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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences




S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories by Naomi Graetz (Gorgias Press) is a feminist retelling of biblical tales, the purpose of which is to make the Bible contemporaneous, relevant and religiously meaningful. The tales look at the intimate lives and thoughts of the characters who populate the Bible by retelling each story in contemporary language, sometimes adding dialogue and description, and at other times recovering and reinventing tales. Some of the stories deal with the typical feminine concerns of motherhood, barrenness, resentment about polygamy, the after-effects of being raped, the joys of shared gossip, the tribulations of the aging process, and the unique relationship of siblings. The stories also dwell on the tensions between relatives such as Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah, Sarah and Mrs. Lot, Miriam and her mother Yocheved.., The characters being portrayed are complete persons without being idealized, often petty and troublesome.

Excerpt: I don't want to rewrite the Bible; I want to make it ours by having it reflect women's reality as well as men's. In other words, our task in writing interpretative works, or Midrash, is to put woman's voice back where it should have been in the first place. This kind of Midrash does not detract from or undermine the Torah, rather it adds additional dimensions to the Torah by making it contemporaneous, relevant and religiously meaningful. By "imaginatively re-engaging with our sacred texts, by writing Midrash, all voices, not only a few, can be part of the partnership." However, one should be careful to make explicit that our woman's voice is not necessarily all women's voice.

Gubkin writes that the "interconnection of voice and partnership that Graetz presents deserves closer examination because it makes explicit the theoretical presuppositions which under gird many feminist Midrashim. The `demand for the women's voice' when heeded has led to new interpretations of the biblical text. Often feminists offer new readings by creating voices for the silent women in the Bible... By speaking in the voice of biblical women the contemporary writer places her own needs and concerns onto the biblical text without explicitly claiming them as her own."

If the first theoretical construct that I have presented is that of voice then the second is the notion of partnership. I ask, "Can men and women who experience a conflict with those who continue to interpret the Biblical text in such a biased manner 'do anything about it?" My answer has been: "Certainly. One can insist on the partnership model as the traditional Jewish midrashic approach to text." Gubkin, however, sees danger in this since "this understanding of partnership continues the Enlightenment fallacy that we approach and read texts as autonomous individuals in equal positions of access, influence, and power... [U]nfortunately it does not provide a satisfactory solution [since women's writings] belie the fact that it is the Torah given through Moses that is canonical today."

Gubkin then goes on to call into question the use of Midrash as a tool. Since women are marginalized then we cannot simply add women's voices and stir. Secondly "the authority of midrash within the traditional economy of rabbinic texts was marginal, as these texts were accorded lesser status than halakhic forms." Thus there is no libratory power, no gaining of partnership if women, who are marginal to begin with, latch on to a marginal activity that has no authority in the patriarchal community. She feels that by devoting our energies to this activity we are solidifying our position as the "other" within Judaism. Gubkin would prefer to deal with the meta-text rather than the content itself. Rather than empower the historical biblical women through imaginative creations, she would prefer to ask the question of how does silencing of a particular woman function in the text.

For me the purpose of contemporary Midrash is threefold. It addresses itself to the biblical text, which cries out darsheni, interpret me! Secondly, it makes the Bible relevant to an audience that does not overly care about its biblical roots. Finally, it serves my need to relate to a text, which I perceive as flowing over with hidden meanings. I feel that in writing midrash I am continuing to contribute to the work of revelation. If, in the process of my new representation of facts, I help to produce new "facts: or in writing about the text in a new way contribute to determining the text—so be it". Unlike Gubkin, I see this as positive. However, I would agree with her that we must avoid speaking in universals in order to avoid committing violence against the particular. It is not one voice that can be transformative, only many voices. And if I play my little part in this then I have succeeded.

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament by Jane Schaberg (Continuum) This is a masterful book. One of the best examples of spiritually engaged scholarship. Highly Recommended. The scholarship is impressive, but the combination of solid learning with the personal that is feminist and appealing makes this an exceptional study. Schaberg is confidently feminist, but this study is not a polemic, but a committed demonstration of learning and disciplined imagination. She concludes that Magdalene was denigrated because she was a powerful woman, close to Jesus and perhaps to John the Baptist as well. At the same time, Schaberg searches for antecedents of the empty tomb and stories of John 20, in which Jesus appears to Magdalene: these she finds in the ascension of Elijah in 2 Kings 2, an association that suggests that Magdalene was Jesus' Elisha. Schaberg combines biblical scholarship, imagination, and feminist advocacy into a major work of methodological originality that reveals pervasive themes, such as the silencing of women who question the patriarchy. While there are numerous recent works on Mary Magdalene, Schaberg's book breaks new ground with her persuasive and at times even poetic blending of Mary Magdalene and Virginia Woolf. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene is a must-read, but everyone interested in the origins of Christianity and the impact of patriarchy on human institutions will find a great deal to consider here.

Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine, Editors (Fitzroy Dearborn) both presents and demonstrates the numerous developments in feminist criticism of the Bible and the enormous range of influence that feminist criticism has come to have in biblical studies.

The purpose of the book is to raise issues of method that are largely glossed over or merely implied in most non‑feminist works on the Bible. The editors have included broadly theoretical essays on feminist methods and the various roles they may play in research and pedagogy, as well as non­feminist essays that have direct bearing on the methods or subject matter that feminists use, as well as readings that illustrate the variety of methodological strategies adopted by feminist scholars.

Some 30 scholars, from North America and Europe, have contributed to this Companion. [Review pending]

Writing the Wrongs: Women of the Old Testament Among Biblical Commentators from Philo Through the Reformation by John Lee Thompson (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology: Oxford University Press) The last third of the 20th century saw a veritable eruption of interest in the women of the Bible. Many essays and books in the 1960s and 1970s began to map the terrain, but with respect to women in the Old Testament, Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror (1984) was a landmark work. Focusing on stories of the maltreatment of women, Trible paved the way for subsequent feminist exegetes who have been increasingly critical of such stories in the Bible and who see them as proof that Christianity is an unredeemably patriarchal religion. But feminist hostility to traditional Christianity has provoked a predictable response from defenders of the Christian tradition, and feminism and tradition­alism are often divided into opposing camps.

It is commonly said that these Old Testament stories of rape, murder, torture, and abandonment passed without comment until recent times--a neglect that would seem to mark yet another dimension of tradi­tional indifference to women. In Writing the Wrongs, however, Thompson examines scores of biblical commentaries and related works from the pre-modern era and demonstrates that interpreters through­out the centuries have regularly addressed these Old Testament tragedies, these "texts of terror." Surprisingly, while there were cer­tainly some who "blamed the victim," there were many others who struggled intensely with these narratives, with the injury to these women, and even with the apparent divine cruelty that allowed such tragic outcomes. Indeed, some of these so-called precritical commentators read these texts in ways that effectively subordinated their patriarchal instincts to a far more existential concern with issues of justice, humanity, and women's dignity.

Writing the Wrongs traces and analyzes the interpretation of a selection of Old Testa­ment women-including Hagar, Jephthah's daughter, the Levite's wife, and Lot's daugh­ters-from Philo and the earliest church fathers through the Reformation. By bringing to light a host of neglected and largely inaccessible writings and commentaries, Thompson not only shows how these trou­bling stories have been seen in the past, but provides important new resources for Christians who are battling over how the Bible ought to be read today.

Excerpt: In both the academic and the popular study of the Bible today, the landscape is marked largely by the crevasses that exist between a host of differing methodologies and approaches to the text. These approaches and "ways of reading" often diverge radically from one another. There are other chasms and divisions, too, including disagreements provoked less overtly by method per se than by competing ideological positions or conclusions. The source of these arguments (which often turn rather nasty) is not hard to discern, for the Bible is and has always been an immensely im­portant and formative text. In other words, the Bible has always been seen as worth fighting over-or against.

Those who thought they were conforming to a divine warrant derived from the Bible charted much of the course of Western history. Much of the course of contemporary Western society continues on a battle-borne tra­jectory in a struggle to preserve or dissolve this putatively biblical legacy. Yet few seriously attend to the long and continuous tradition of interpretation that stands be­tween the Bible itself and today's partisan assertions about its meaning or meaninglessness, and a thoughtless silencing of tradition thus compounds the hard silences of Scripture. The burden of the chapters that follow is to see what may lie hidden within this neglected tradition of interpretation-within the intermediate past that links the Bible to now.

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