- Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature
For all of us teaching Jewish women's studies, Midrashic Women is an important work. This is the first and most comprehensive book to date on the portrayal of (primarily) biblical women in classical rabbinic midrash. In making the midrashic portrayals of Eve, the Matriarchs and the wives of the Sages found in the Talmud and in amoraic-midrashic anthologies accessible to the modern English-speaking reader, it parallels the importance of Rachel Biale's Women and Jewish Law (1984). Another major contribution lies in the book's attempt to unearth a clear and consistent perception of women as "the other," as reflected in each and every one of the midrashim. Baskin traces the common thread of male dominance over women through the major collections of aggadic literature compiled from the fifth through the eighth centuries. Unrelenting in her critique of any apologetic analysis of this material, she finds that the theme of women's subordination to men, which is linked to the Sages' understanding of the creation stories, underlies the literary construction of the various female midrashic personalities.
Primarily with regard to the amoraic midrashim (composed between about 200 and 500 CE), Baskin argues that the Sages' perception of women's "otherness" stemmed from what they experienced as women's disturbing physical difference (p. 40). This perception resulted in the construction of an ideal hierarchical reality that consistently preferred men over women, deviating in this even from the norms that prevailed in the biblical and tannaitic periods, which were somewhat more egalitarian. A major feature of this trend was the intentional diminution of the personalities of great biblical women [End Page 279] (p. 54), who were now reduced to obedient yet deceptive individuals. This cultural perception of women resulted in their exclusion from prayer and study (pp. 83–87). As a result of the rigid legal and stereotypical limitations upon their activity and status, women searched for other women's support. Yet the Sages perceived gatherings and friendship among women as potent with dangers such as witchcraft and sorcery, a fear that reflected rabbinic anxiety about the collective potential for disorder inherent in women spending time together beyond the reach of male authority (p. 143). Baskin argues that the Sages, in the aggadic literature, viewed women only though this type of misogynistic lens. The only "redeeming" narratives from this stratum are those concerning the loyalty of the daughters of Zelophechad (based on Num. 27:1–11; pp. 143–145), and the conversion and domestication of the foreigner Rahab (based on Josh. 2).
I remained with many questions after reading this book. What is the social-historical basis for the shift in perspective from biblical to talmudic times? Why were the strength of character attributed to women in the Bible and the egalitarian tendencies echoing from narratives such as Genesis 1 later rejected? Are there any clear thematic differences between the various midrashic collections? For example, do the Palestinian traditions differ from the Babylonian ones? The tanaitic from the amoraic? Are they comparable with literary traditions in other contemporaneous cultures?
One example of this need to explore further the historical complexity of our gendered understanding of the midrashim relates to Baskin's paradigmatic reading of the Sages' struggle with the first creation story. She argues convincingly that the Sages, psychologically, could not internalize the deep and far-reaching egalitarian message of the first (Priestly) creation story in Genesis (Gen. 1:26–28). The narrative of a simultaneous creation of both a man and a woman in the image of God conflicted with the Rabbis' patriarchal/hierarchical reality and worldview. Accordingly, they tended to create midrashim that "matched" their social reality and "corrected" the biblical text. Thus, one midrashic interpretation, strictly following the egalitarian message of Gen 1:26, described an androgynous first human: "Rabbi Jeremiah, son of Eleazar, says: The first Adam had a double-fronted face [diu partzuf panim] as it is said [in Scripture]: 'You have formed me before and behind' [Ps. 139:5]" (BT...