Magazine article Tikkun

Bereshit: Sexuality and Desire

Magazine article Tikkun

Bereshit: Sexuality and Desire

Article excerpt

Bereshit: Sexuality and Desire

Ellen Frankel is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society. Copyright ??? 1996 by Ellen Frankel, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Grosset/Putnam, a division of the Putnam Berkley Group, Inc., from The Five Books of Miriam, by Ellen Frankel, Ph.D.

For centuries, Jewish women have lacked a direct route into the primarily "top down" tradition of learned texts. And so they have had to find alternative ways in. They have done so through what I call "folk Torah," a "bottom up" tradition of customs, songs, stories, folklore, humor, symbols, superstitions, and folk sayings that have fructified Judaism from the margins, absorbing and transvaluing raw materials from neighboring cultures to create new Jewish forms. Through this folk process, Judaism has remained vibrant and remarkably elastic--just like the women themselves.

In the early seventeenth century, the rabbinic authorities decided that women should at least read or hear the words of Torah, even if they couldn't study and interpret them themselves. So Rabbi Yaakov ben Yitzhak Askenazi published a Torah commentary in Yiddish specifically designed for women who were illiterate in Hebrew. The Tzena Urena, an immediate sensation as soon as it appeared, has since gone through more than 200 printings. A blend of midrash, commentary, rabbinic lore, and homiletic interpretation, this women's teyre has provided traditional women a door into God's holy book.

But it still constitutes a commentary written by a man for women. It lacks the nuanced timbre of women's voices, their sensibilities harvested from the text (exegesis) and sown back into the text (eisegesis). It lacks the fundamental facts of women's lives--kitchen smells, the cries of babies and widows, the hard-won wisdom of suffering, the silences and subversions of veiled lives.

And two hundred years later, it also lacks the new knowledge recently made available through feminist scholarship and criticism, biblical archaeology, and modern literary techniques. If you add to this mix the spice of Jewish folklore and the yeast of a postmodernist imagination, you find yourself with quite a stew!

This is The Five Books of Miriam, a commentary on the fifty-four weekly scriptural readings--what Christians call the lectionary--presented as a chorus of voices, mostly biblical women as well as our Mothers, our Daughters, our Bubbes, the Sages in our own time, and the Rabbis. What emerges is a heteroglossia, a conversation of voices spanning the centuries but speaking in the same room at the same time. They are our own voices as well, reflecting and refracting our experience through all those who came before.

Lilith and Eve

Torah teaches: In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates human beings twice: first simultaneously as a single androgynous being; then a man followed by a woman, Eve fashioned out of Adam's rib.

Our daughters ask: Can the Torah have it both ways?

The Sages in our own time answer: In ancient times, two rival creation myths vied for our people's allegiance. So popular were both versions of this story that when Genesis was being edited, the Torah had no choice but to include them both.

But the ancient Rabbis explain it differently: Adam had two wives--one in the first chapter of Genesis, another in the next. His first wife, Lilith, because she was created at the same time as Adam, naturally insisted upon being equal in all things (even in the marriage bed!). But her husband refused her terms, and she left the Garden. God then dispatched three angels--Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof--to the Sea of Reeds to fetch her back, but they failed to persuade her. Stubbornly, she refused to return home unless her terms were met. Furious, the angels cursed her for her impudence, sentencing to death each day one hundred of her demon children; she countered by vowing to prey henceforth upon women in labor and their babies. …

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