I recently met with faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible.
In 2005, you completed your thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers. What is midrash and what did you learn in your research that might inspire us to read midrashim?
The word midrash comes from the Hebrew root drash, which means to seek, study, and inquire. Our midrashic literature seeks to help us understand the reasons behind the actions of our ancestors and in so doing brings them more fully to life for us.
I learned in my research that there are so many midrashim that can enrich our Jewish life, as well as help us relate to and connect with our heritage. For example, many of the woman of Genesis are unnamed. They are only referred to as eishet or “wife of”, but these women do have names and significant roles to play in our history. Women, in a basic reading of the Torah, are often portrayed in a negative light. The midrashim redeems them by examining the circumstances of their lives and why they did what they did. A perfect example of this is Lot’s wife, whose name according to midrash is Eidit, meaning witness. Eidit in the bible is portrayed as a woman whose curiosity leads to her ultimate demise because she did not obey, but instead turned back to see the destruction of the city. This story is seen as a warning to women to do what they are told. But through midrash we learn that the reason she looked back, was not out of curiosity, but out of motherly love. She was searching for her two older daughters who remained in the city.
As you studied the women of the midrashim you were seeking ways to better understand and portray Genesis’ female characters to young readers. What did you discover as you did your own translations of the Hebrew texts?
I discovered that these women were to be admired; that Eve, in particular, got bad press! Through the midrash you realize that she was not entirely to blame for her actions in the garden. One of my favorite midrashim regarding this says that God did not create Eve until Adam asked him to, because God knew that the first time something went wrong, Adam would blame him for creating the woman. Which is exactly what Adam did, saying, “The woman you gave me….”
Another midrash portrays Adam as having no faith in Eve. He told her not to touch the tree, but God never said that. Adam thought saying that would keep her away from it, but ultimately that embellishment becomes a convincing lie for the snake, who used it to demonstrate for Eve that just as there is no dying from touching the tree, there is no dying from eating from it. To illustrate his point, the snake pushed Eve into the tree.
If you look at the Hebrew in Genesis 3:6, when it talks about Eve giving Adam the fruit of the tree, it uses the word “she gave it to the man with her.” Ayin–mem–hey with a dagesh in it. The original Hebrew says that Adam was with Eve while the snake was deceiving her and thus Adam tacitly approved of her eating the fruit, as he did not stop her. Most translations, by excluding the word “with her”, make it appear as though Adam came upon Eve eating the fruit and then he ate of it unknowingly, but Adam was with her the whole time. According to most translations, Eve was responsible for the transgression, not the two of them together.