith, the one-who-looks-back," Lot's wife; "Lusty Zuleika," Potiphar's wife; Princess Thermutis, Pharaoh's daughter; and "She'ilah, the one-who-is-demanded," Jephthah's daughter. Another unique voice is added to this group: "Hannah Rachel, the maid of Ludomir: The only female Hasidic rebbe, who wore tallit and tefillin ..." (Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zemer would dispute the idea of her having been the first woman to serve as her community's rabbi prior to this century).

Feminist companions

What is unique about "The Five Books of Miriam" is not just the fact that it was written by a woman. We have already been privileged to read the series of feminist companions to biblical works offered by Athalya Brenner ("A Feminist Companion to ..."). Marcia Falk provides a brilliant treatment of Jewish liturgy in her "The Book of Blessings" (1999); she has also created a moving English version of the Song of Songs. We have derived boundless enjoyment from Ruth Calderon's collection of midrashic legends, "Hashuk, habayit, halev" ("The Market, the Home, the Heart," 2004, in Hebrew) and we have sampled the mystical experience provided in the Zohar, the central medieval Jewish mystical text, thanks to Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed in "V'nahar yatza me eden" ("A River Issues Forth from Eden: On the Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar" (2005, in Hebrew). We have prayed with Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani, a prolific thinker; and we await the publication of her writings, although a welcome hint has already appeared: "El halev" ("Straight to the Heart," 2005 in Hebrew; edited by Rabbi Ofer Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi, with an introduction by Rabbi Dalia Marx).

Furthermore, we have witnessed the transformation of a collection of prayers written by women - unfortunately, only Orthodox women - into a best-seller: "Tfilat nashim" ("Jewish Women's Prayers Throughout the Ages," 2005, in Hebrew), tastefully edited by Aliza Lavie. Together with Ruhama Weiss, we have explored the psychological depths of Talmudic stories from a uniquely feminine perspective ("Mithayevet benafshi," 2006; in Hebrew), and I myself was privileged to participate in two collections of women reading the Book of Genesis ("Nashim korot mibereshit," 1999, in Hebrew; edited by Ruth Ravitsky) and "Pirkei avot," Ethics of the Fathers" (in "Perkei emahot," "Sayings of the Mothers," 2002; edited by Yael Mishali). And this is only a partial list.

A "soft," or feminine, reading is not the exclusive province of women, of course; for instance, there is a series (in Hebrew) on the weekly parasha, written by Ari Alon (published by BINA), and a very contemporary, very feminist reading in his book, "Ba el hakodesh" (2005, in Hebrew).

It is somewhat puzzling why the publisher decided to call the book under review here "Midrash Miriam," instead of "Miriam's Pentateuch" or "Miriam's Torah." The attempt to distinguish between peshat (objectively oriented explication) and derash (subjectively oriented explication), or between derash and parshanut (commentary) is no easy matter. In effect, in nearly every case, peshat is very close to derash, although the latter sometimes adopts a more adventurous course. According to Menachem Elon, derash is "careful study and a search for the internal meaning and logic of a given text, when a more superficial reading could lead us to a different conclusion." Thus, "Miriam's Midrash" might actually be doing justice to the nature of this book because it places it in the context of the midrash, which Rotem Wagner has termed "the Jewish people 's most original invention" (in the journal Eretz Aheret from September-December 2006).

Concerning this invention, Edmond Jabes makes the following statement: "First of all, there is the text, which represents the major texts of the tradition. However, these texts have been augmented by commentaries, or the Talmud in its entirety. In these commentaries, the Jew remains quintessentially Jewish, because each text is experienced anew with the presentation of the question and is experienced anew as something that once existed, as if the Jews reading it were standing before something they themselves had written." I would add that, in each generation, every woman should regard herself as if she herself had been there. As Jabes himself says, continuing the above thought, "to question the text means that you are questioning yourself ... Jews read texts, read life, read God, read themselves. It is as if we are receiving letters from someone each day, reading them and writing a reply to the sender. That is Judaism."

In effect, "The Five Books of Miriam" is written like an exchange of correspondence or a series of dialogues. In the book's prologue, there is a beautiful legend from the Tosefta (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, ch. 3, section 3) about Miriam's well, which is described as being "like a solid rock" (which is, nonetheless, also like a sieve). As the Israelites wander through the wilderness, the well accompanies them in their journey, it "ascends the hills and descends with the Israelites into the valleys." When the women sing to it, it delivers its water to them, unlike what Moses, Miriam's brother does: He strikes the rock in order to bring forth water. Frankel follows Miriam's example, giving the Five Books of Moses different names, calling Genesis "Individuals and Families"; Exodus "Community"; Leviticus "Ritual"; Numbers "Leadership"; and Deuteronomy "Memory." Furthermore, her midrash revolves around these topics.

Bruria's psyche

For example, in Parashat Mishpatim, she deals with the community's mechanisms for control and presents two stories of seduction. The first is about Bruria. Her husband, Rabbi Meir, sends one of his students to seduce her, "in order to prove that I am no different from any other woman and that, despite my achievements in Jewish scholarship, I am a weak, frivolous creature." (This is how Bruria, as Frankel presents her, describes the incident). In Bruria's time, scholarship was the exclusive province of men and they wanted to perpetuate this situation. The reader soon learns that Rabbi Meir, known for his good looks, falls prey to a similar trap. Frankel tries to get inside Bruria's psyche not only by having her describe the episode in first person, but also by having her render this posthumous statement: "I was so ashamed by my immoral behavior that I hanged myself." After an echo summons Rabbi Meir heavenward, Bruria, sounding like any modern-day woman, declares that they will have much to talk about.

Frankel's book is very important for a contemporary reading of the Torah; captivating and easily accessible, it will appeal to readers who are open-minded and who long for a better understanding of the biblical text. Like Miriam's well, "The Five Books" will be a valuable companion as we wander through the biblical wilderness. Special thanks are due to Am Oved, the publisher of this book, for consistently promoting a rare cultural, intellectual and social horizon: "The Five Books" is part of Am Oved's Jewish Bookshelf series, and men and women will now be able, on a weekly basis, to enjoy together this literary, dramatic text, which so skillfully challenges conventions; to remember voices that have been forgotten or have been forced into oblivion, and to learn that, although the water may sometimes be bitter, it always sustains life. Moreover, we are free to choose when, how much and how to drink it.

Zvia Walden teaches development linguistics at Beit Berl College.