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Second-Class? Not Those Glamorous Gals of Yore!

November 8, 2007 By:
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When it comes to contemporary scholarship dealing with the 24 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible, academics and theologians can find all sorts of ways to disagree with one another.

Here are just of few of the subjects they argue about: How reliable are all or parts of the text as a historical document, and what does the entire work reveal about the land and people of Israel in ancient times? Exactly when, why and how were the 24 books codified into their existing form? Why were some books, like "The Song of Songs," included and others, like Maccabees, left out? Did some -- like Isaiah, for instance -- have multiple authors presenting varied points of view?

There's at least one fact, although, that's pretty much universally accepted -- the majority of the work was written by men. There are far more male characters than female in the ongoing narrative, and the men seem to dominate.

But does all this mean that Judaism's central texts speak more directly to men than to women?

In light of all that's changed in Judaism in recent decades -- from the ordination of women rabbis to widespread insertion of the matriarchs into the Amidah prayer -- how relevant are the biblical stories for women in today's world?

Since at least the early 1970s, a wave of feminist biblical critics have emerged and engaged the Bible -- from literary, religious, historical and archaeological perspectives -- in ways that have had a profound impact in scholarly and religious circles, as well as on the popular imagination. Consider the unlikely success of Anita Diamant's 1997 novel The Red Tent.

Among the most influential of such scholars was Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006). She served as the director of Bible studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote before taking an appointment at the University of Chicago's Divinity School in 1995.

"When I study, these ancient authors speak to me and I join them; I bring my contemporary perspectives, my scholarly expertise, and my woman's sensibility into conversation with them," Frymer-Kensky wrote in Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism.

On Oct. 21, more than a year after Frymer-Kensky lost a battle with breast cancer, a group of her colleagues and students co-sponsored a conference in her honor titled "For There Is Hope: Gender and the Hebrew Bible."

The program, held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, took place, coincidentally, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and on Frymer-Kensky's birthday.

The program was sponsored by a number of institutions, including the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, Auburn Theological Seminary and the Women's League for Conservative Judaism.

A New York native, Frymer-Kensky earned bachelor's degrees at both City College of New York and JTS. Later, she completed a master's and a doctorate at Yale University in West Semitics, Assyriology and Sumerology. But more than anything, she's known for delving into the most sacred of Jewish texts and being less than satisfied with traditional interpretations.

Among her books are Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories and Motherprayer: The Pregnant Women's Spiritual Companion.

"Tikva stood as a model for engaged scholarship," affirmed Amy Kalmanofsky, an assistant professor of Bible at JTS, who chaired the conference. Kalmanofsky had studied under Frymer-Kensky at RRC.

More than 200 people attended the daylong affair. The conference presenters spanned faith traditions and academic disciplines, and each wrestled with a subject that Frymer-Kensky had tackled in her own work.

Topics included "Recovering the Lives of Women in Ancient Israel," "Wrestling With Troubling Texts in a Faith Context," "The Roles of Women in Biblical Literature" and "Biblical Theology: A Christian Perspective."

In the talk on biblical literature, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Los Angeles, said that the pivotal roles played by some biblical women -- including ruling queens and prophets -- are often too important to believe that the biblical authors and redactors considered women somehow inferior or second-class citizens.

"Women are not presented as being subhuman. The women of the Bible demonstrate care, competence, courage -- and when needed -- bursts of cunning," relayed Eskenazi, who referenced a litany of well-known and lesser-known individuals, including Queen Esther, the prophetess Hulda, and Michal, daughter of King Saul and David's first wife.

Eskenazi said that for too long, clergy and scholars have held a negative view of Eve. The scholar asserted that Eve is the first person in the Torah to seek wisdom, to question God and to record family history.

"Women in the Bible often act as catalysts for opening men's eyes," Eskenazi told the audience. "By recognizing the capacity and legitimacy of women to make room for themselves at the top of Israelite society, by breaking the glass ceiling -- or in their case, the wood ceiling -- they have also broken it for subsequent generations, including our own."

In a lecture earlier in the day, Duke University professor of religion Carol Meyers presented a less uplifting view.

Myers said that there are 135 named women in the entire Bible -- a fraction of the number of named male characters. She contended that women usually had less central roles and were, in many ways, an afterthought.

Myers argued that the Bible provides almost no reliable information about the lives of women who inhabited ancient Israel, especially the vast majority of those who lived outside Jerusalem and in the countryside.

"The Hebrew Bible after Genesis is concerned with the corporate existence of the Israelite people. There is very little description of everyday experience," Myers said during her presentation. "There is typically a discrepancy between the reality of the life of the culture, and the text that that culture produces."

The professor added that historians are forced to turn to archaeology to unearth the details about women's lives. Yet until recently, archaeologists were far more interested in artifacts that confirmed or negated biblical narratives rather than those that shed light on daily experience.

But the little that has been found has revealed that women were probably responsible for turning grain into food. The interdependence of men and women suggests that the relationship between husband and wife may have been something approaching an equal partnership.

Yet, in many ways, it hasn't been scholarship, but works of literature, like The Red Tent -- told from the perspective of Dinah -- that have spurred and shaped the public imagination and curiosity about women of yore.

According to Rabbi Jill Hammer, director of spiritual development at the interdenominational Academy of Jewish Religion in the Riverdale section of New York, that novel is the best-known example of how contemporary writers delve into what's left out of the Bible -- and then add their own twist.

During a breakout session called "Biblical Women in Contemporary Culture," Hammer, the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Religion, spoke about the tradition of modern midrash, in which writers like Alicia Suskin Ostriker and Yehuda Amichai have used poetry and prose to address troubling aspects of the text.

"First of all, it's fun to play around with old stories. Shakespeare did it," said Hammer.

Of course, in ancient times, rabbis expanded on the Bible through creating additional stories or legends, which are now such a major component of Jewish tradition.

Hammer asked an audience member to read aloud a poem by Brooklyn-born writer Merle Feld called "We All Stood Together." The speaker is the prophetess Miriam, Moses' sister. Part of the poem goes:


"It seems like every time I want to write
I can't
I'm always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down"

At the session's end, Hammer asked audience members -- both men and women -- to envision themselves as Eve taking her first bite of the apple plucked from the tree of knowledge. Next, Hammer asked everyone to put pen to paper and start writing what came to mind, adding that "midrash is a really lovely forbidden fruit to be biting into."

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