Breathing Life into Ancient Narratives

Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women by Jill Hammer, Jewish Publication Society, $24.95

I was once asked to reflect on which sacred text influenced me the most. After some thought, I realized that the most powerful influence was the absence of text. Where were women’s words, their names, their thoughts and their soul’s journeys? Jill Hammer begins to fill in those silences, to breathe a woman’s breath into ancient narratives. Her collection of new midrashim draws on her knowledge of the Bible, the rich tradition of classical midrash and on her own imagination. She listens to the voices on the margins and weaves narratives in which women have names and stories.

The collection introduces us to women we thought we knew—Eve, Sarah, Miriam and Deborah. In Hammer’s book, they become three-dimensional characters with their own struggles, dreams and visions. Hammer teaches us the names of little known women—Id it, Serach, Rachav and Elisheva. These women, who have been defined primarily by their relationship to men, become subjects of their own narratives. In chapter after chapter women tell their own stories, talk to one another and to God. We hear Eve and Lilith conversing in the garden, Rebekkah speaking to Mahalat (Esau’s wife), Tamar talking to Bilhah, Yaelto Deborah. We hear women forming relationships outside the circle of men.

In addition to the retelling of women’s lives. Sisters at Sinai guides readers in understanding the midrashic process. An excellent introduction to midrash, a useful survey of classical midrashic texts at the back of the book and the author’s own note son the thinking behind her creations are helpful guides for further study.

Hammer writes that “the spaces within the Torah are the spaces in which God makes room for creativity. . . the silent space, where the Torah ceases to speak, is the space in which we are called to meet the divine.” Sisters at Sinai is the result of one woman’s encounter with God. Each reader will find her favorite story, the one that resonates with her soul. The book is also an invitation to all women to re appropriate the past, to enter the creative process and read themselves into an ancient text. Books like this provide a context in which women may come to understand themselves better and to recognize themselves as sources of knowledge about God.  

Sandy Eisenberg Sassoa contributing editor to LILITH, has been rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck since 1977. She is the author of many articles and children’s books on spirituality and midrash including Cain and Abel—Finding the Fruits of Peace.