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The Art of Shedding Skin: Lynn Gottlieb, Eve, and Elie Wiesel

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, in her wonderful and fresh new book, She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism [HarperSanFrancisco], recalls the steps she took (so familiar to many women) on her way towards becoming a feminist. In this excerpt, Gottlieb—a modern-day Eve—feels the scales fall from her very eyes as she first dares to challenge her absolutely favorite teacher, Elie Wiesel:

Elie Wiesel began intoning the names of the biblical heroes he wished us to study. By the time he pronounced the final name. I was crestfallen. His litany included Adam, but not Eve: Cain and Abel, but not their legendary sister; Abraham, but not Sarah or Hagar; Isaac, but not Rebecca; Jacob, but not Rachel. Leah, Bilhah, or Zilpah: Joseph, but not Zuleikah or Asnat; Moses and Aaron, but not Miriam or Yocheved; even Pharaoh, but not his daughter Batya.

My heart pounded in my throat. I raised my hand.

“What about the women?” I ventured.

“Oh, the women. Ah, yes, the women. Why don’t you do the women?” Do the women? Was that the right verb? I felt tongue-tied.

…When called upon, I offered my version of Eve to the class. I spoke of the first woman’s quest for wisdom and her desire to know from the sight of her own eyes, the taste of her own tongue, and the touch of her own hands. I spoke of the courage she summoned to trespass the boundaries imposed on her choices by a man and a God who feared her outreach. I described her initiation into the spirit world by a serpent, who taught her the art of shedding skin. Then I paused. I looked at my teacher’s face. How would he respond to my rendition of Eve?

Wiesel smiled, sighed, rolled his eyes, and countered my tale with one of his own. According to my teacher, woman’s basic gullibility doomed her to exile from the garden. As Wiesel told the story. Eve found herself alone one afternoon for the first time after Adam strolled off somewhere. Drawing on traditional commentary, Wiesel related how the snake took the opportunity to seduce Eve, using her own words, into eating the forbidden fruit. Alas, conjectured Wiesel, if only Adam had stayed at home to supervise his foolish wife. She wouldn’t have gotten herself and the rest of humanity into so much trouble. When Adam finally returned from his adventure. Eve cried until her befuddled husband ate the forbidden fruit as well. “And who can refuse a tearful wife?” quipped Wiesel. “Anyway, no tragedy is complete without a woman.”

I gazed into Wiesel’s soft, pensive eyes. For all his powers of imagination, he could not think beyond the weary stereotypes of women so endlessly repeated in Jewish literature.