By Robert A. Rees
In the Jewish mind, . . . reverence for God’s word requires more creative attention. It requires an active, imaginative engagement with language.
This is what imaginative reading ultimately requires: a willingness to step completely out of the boat and dive into the waters with a God who has declared from the beginning that we will not drown.
—Judith M. Kunst1
For millennia, scripture and religious history have been told almost completely from a masculine point of view. Even stories of or about women—be they warriors, wives, victims, virgins, or even prophets themselves—have been filtered through male prophets, priests, and patriarchs. As Jewish scholar Naomi M. Hyman points out,
Traditional Jewish sources see the world through male eyes. Men have determined what is important because they have defined our culture—and they have given us only part of the picture. Women experience the world differently: not inaccurately, not less clearly, but simply differently. A Judaism that includes women’s experience will be a more complete Judaism. When we learn to see the world through the eyes of tradition and when tradition takes into itself women’s view of the world, both will grow.2
For this reason, women have sometimes had difficulty seeing themselves in sacred texts and religious traditions. As Hyman notes, “No matter how I studied those texts, . . . I would never find my own voice, my own experience in them except perhaps vicariously. I felt betrayed.” Rabbi Sandy Isenberg Sasso puts it this way, “Women in the Bible often have neither a name nor a voice. They somehow fit into someone else’s story, but rarely is the story about them.”3
What is true of Jewish women is certainly true of Mormon women. Since Mormonism as a restored religion includes a continuation of patriarchy and a male-dominated authoritarian ecclesiastical structure, there have been few feminine perspectives on our sacred texts and our cultural history, although that has changed somewhat for the better over the past several decades as Mormon women scholars and feminist thinkers and writers have attempted to bring some balance to our understanding. Some Latter-day Saint women have expressed a wish for a more inclusive Church polity or at least the inclusion of more women’s voices, and yet there is considerable resistance to this desire. Without authoritative change in either policy or principle, what options are open to women? Let me suggest one—that in addition to using their scholarly and expressive skills, Latter-day Saint women begin using their imaginations, their personal experience, their presence, and their point of view in approaching our scriptural literature.
A model for such expression can be found both in traditional Jewish midrashic literature as well as in the bold and imaginative writings on scripture by contemporary Jewish women who are enriching the tradition of midrashic writing by creating new elaborations, extensions, and imaginings of scriptural narratives. While some might object to this as “playing hob with holy things,” or presuming to improve on scripture, it is important to remember that much of scripture is an admixture of fact and fancy, a deliberate arrangement of history so as to make it more persuasive, and an artful telling—even invention—of human events to make them more dramatic. That sixty percent of the Old Testament is poetry suggests that we can give ourselves to the poetic (that is, imaginative) fabrications of sacred literature. One has only to think of the contrast between the two accounts of Deborah in Judges 4 and 5 to see how much more powerful a conscious arrangement (dare we say manipulation?) of facts can be and discover the enormous power of one woman acting with boldness.4
The Jewish Midrash is a rich repository of such imaginings. Created by the rabbis between 400 and 1200 C.E., these stories constitute a vibrant and engaging collection of rabbinical exegeses, extrapolations, interpretations, and expansions on the Torah. The word “midrash” comes from the Hebrew root daled-resh-shin which means “to examine,” “to investigate,”5 to interpret, to explicate. The traditional Midrashim, based on both oral and written tradition, constitute an extensive library of Jewish insights into the possible interpretations of scripture.6
The writers of Midrashic literature did not simply look backward to a world already created, but felt that the scriptures were to be reinterpreted for and by each generation. As Rabbi Sasso writes,
They believed that the Word spoke to every generation anew. They allowed the biblical stories into their lives, and they let their lives enter the stories. They created midrash, interpretations of Scripture, an imaginative body of literature, which enriched the biblical narrative and kept it fresh and vital.7
Concern not only about what the text says but also what it does not say, what it suggests, and what is missing, was another objective of the Midrashic writers.
The rabbis believed that God himself intended that the scriptural texts be open. “What Moses delivered amidst the thunder and lightning of Sinai was not a final product but rather the beginning of a conversation between God and the people of Israel,” Sasso says. She concludes with a statement that reflects Mormon doctrine: “Revelation did not end with Moses but began with him . . . the rabbis highlight Torah as a continuing revelation.”8
In the Midrashic tradition, difference of opinion as to the meaning of a text is not seen as being negative, but rather inevitable: “No one person can claim to hold the key to unlock what God intended, because what God intended was for each generation to read its story into the text.”9 This impulse counters fundamentalist, literalistic, privileged approaches to the scriptures.
The writers of the Midrash saw the Word of God as being like the manna which God provided the Israelites: to the infants, the manna tasted like their mother’s milk; to the young it tasted like sweet bread; and to the elderly, it tasted like honeyed wafers. Thus, “Each and every person heard [the divine Word] according to his own particular capacity.” As Rabbi Sasso says, “Just as God had provided manna for the people in the wilderness and yet it tasted different to each person, so did God reveal the divine Word to all who stood at Sinai; yet each person heard something different.” And this is according to God’s plan, for the Rabbis quote God as saying, “Do not be misled because you hear many voices. Know that I am one and the same: I am the Lord your God.”10
While rabbinic Midrashim generally reflect the dominant androcentric world view of ancient cultures, at times they are surprising enlightened. As Leila Leah Bronner summarizes,
There is no question that the society in which the sages lived was male dominated. Still, the aggadic [see Note 6] discourse of the rabbis gave women greater rights and protections within their limited domestic realm. Moreover, biblical models were treated with respect and comparative open-mindedness by the sages relative to their time.11
The Midrash contains a significant body of interesting, provocative, and inspirational literature about women. Female-centered Midrashim include not only rabbinic expansions of scriptural narratives but at times fictive inventions that greatly enlarge and expand stories and characters. At times, the sages constructed entirely new narratives based on the smallest of hints or only a sliver of information. For example, the figure Serah is referred to three times in the Bible and yet the only biographical detail given about her is that she was the daughter of Asher (Genesis 46:17, Numbers 26:46 and I Chronicles 7:30). Not content to let her remain a cipher, the Rabbis felt emboldened to create a distinct personality for this woman out of whole cloth, “to embroider marvelous, even mythic stories about her.”12 This included the invention that she was the only woman in the Old Testament to be given “the secret knowledge of how to identify the Redeemer.”13 Another midrash gives her a prominent role in influencing the Exodus itself. As Bronner explains,
She is one of the few female characters in the Talmud and Midrash who ventured beyond the limited spheres to which women were relegated in order to participate in activities ordinarily restricted to men, such as learning and political leadership. Moreover, and equally unusual, she achieved this through her own merit, not as the wife or mother of a great man.14
Many of women in the Bible are anonymous, shadowy figures. “It is not uncommon in the Bible to find that women have no names and no stories,” Sasso points out. For example, “We know nothing of Noah’s wife. She has neither a name nor a story. Midrash often fills in those blanks and provides a name and a story.”15 Thus, in the Midrash, we find new narratives about Sarah, Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife and his daughters, Pharaoh’s daughter, Leah, Rachael, Tamar, Deborah, Hannah, and Esther, among others. In such Midrashic narratives, women come alive, perform interesting and sometimes heroic deeds, manifest great faith, and at times even challenge their husbands and other male leaders, turning the original texts on their heads.
Added to this rich lore are the midrashic writings of contemporary Jewish women. In her Biblical Women in the Midrash, Naomi M. Hyman cites a number of biblical narratives involving women, recounts traditional midrashim focused on these women, and then presents midrashim newly composed by contemporary Jewish women. One such example is the story of the rape of Dinah as recounted in Genesis 34:1–31. In the Genesis account, Dinah is forcibly assaulted by Shechem. To get revenge, Jacob’s sons trick Shechem and all the men of his tribe into agreeing to be circumcised and then, when the men are disabled by this procedure, Jacob’s sons slay them all, much to Jacob’s and Dinah’s consternation.
The Rabbis, in a typical (and traditional) male chauvinist interpretation, blame Dinah for being raped: “She brought upon herself her violation by Shechem . . . [because] she went out to see the daughters of the land.” That is, by going to the marketplace instead of staying home, Dinah, “comes to a state of corruption, to a state of harlotry.”16
To counter this misogynistic interpretation, Naomi Graetz creates a new midrash, “A Daughter in Israel is Raped.” This modern midrash is told in the first person: Dinah recounts the horror and terror of her violation and how inexorably and tragically it altered her life. Her father blames her for what happened, her mother tries to persuade her to forget it and marry Schechem, and her brothers, against her will, plot to avenge her violation, not out of concern for her but for “the honor of [her] family.”
“After being raped,” Dinah says, “my body no longer belonged to me. . . . My privacy was invaded. I had no place to escape.” Years later she recalls her brothers’ vengeful acts as leading to her “death sentence,” condemning her to a life in which the members of her family “go about their business as if I am invisible.” She hears them whisper, “Poor Dinah, what will become of her?”17
Clearly, this retelling through modern feminist eyes enlarges the narrative and pulls us into the drama of Dinah’s life as neither the original nor the classical Midrashic interpretations do. It also forces us to interrogate the time-worn male convention of blaming women for their sexual violations rather than the men who rape them. As long as such misdirection of culpability persists, not only in fundamentalist cultures but in our own, we need to confront the difficult truth spoken by the imaginative extrapolation of texts we otherwise gloss over.
As this example illustrates, both the original writers of midrashim and the contemporary writers of the form consider the scriptures alive and inviting to their imaginations.
Latter-day Saint women could create their own Mormon Midrash, a collection of poems, plays, stories, and other imaginative elaborations, retellings, and transformations of scriptural narratives from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants as well as Restoration history. Consider for example the story of “a woman” (she is identified only as such in Mark’s gospel but as Mary in John’s) anointing Jesus’s feet with a precious ointment of spikenard. The disciples and others are critical of her for what they see as “waste,” murmuring, “It might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor” (Mark 14:3–5). Jesus famously rebukes her critics: “She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.” And then he makes this amazing prophesy: “Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14:8–9).
Can anyone imagine this story told from her point of view? Can anyone tell us how her life might have unfolded with Jesus’s promise held close in her heart? What kinds of memorials might she have experienced in her lifetime? How was she regarded and treated afterwards by Jesus’s male disciples, by her family, by other women? This is a tale worth imagining, worth telling.
Let me cite some other examples of women who need to be clothed, not just in flesh and blood but in silks and linen, adorned with pearls and rubies, and given songs to sing, prophesies to speak, and wisdom to share. Consider . . .
• I’ve often wondered how Martha felt when she was rebuked by the Lord for her concern over her sister Mary not helping with the domestic duties. What did she experience doing the dishes and mopping the floor while Mary was locked in intimate conversation with Jesus? What happened after she was reprimanded? Did she, like her sister, choose “that good part” and leave the household duties to others? As someone who often got stuck with the dishes, I have always had a tender spot for Martha.
• What did the Virgin Mary experience when “the Holy Ghost came upon her?” What did she mean by, “He that is Mighty hath done unto me great things”? In “Leda and the Swan,” William Butler Yeats imagines what Leda experienced when she was impregnated by a divine being—Zeus in the form of a swan—and asks, “Did she / put on his knowledge with his power?” Could one imagine this young Jewish girl, recalling this powerful, mystical experience, revisiting it in hours of grief and visiting it in her dreams? Did she recall it at the foot of the cross as doubts were crowding her mind and her heart was breaking?
• How would the story of the Prodigal Son be different if it were the story of the Prodigal Daughter, with a mother and two daughters as the main characters? Would a wastrel and destitute daughter behave differently from a prodigal son? And how would the mother and older sister behave differently from the way the father and older son behave in the biblical story?18
• What if the story of the Good Samaritan were reconstructed with female characters? In this story as I imagine it, a Jewish woman who has been physically and sexually assaulted is lying by the roadside. Priests and other women pass her by without coming to her aid. Then a good Samaritan woman comes by, binds up her wounds and takes her, not to an inn, but to her own home where she nurses her back to health, in spite of the criticism of neighbors and the disapproval of priests. The two women set aside their cultural differences, live together, and nurture one another, bearing living testimony to the fact that Samaritans and Jews, both descended from Abraham, could live peaceably together, not simply as neighbors, but as friends.
In the Book of Mormon, women’s voices are fewer and more muted than in the Bible. As Camille Williams states, “Latter-day scripture contains far fewer stories of individual women than those in either the Old or the New Testament.” In fact, we know the names of only three women from Nephite/Lamanite culture: Sariah, Nephi’s mother; Abish, the Lamanite convert; and Isabel, the harlot who consorted with Alma’s son Corianton. The other three named women in the Book of Mormon—Eve, Sarah, and Mary—are biblical figures. The rest of the women in the record are identified either by their association with men or by their societal roles. Thus, we have Morianton’s Maid, “Jared’s Daughter,” “Lamoni’s wife,” et al. In Charting the Book of Mormon, anonymous women are referred to by their generic identities: wife/wives (80 times), daughter/daughters (76), woman/women (55), mother/mothers (17), concubine/harlot/harlots (15), widow/widows (7), female (5), and maidservant/maid/mistress (3).19
In another article, Williams cites Carol Lynn Pearson as concluding that this is evidence of a “‘strong anti-female statement made by Nephite society,’ in whose record we see a few ‘spiritually dependent [women]’ and a plethora of faceless, nameless women listed as part of their husband’s possessions.”20
Although Williams states, “All interpretations of scripture are, in some sense, a dialogue with the text, or, as Old Testament scholar Phyllis Bird notes, ‘an exercise in cross-cultural understanding,’” she reveals a very different approach to scriptural interpretation by citing Bird’s contention that readers should avoid “interpretations that ‘distort the ancient writer’s understanding or intention,’ whether to a ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ effect.’”21 But consider first that such interpretations are notoriously hard to avoid. It is highly unlikely that people who worshipped primarily by killing and burning animals would see their ideas about worship as particularly relevant to our own. Each time we take Nephi’s advice to liken the words of the prophets unto ourselves (1 Nephi 19:24), we are to some extent creating the distortion Williams cautions against, whether we acknowledge it or not. But such distortion is precisely the aim and the advantage of midrashic readings, and as the distortion is acknowledged and sought, the effects are easier to recognize as well. I contend that such intentionally counter, imaginative, even boldly inventive readings could make the Book of Mormon, as well as other Restoration scriptures, richer and more relevant to modern readers (in just the ways Nephi might—or might not—have intended, ironically enough). Here are some possible examples for modern Mormons to consider:
• Not long after Nephi and his brothers return from Jerusalem, Laman and Lemuel seek to do violence to Nephi, but as Nephi reports, “One of the daughters of Ishmael, yea, and also her mother, and one of the sons of Ishmael did plead with my brethren, insomuch that they did soften their hearts” (1 Nephi 7:19). Who is this woman with such persuasive powers? Did she become Nephi’s (or Laman’s or Lemuel’s) wife and play a role in the journey to the New World? 22
• In 1 Nephi, we learn of Lehi’s and Nephi’s dreams. Did any of the women in this culture have dreams? And if so, what might they have dreamed of? What were their lives like in bearing children in the wilderness, in helping to build the ship, and in trying to keep their children from being terrorized during the long ocean voyage to the Promised Land? What did they do while the male-dominated internecine conflicts raged on for generations?
• Abish the Lamanite, one of the few women given a name in the Book of Mormon, kept her conversion and new beliefs secret in the hostile Lamanite society. When the king and the queen fall into a trance, she runs “from house to house,” explaining to her Lamanite neighbors what had transpired. When they refuse to believe her, she boldly takes the hand of the queen and raises her up (Alma 19:16–31). What can we imagine happens to Abish following this episode? Did she become celebrated among the Lamanites? Did she have a husband? If so, did she keep her secret even from him? What was the vision her father had that so transformed her life? What was her relationship like with the queen afterward?
• And what of the queen herself, who has faith in Alma’s words, is overcome by the Spirit, and praises Jesus when she revives? (Alma 19:2–30).This extraordinary woman loves her husband and knows his unique bodily odors so well that she can exclaim to those who are convinced he is dead, “To me he doth not stink.” She then speaks in tongues and raises the king from his own spiritual trance. Who is willing to bring this royal personage to life, to give her a story both before and after these dramatic events? In spite of the fact that she is anonymous in the text, she must have been legendary among her own people, for, according to Ammon, her faith exceeded that of all the Nephites: “Blessed art thou because of thy exceeding faith; I say unto thee, woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites” (Alma 19:10).
As far as women in Mormon history are concerned, here too is a need for contemporary Mormon women (and men) to use their imaginations to fill in some of the gaps, to enlarge our understanding of the role of women in our cultural history, and to balance our account of the past with feminine elaboration and invention. Let me cite just one example.
In her article “Joseph Smith’s Sisters: Shadowy Women of the Restoration,” Lavina Fielding Anderson reminds us how little we know of Sophronia, Katherine, and Lucy Smith:
From adolescence on, Lucy’s daughters faithfully followed their prophet brother, supporting and sacrificing to advance the family mission of restoring the gospel, arguably subordinating even their own marriages and the needs of their children to advancing the cause of the Kingdom, and always remaining overshadowed by their dazzling brother. Once more [at the martyrdom] they were faithfully present, their grief as great, their loss as rending, but their presence unremarked and apparently unvalued. Not one account in all that I have read of the martyrdom and funeral mentions them by name, nor were their husbands, Joseph’s and Hyrum’s brothers-in-law, given any responsibilities or roles in the services. Even at a time and in a place not just in Mormondom where women had virtually no public role, I still see Joseph’s sisters as among the most obscure women in the Church.23
Could contemporary Mormon women speak for these sisters, give them voice—as if from the dust—to provide some insights that would help us better understand the Restoration? What, for example, was Sophronia’s reaction to Joseph’s account of his encounter with Moroni? As Anderson point out:
Sophronia was twenty-four when Joseph returned from his midnight excursion to the Hill Cumorah bringing the plates. What had Sophronia’s participation been in the family circle as he had told them Nephite stories for the previous three years? Was she allowed to view the plates, bundled in their wrappings, as other family members were? Was she allowed to touch the Urim and Thummim, as Lucy was? The historical record is silent on the matter.24
Silent, yes, but the imaginative record by contemporary Mormon women, I contend, need not continue the silence. And if these sisters’ voices can be unstopped, what about Emma’s (there are volumes to be written!) and the voices of other women who helped establish Joseph’s New World religion?
Perhaps one of the most fertile areas for midrashic exploration is the enlightened Mormon teaching that we have a Mother as well as a Father in Heaven. In a 1991 article titled “Our Mother in Heaven,” I ask,
Why do we not know [more of] this mother of all creation, this mistress of light and space? . . . I believe that hers is also a powerful voice, rolling at times like thunder and cutting through the darkness like lightening. What explains the fact that many Mormon women, and perhaps a few Mormon men, are beginning to feel her presence in their lives, other than that our consciousness of her identity has been awakened? The freeing of the bondage of women has also liberated our Heavenly Mother from the silence in which men have held her. An increasing number of Mormon women testify to hearing her voice and are finding lyric modes in which to tell us about her. Like Procne in Greek mythology, her liberation from the bondage of silence has been a transformation into song.25
I believe singing that song of Heavenly Mother, placing her in the middle of the divine drama that constitutes the Latter-day Saint plan of salvation, would inspire Mormon women to explore deeper dimensions of their own mothering, to open scriptural narratives about mothers and mothering that would bless Mormon culture. One might even consider what Jesus learned from his Mother as well as his Father. Perhaps it is also true that Jesus did nothing that he had not seen his Heavenly Mother do! The fact that he identifies so closely at times with the feminine (consider his metaphor of himself as a mother hen), suggests this possibility.
Eliza R. Snow, our pioneer poetess, pointed the way to such midrashic invention with her great hymn, “Oh My Father.” If we are indeed eventually to greet them, “Mother, Father” in their “royal courts on high,” perhaps Mormon women could help us all begin preparing for that grand reunion by bringing her and the other scriptural mothers—Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Mary, and Sariah—into our twenty-first century imaginations.
As in all good writing, scripture is a mirror in which we see reflections of ourselves. When I was travelling in China with a group of American writers, one of our Chinese hosts asked Toni Morrison how she became a novelist. Her reply was that she couldn’t find herself in any of the books written by white people or black men and so she started writing fiction that included her experience. I think that is a good justification for Mormon women to begin writing their own midrashic literature.
Just as “every word [of the Torah has been] mediated through rabbinic sources,” so could every word of the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants be mediated through the minds and imaginations of contemporary Mormon women. As Bronner argues, “If in the mundane role women appear inferior to men, in the realm of the spirit they are on a level equal to, if not higher than, that of men.” As such “through the hermeneutic process of feminist reinterpretation [they can] breathe an air of both authenticity and fairness” into scriptural narratives.26
Jane Sprague Zones summarizes the importance of such work:
One way for women to relieve the tension created in a relationship between the static written Torah and the modern changing world is for each generation to read the text with fresh and open eyes. Women’s roles in the Torah were circumscribed and limited while women’s roles in the modern world are expanding. Therefore, it is incumbent upon contemporary women to study the text and to write modern stories that maintain a relationship with the text, incorporating their own experiences and consciousness into Judaism. This midrashic process allows Judaism to grow and develop a healthy relationship with all of its people.27
Consider how different this is from most traditional Christian and Mormon attitudes toward scriptural texts. Most Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon readers see the text as fixed, its meaning clear and certain. God and the prophets have spoken; we are to listen and act. Biblical literalists are uncomfortable with any openness, ambiguity, or uncertainty in the Bible. Consider how most gospel doctrine classes approach scripture: the lesson materials are delivered as if from Sinai (or certainly Salt Lake City) and the teacher and most of the class members become uncomfortable when any unorthodox, speculative, or imaginative discourse about meaning arises. In fact, correlation is designed in part to discourage open-ended discourse. For these reasons, our lessons tend to be mechanical and confirming. As soon as a scripture is read, class members know the interpretation by heart—but, I would argue, not always in their hearts.
Rabbinic reading is dramatically different. As Judith Kunst observes,
Midrash reads the Hebrew Bible not for what is familiar but for what is unfamiliar, not for what’s clear but for what’s unclear, and then wrestles with the text, passionately, playfully, reverently. Midrash views the Bible as one side of a conversation, started by God, containing an explicit invitation, even command, to keep the conversation—argument, story, poem, prayer—going.28
Jewish tradition contends that the Torah was written in black fire on white fire “and that the white spaces around the black letters hold meanings that we have yet to uncover.” Further, as Naomi Hyman states,
It has also been said, more recently, that we have received only half of the Torah, because the Torah as we know it was written by men and the women’s Torah has yet to be revealed. I like to think that the women’s Torah can be found in the white fire, in the white spaces whose meanings we have yet to uncover, and that a part of each of our souls is still standing at Sinai, ready to receive it.29
It may also be that the white fire of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration scriptures is yet to be uncovered and that part of our souls is still waiting to receive it—from Zarahemla and Bountiful, from Cumorah and Far West, from Nauvoo and beyond. B.H. Roberts argued that “Not half—not one-hundredth part—not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world.” He adds, “The work of the expounder has scarcely begun.”30 Perhaps part of that unfolding lies in opening ourselves to the imaginative possibilities in our scriptures. Kunst argues that God’s invitation for us to bring our imaginations as well as our minds into dialogue with him may be seen as an invitation to greater intimacy with him: “Another lesson [from the Midrash] is that God is not so much hiding from us as he is hiding for us. He is purposefully creating the places where, with curiosity and perseverance, we can find him”31—in the burning bush, in the black and white fires of the Torah, in the fire he has placed in our own hearts and minds.
1. Judith M. Kunst, The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash (Brewester, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 114, 86.
2. Naomi Mara Hyman, Biblical Women in the Midrash: A Sourcebook (London: Jason Aronson, 1998), xv.
3. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), 117.
4. For a discussion of Judges 4 & 5 as well as an argument for using midrash in reading the Book of Mormon, see my “The Midrashic Imagination and the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Fall 2011), 44–66.”
5. Hyman, Biblical Women, xxvii. Midrash has been defined variously as “creative interpretation,” “a means of extracting meaning” from as well as “a way of reading meaning into the text,” and “a passionate and active grappling with God’s living word” (Hyman, xxiii, xxix, xxxiv ); “a continuing revelation” of Torah, a way of “deriving a homelitic meaning from [a] passage of scripture,” a process that gives “the narrative new life and make[s] it meaningful for another generation” (Sasso, 30, 69-70); “reconsideration and reinterpretation,” “narrative retellings” (Leila Leah Bronner, From Eve to Esther: Rabbinic Reconstruction of Biblical Women [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994], xxi, 185); a process by which the “human imagination” illuminates “the hidden, holy meanings of scripture,” “a call to stare straight into the dark holes of scripture, and to use curiosity and questions to dig even deeper into those holes,” an “imaginative grappling with scripture,” a “uniquely playful, imaginative response to scripture,” a process that involves “imagination, intuition, innovation,” a way of “connecting literal and non-literal images,” a way “to find, in the liquid, living language of Torah, a new way to meet God,” a form that “celebrates conversation more than information” (Kunst, 5, 30, 35, 57, 61, 67, 76, 128). In short, creating midrash, to use Emerson’s term, requires creative reading as well as creative writing.
6. For clarification, Midrash (capitalized) refers to the library or collection of midrashic writings, whereas midrash (lower case) refers to an individual midrashic composition. It is important to distinguish between the two types or categories of Midrashim: Halakhic or Tannaitic Midrashim, which focus on the laws derived from scripture and Aggadic Midrashim, which focus on edification derived from imaginative readings of scriptural texts. The former is a much more legalistic approach and focuses on extremely close readings of the Torah in order to ascertain the minute and esoteric aspects of the law. In the second, “The historical themes of the Scriptures are midrashically interpreted in such a way that the entire story of Yisrael becomes a continuous revelation of G-d’s love and justice.” “What is Midrash?” http://www.headcoverings-by-devorah.com/WhatIsMidrash.htm (accessed 13 March 2012). An example of a Halakhic Midrash is seen in the attempt to “discover the law that the Shabbat can be profaned in order to save life (e.g. where the doctors say that hot food must be served to a dangerously sick person and no hot food is available . . . so one is allowed to cook) derives this from the verse: ‘You shall keep My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live—I am Hashem’ (VaYikra 18:5). Since the verse states ‘shall live,’ it is implied that where death may result from the observance of the laws, the laws may be set aside.” (Ibid.)
“An Aggadic Midrash is the comment on the verse: ‘ . . . G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Pelishtim . . . ‘ (Shemot 13:17), that is, His providence over the Yisralim in the Wilderness was not through natural process (‘the way of the land’). In natural order bread comes from the ground and water from the sky, whereas in the Wilderness the Manna came from heaven and water from the flinty rock.” (Ibid.)
7. Sasso, God’s Echo, 5.
8. Ibid., 11.
9. Ibid., 14.
10. Ibid., 40, 43, 41.
11. Leila Leah Bronner, From Eve to Esther: Rabbinic Reconstruction of Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 185.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. Ibid., 46.
14. Ibid., 42.
15. Sasso, 123.
16. “Ecclesiastes Rabbah 10:8,” in The Midrash, edited and translated by H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, et al. (London: Soncino Press, 1951), as cited by Hyman, 67–68. Other Rabbis give similar interpretations. See citations in Hyman, 68.
17. Hyman, Biblical Women, 68–71.
18. I have written such a story which I hope soon to submit for publication. Any reader wishing a copy can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
19. “Charting the Book of Mormon,” http://byustudies.byu.edu/januarybomcharts/charts/108.html (accessed 21 June 2009). See also J. Gregory Welch and John W. Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS/Maxwell Center, 1999). In a blog response to “Ten Women in the Book of Mormon,” “Juliette” comments, “I love Morianton’s Maid, and I wish we knew her name. She illustrates strength and independence—she left an abusive relationship, did some good on her own, and was instrumental in averting the hostile occupation of the entire northern territory. An empowering story for women if there ever was one,” http://bookofmormononline.net/blog/ten-women-in-the-book-of-mormon/ (accessed 20 June 2009). This page has since been removed.
20. Camille Williams, “Women in the Book of Mormon: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Interpretation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11:1 (2002), http://mi.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=11&num=1&id=297; accessed 6 March 2012. Williams’ reference to Pearson can be found in Carol Lynn Pearson, “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” Sunstone (March 1996): 35–36.
21. Ibid. The reference is to Phyllis Bird, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 6–7.
22. Orson Scott Card speculates that this woman became Laman’s wife: “A lot of people leap to the conclusion that this must have been the woman who ended up marrying Nephi. My own feeling is that Laman would hardly have listened to the pleading of Nephi’s wife-to-be. It seems far more likely to me that the woman who pleaded for him was Laman’s intended. The very fact that Nephi didn’t name her supports this, I think, because, while he had to include this woman in his story, he couldn’t very well point out that it was the woman who ended up marrying Laman,” “The Book of Mormon—Artifact or Artifice?” http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html (accessed 6 March 2012) Of course, Card’s speculation is exactly the kind that the rabbis engaged in when considering elements that are not clear in the Torah.
23. In Robert A. Rees, ed. Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005).
25. Robert A. Rees, “Monologues and Dialogues: Our Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone (April 1991): 49–50.
26. Bronner, From Eve to Esther, x–xi.
27. “Introduction: Begetting a Midrash,” in Jane Sprague Zones, ed. Taking Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales and the Bible (San Diego, CA: Women’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, 1989), 6, as cited in Hyman, Biblical Women, xxxii.
28. Kunst, The Burning Word, 4.
29. Hyman, Biblical Women, xvii.
30. B.H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912), iv–ix.
31. Kunst, The Burning Word, 37.