Non­fic­tion

Dirshu­ni: Con­tem­po­rary Women’s Midrash

Tamar Biala, ed.

  • Review
By – July 19, 2022

Sacred texts and scrip­ture in Judaism have tra­di­tion­al­ly been writ­ten and inter­pret­ed by men. As more women have stud­ied Torah, more have been writ­ing midrashim, find­ing them­selves in the texts and shar­ing opin­ions and com­men­tary. These female schol­ars have then con­nect­ed with each oth­er to com­pile dif­fer­ent vol­umes — like this one, edit­ed by Tamar Biala. The fore­word, writ­ten by Tamar Kadari, explains that Midrash must be under­stood first and fore­most as an exer­cise in cre­ativ­i­ty, with an ele­ment of play and plea­sure in which sweep and imag­i­na­tion are con­joined.” Midrash, which Kadari defines as search­ing out and explor­ing sacred scrip­ture,” has always been an act of look­ing for answers to ques­tions, cre­at­ing sto­ries to bring reli­gious texts into the present day.

Dirshu­ni is orga­nized into eleven main sec­tions, with sub­sec­tions with­in each chap­ter. Ear­li­er sec­tions have midrashim in the order of the bib­li­cal sto­ries, and lat­er, the midrashim address var­i­ous themes. Dif­fer­ent sec­tions dis­cuss top­ics such as fer­til­i­ty, mis­car­riage, and par­ent­hood; rape and incest; inequal­i­ties in Jew­ish Law; post-Holo­caust the­ol­o­gy; and hol­i­days. After each midrash, a com­men­tary by Biala fol­lows, deep­en­ing the reader’s under­stand­ing of the midrash and pre­sent­ing thought-pro­vok­ing con­cepts about the text, as well as dai­ly or gen­er­al reli­gious observance.

The text is fair­ly acces­si­ble, espe­cial­ly the com­men­tary, which helps to clar­i­fy any midrashim that may be unfa­mil­iar or con­fus­ing. It also trans­lates con­cepts into sto­ries that may be more rel­e­vant to the present day, encour­ag­ing read­ers to reflect on their own expe­ri­ences and con­nect them to the bib­li­cal text. In the sec­tion on Lot’s wife, for instance, the com­men­tary con­sid­ers how per­haps Lot’s wife was turned to salt not as pun­ish­ment, but as a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of her cry­ing. She might not have known not to look back, but what moth­er would not look back at the chil­dren she must leave behind? Biala writes, Lot’s wife’s weep­ing bespeaks the suf­fer­ing of all those who bear wit­ness to a tragedy that they are unable to pre­vent.… Her abil­i­ty to feel pain, or per­haps her inabil­i­ty to avoid it, stands in con­trast to her husband’s stony for­ward gaze.” The depth of emo­tion that Lot’s wife felt ren­dered her unable to keep liv­ing after such tragedy. Her pain was too much. In this way, women are shown a new lens through which to view Lot’s wife: not as a per­son defy­ing G‑d, but as a moth­er dev­as­tat­ed by tragedy.

Women’s sto­ries are told much less than men’s in the Torah. Many women aren’t even named. Dirshu­ni is a step for­ward; it carves out a place for con­tem­po­rary women to see them­selves in the sacred texts. It focus­es on the courage, the heart­break, and the fight of bib­li­cal women — and it brings them to life. How many women’s sto­ries do we not know? What would Judaism look like if women had been read­ing, study­ing, inter­pret­ing, and com­ment­ing on our sacred texts all this time?

Dirshu­ni gives us a glimpse of that, and the view is spectacular.

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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