Back Into The Foreground

The Complexity Of The Biblical Eve

Anne Lapidus Lerner, in Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Jewish Poetry (Brandeis University Press, $26), re-envisions the Eve story in Genesis. In this scholarly study, she is continuing a new tradition: in the past generation, feminists and scholars have begun to reread the Bible and harvest, from the patriarchal texts, hints that would offer us glimpses of the lives of women in the Bible, so that we might hear, so often between the lines or along the margins, voices and wisdom that previously eluded us.

Back in the seventies, scholar Phyllis Trible set the agenda for this project when she told us “Visiting the Garden of Eden in the days of the Women’s Movement, we need no longer accept the exegesis of Genesis…” At the same time, Judith Plaskow, in her ever famous feminist midrash on Lilith (who, alas, makes only two walk-on appearances in this book), modeled just how women could find holiness in troubled texts through imaginative retellings, inspired by our own lives as well as by the rabbinic tradition of turning to storytelling when faced with fractured texts that demand healing. Three decades later, we’re still at it, and many scholars (such as Ilana Pardes and Judith Baskin) and modern-day Jewish feminist midrashists (Alicia Ostriker and Anita Diamant come readily to mind) have contributed to this enterprise.

Lerner’s book, though, does something unique, taking us beyond the Eve we have received as a cultural stereotype: the subordinate creature who comes as an afterthought, the culpable one who eats from the forbidden tree, she who bears the responsibility for God’s expelling humans, forever, from the Garden of Eden.

So that we may have greater access to the complexity of the biblical Eve, Lerner, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, meditates upon Eve as she appears both in the classical Midrashim and in contemporary poetry, and brings the insights she has gleaned into conversation with the Biblical passages. Lerner introduces Eve poetry in three languages — English, Yiddish and Hebrew — by writers such as Kim Chernin, Katha Pollitt, Dan Pagis, Miriam Oren and Yocheved Bat-Miriam. Lerner is a superb reader of contemporary Jewish writing — in fact, she is truly dazzling when it comes to helping non-Hebrew readers to appreciate Hebrew poems whose meanings can only be released through careful attention to language, even orthography. This is most apparent in her explication of this poem (her translation) by Israeli poet Yaakov Shai Shavit, which allows us to meet an Eve who “Seeks knowledge outside the formal structures.”

Eve / After he was expelled from the Garden of Eden / Adam went to the university and became // Learned. / Havvah experienced [havetah] and read books / How much more do you [fem.: at] see than I!

When Lerner brings this poem back to the Bible, it will illuminate Eve’s capacity to take risk and expand beyond “accepted hierarchical structures.” Through Lerner’s readings, backwards and forwards across time, the holiness of the biblical stories is newly refracted.

Vanessa L. Ochs is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Sarah Laughed (McGraw Hill) and Inventing Jewish Ritual (JPS).