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Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torahby Ellen Frankel
Synopses & Reviews
I. BERESHIT: Sexuality and Desire
TORAH SPEAKS: In the beginning, Shekhinah, the Holy-One who-Dwells-in-This-World, spins the world into being: light, water, earth, heavenly bodies, seed-bearing plants, sea creatures, birds, animals-and"Adam," the only creature cast in the divine image, double-gendered and unique. And then the Holy One rests. And "Adam" then untwins, differentiating into two separate creatures: man and woman. Seeing the woman, the man names her "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh," name of my name, "isba" of my "ish," Cleaving together, they embody the divine image in their unity. In partnership, they set up house in Eden.
But like all idylls, this one too proves false, and soon comes to an end. Adam and Eve awaken to desire, and beget history and sin. In turn, their sons, Cain and Abel, follow after their own hearts, and beget death. Thus the human drama begins to run its course. Many generations follow, until the earth fills up with evil, and God-like any heartbroken parent-wonders how it all could have gone so wrong.
THE CREATION OF SOULS
ESTHER THE HIDDEN ONE REVEALS: During the first hour of the first day of creation, before anything else was created, Shekhinah created all human souls and placed them in the highest heaven. When a baby is conceived, Laylah, the Angel of Night, brings it before God to learn its fate. At that moment it is written: where it will live and when it will die, whether it will be a girl or a boy, rich or poor, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish. Only one decision is left unwritten: whether it will be righteous or wicked. Then the Angel of Souls ascends to the highest heaven tobring back the soul destined for this particular child. It enters the child and nestles quietly beneath the mother's breast. And then a different angel teaches the soul all that it will learn during its days on earth. And when it comes time for the child to be born, the angel strikes the newborn under its nose, leaving a cleft there. Instantly, the soul forgets everything and emerges into the world, crying and afraid. Every soul spends the rest of its life relearning all it once knew.
THE CREATION OF HUMAN BEINGS
OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: What kind of human creature does God call into being at the beginning of the world? For it is written: "AND GOD CREATED ADAM IN THE DIVINE IMAGE, IN THE IMAGE OF GOD WAS ADAM CREATED; MALE AND FEMALE GOD CREATED THEM" (Genesis 1:27). Is "Adam" a man or a hermaphrodite, single-sexed or doubly endowed?
LEAH THE Namer ANSWERS: It's hard to know, because the Hebrew language is a gendered tongue. Every verb--for example, "create"--identifies its subject as either male or female.
ESTHER THE HIDDEN ONE REVEALS: But the verse "MALE AND FEMALE GOD CREATED THEM" strains against these grammatical limits-just as the Holy One, in creating our world, transcended the limits of matter and energy.
MIRIAM THE PROPHET ADDS: just as God once created a new world out of the void, so too can we reshape our world to renew that creation.
TWO STORIES OF HUMAN CREATION: 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 TIMEANSWER: In ancient times, two rival creation myths vied for our people's allegiance. So popular we re 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. Through the centuries, Jewish women have warded her off with amulets bearing the three angels' names and other charms.
MOTHER RACHEL COUNSELS: My children, we no longer need to fear Lilith. Even a curse has a statute of limitations.
OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: Who gives names and why?
SARAH THE ANCIENT ONE ANSWERS: Before Eve comes into being, God and Adam are the sole namers. At God's bidding, Adam gives names to "ALL THE CATTLE AND TO THE BIRDS OF THE SKY AND TO ALL THE WILD BEASTS" (2:20). After woman is created, she shares in this process. Eve, for example, names her firstborn son "Cain," From that point on, fathers and mothers take turns choosing-and use names to identify their children's destiny. For names are seldom meaningless inthe Bible. In fact, they are often remarkably freighted.
DINAH THE WOUNDED ONE ASKS: But why are women granted this privilege when so much else is denied us?
HULDAH THE PREACHER EXPLAINS: The Bible recognizes that parents operate by different rules than the clan, tribe, or nation. In the intimate society of the family, power is negotiated, wrested, or ceded-and the children play out the consequences of their parents' bargains.
Ellen Frankel, folklorist, writer, scholar, has written the book that lets the Torah speak to women and that welcomes women into its sacred pages. In The Five Books of Miriam, she helps us discover the stories, conflicts, and dreams of the many women - named and nameless - who populate the biblical landscape. Building on the centuries-old tradition of Jewish commentary, Frankel expands the conversation about what the Torah means to women. The Five Books of Miriam includes folktales and folklore, homespun wisdom, Yiddish lore, songs, midrash, modern scholarship, and feminist criticism.
Weaving together Jewish lore, the voices of Jewish foremothers, Yiddish fable, midrash and stories of her own imagining, Ellen Frankel has created in this book a breathtakingly vivid exploration into what the Torah means to women. Here are Miriam, Esther, Dinah, Lilith and many other women of the Torah in dialogue with Jewish daughters, mothers and grandmothers, past and present. Together these voices examine and debate every aspect of a Jewish woman's life — work, sex, marriage, her connection to God and her place in the Jewish community and in the world. The Five Books of Miriam makes an invaluable contribution to Torah study and adds rich dimension to the ongoing conversation between Jewish women and Jewish tradition.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -346) and index.
About the Author
Ellen Frankel is an acclaimed storyteller and writer, popular lecturer and accomplished scholar. She is the author of many books, including The Classic Tales: Four Thousand Years of Jewish Lore.
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