Bib­li­cal Women Speak: Hear­ing Their Voic­es through New and Ancient Midrash

  • Review
By – June 30, 2023

When one thinks of midrash, rarely does fem­i­nist midrash — or the sto­ries of bib­li­cal women — come to mind. But in Rab­bi Mar­la J. Feldman’s book Bib­li­cal Women Speak: Hear­ing Their Voic­es Through New and Ancient Midrash, those women take cen­ter stage. 

The book is orga­nized into ten chap­ters, each high­light­ing a dif­fer­ent woman from the Bible, includ­ing Leah and Rachel, Miri­am, Puah and Shiphrah [sic], and Ketu­rah. With­in each chap­ter, there are four sub­sec­tions: the Bib­li­cal Text,” which pro­vides a basis for the midrash; the Mod­ern Midrash,” which allows the bib­li­cal woman to tell her own sto­ry; Clas­si­cal Midrash and Com­men­tary,” which delves into well-known com­men­tary by schol­ars in addi­tion to tra­di­tion­al midrash; and the Author’s Com­men­tary,” which com­pares the tra­di­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tions with mod­ern retellings. 

Women in the Bible are often unnamed, defined sole­ly by their rela­tion­ships with oth­ers. Take Judah’s wife, for exam­ple. She is known as Bat Shua, or daugh­ter of Shua.” This label­ing, or lack there­of, makes it easy for sto­ries like hers to be sub­sumed by those of men. Feld­man, by con­trast, dives into these women’s sto­ries, bring­ing them to life with depth and insight. 

Feldman’s analy­sis of Miriam’s sto­ry is a stand­out of the book. A prophet­ess, Miri­am is just as much a leader as her broth­er Moses, but she is not often held to the same lev­el of esteem. In the Mod­ern Midrash sec­tion, Miri­am is angry that she was pun­ished so harsh­ly with lep­rosy after she and Aaron sup­pos­ed­ly crit­i­cized Moses’s wife, while Aaron was not pun­ished at all. (This point is lat­er addressed with pos­si­ble expla­na­tions in the Clas­si­cal Midrash and Com­men­tary sec­tion). Inter­est­ing­ly, while dis­abil­i­ty is not typ­i­cal­ly a main focus of the sto­ry, despite Moses’s speech imped­i­ment, the Mod­ern Midrash sec­tion notes that when Miri­am was exiled, she con­nect­ed with the oth­er mar­gin­al­ized and suf­fer­ing peo­ple she saw. To her, each pain-filled breath was an act of courage.” Feld­man goes on to write in Miriam’s voice: “ … I learned more about love, char­i­ty, and what is tru­ly impor­tant in life in my exile than I had from all of G‑d’s or Moses’ teach­ings. I lost some heroes, but oth­ers have replaced them. How iron­ic that my curse became a bless­ing. Liv­ing among the fringes, I dis­cov­ered courage and hope; in adver­si­ty, I found faith.” Miri­am is not able to for­get the peo­ple she met while in exile, nor the lessons she learned, like the impor­tance of sup­port­ing the most vulnerable. 

Feldman’s explo­rations of bib­li­cal women’s sto­ries, and the points she makes in the result­ing midrash, beg some nec­es­sary ques­tions: How much have we missed by not not­ing these women’s impor­tance? By treat­ing them as extra,” or not as holy? What can we learn from them, and how might an influx of cre­ative midrash writ­ten by women strength­en and expand Judaism?

Jaime Hern­don is a med­ical writer who also writes about par­ent­ing and pop cul­ture in her spare time. Her writ­ing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not work­ing or home­school­ing, she’s at work on an essay collection.

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